'Covid-19 will slam the door shut': Australia's family services brace for domestic violence spike

Royce Kurmelovs
Photograph: Sarah Marshall/AAP

With the number of cases of Covid-19 climbing by the day and the country debating whether to go further into lockdown, for some the prospect of staying inside is just as dangerous as going out.

The relationship between Covid-19 and domestic violence has been seen wherever the virus has spread. From Wuhan to New York, the associated financial, health and domestic pressures that come with a lockdown act as a pressure cooker on men who are already violent and controlling.

In Australia, those who work in frontline services are well aware of the risks. They will continue to operate and for the last two weeks these organisations have been holding planning sessions as they brace for what comes next.

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“Women will be even more socially isolated. The thing that happens behind closed doors that we’ve tried to open lately, tried to raise awareness about, Covid-19 will slam the door shut with a vengeance,” Karen Bentley says.

“And there are going to be so many other things that are going to fall out of this. We’ve been talking among ourselves about the things some women will be experiencing as a result of this as bad actors and abusers take advantage of the situation.”

Bentley, the national chair of Wesnet, the national peak body for domestic and family violence services, says what is needed is a coordinated national response.

With face-to-face contact no longer possible, most communication will take place over the internet, by phone, or through police intervention. This raises questions about what will happen if a woman needs to leave home suddenly, or cannot find crisis accommodation quickly.

Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, says that at least within her own state, police handling of domestic violence cases may have improved greatly in recent times but under the pressure of a lockdown, how they handle interactions will be critical. Without specialised oversight from trained officers, it is possible first responders may make the wrong call, at the wrong moment.

“We’re going to have to heavily rely on a police response,” Foster says. “There was also a significant concern raised in the web conference today about the emergency measures in NSW which will see prisoners being granted bail early.

“Domestic violence services haven’t been consulted and we need to know more so we can help assess the risk to public safety in releasing certain DV offenders while also keeping the victims informed of his release.”

The other question is one of funding. Dr Merrindahl Andrew from the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance says a spike in demand during extraordinary circumstances will test service providers as they are pushed to their limits.

“Part of the problem is all of the funding gaps that existed before the pandemic. Those cracks will be wider now. They are cracks that people will be falling through with even more damaging results because of the pandemic,” Andrew says.

One such example is the discontinuation of the Telstra Safe Phone program administered by Wesnet and funded by the Department of Social Services. The department has been contacted for comment but has not responded by deadline.

The program which offers women safe, unmonitored phones will now be discontinued as of 1 July this year after funding cuts – even though it has never been more in demand.

“We’ve got agencies ringing us, they’re trying to get more phones,” Bentley says. “We’ve even had an increase in the number of women contacting us directly trying to get hold of phones.”

In a letter to senators Maurice Payne, Anne Ruston and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Thursday, the Queensland senator Larissa Waters backed calls from the family violence sector for more funding to restore services like the Safe Phone program, dedicated crisis accommodation, specialised police services and a national awareness campaign.

“Services are reporting that the expected increase in violence is now a reality. Additional funding and support for frontline services is essential to keep women and children safe in the coming months,” she said in the letter.

Such additions would make a world of difference for vulnerable women and children facing the prospect of being forced to stay inside with an abusive partner.

Within New South Wales, Foster says the information her organisation collects from frontline staff may not show an uptick in crisis calls yet, but they are seeing a growing number of inquiries from vulnerable women making preparations ahead of an lockdown.

“As of yesterday we have 40 per cent of our services saying they’re seeing the first cases [relating to Covid-19[ coming through but they’re also saying there’s a lot more complexity to cases,” Foster says.

“So the issues now are how we are going to find housing for people in a lockdown? Do they have complex legal needs? Are there custody arrangements that are going to make this difficult? And income. How are they going to sustain an income?”

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Family violence survivor and advocate Nicole Lee says that this is to be expected. Many women will have individual strategies to reduce or minimise harm to themselves and their children in the home, but many will also struggle if they are forced to seek help.

“If I can relate it to my own experience as someone with a disability, my whole connection to the outside world was through my support workers and through my partner,” Lee says. “If he decided I wasn’t going to see anybody, I wasn’t going to see anyone.

“What hope you do you have if you need to escape? What happens if you need to call 1800 RESPECT and you are deaf? Or speak a second language? The ways people are going to be controlled [by an intimate partner] via this virus, it’s going to be shocking.”

“I would assume any government, Liberal or Labor, would be looking to send money to those services. They’d have to be thinking about doing that. And anybody would be imploring them to do that.”

  • In Australia, if you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In the UK, visit the National Domestic Abuse Helpline website here or call 0808 2000 247. In the US visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website here, or call 1-800-799-7233.