Abused and isolated in lockdown

22 June 2020 | Posted In: #135 Winter 2020,

As CHRISTOPHER KELLY reports, when Australians were instructed to stay in their homes, victims of domestic violence suddenly found themselves trapped indoors with their abusers.

On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. Australian police deal with a domestic violence case every two minutes. Most survivors of intimate partner violence are women. Indeed, women are more likely than men to experience violence by a partner — 17 percent or 1.6 million women, compared to 6.1 percent or 547,600 of men. Women are also most likely to experience physical assault in their home. Sobering statistics. Statistics that have only worsened during the COVID lockdown.

As the coronavirus spread and Australians were ordered to stay in their homes, women found themselves trapped indoors with their abuser. “We were asking these people to isolate themselves with their perpetrator, which cuts them off from any support system they have,” said Rachael Natoli — founder of the Lokahi Foundation, an Australian charity that provides support to domestic violence victims. “If you are locked up with your perpetrator, you are at more risk. There is no break.”

Results from a survey conducted by Women’s Safety NSW backs this up by clearly showing that COVID-19 has caused a spike in cases of domestic violence against women. “We know that women and children are at increased risk of violence and abuse because of COVID-19, and that they are having greater difficulty in accessing safety and supports,” said Hayley Foster, Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Safety NSW. The organisation reports an increase in client numbers; an increasing complexity of client needs; escalating or worsening violence; a sharp increase in violence being reported for the first time; and violence specifically relating to COVID-19.

“What we are observing is a ramping up on each indicator,” said Foster. “Not only are we seeing increased client numbers in more locations, we’re also seeing instances where the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more extreme violence and abuse, as well as cases where violence is erupting in relationships for the first time.”

The triple whammy of a national lockdown, an economic meltdown plus mass unemployment provided the perfect storm for domestic and family violence (DFV). Once the lockdown kicked in, Google recorded a marked increase in the number of domestic violence-related searches — up by a whopping 75 percent. “What that says to us,” said CEO of Women’s Community Shelters, Annabelle Daniel, “is people are very scared for the potential for lockdown increasing the intensity of domestic or family abuse they might already be experiencing.” Speaking to SBS News, Daniel added: “One thing we do know about domestic and family abuse is that controlling behaviours can be absolutely amplified in an isolation setting.”

To give due credit, the NSW Government was quick to respond to the upward trend of DFV. As far back as March, the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) freed up temporary accommodation so that service providers could ensure their clients could self-isolate in safety. Not only that, the DCJ suspended time-limit restrictions on stays in temporary accommodation. “It means women and children fleeing violent and abusive homes at this time still have a viable option, even in the face of women’s refuges reaching capacity,” said Foster, adding: “We’ve been really impressed with the level of consultation and engagement by the NSW Government with the women’s safety and domestic violence sectors throughout this period. It’s been reassuring to know that the Government has real-time information available to them from the frontline in order to inform their decision making.”

Renata Field is a project coordinator at Domestic Violence NSW, a Redfern-based body representing 60 DFV organisations across the state. She, too, praises the NSW Government for its rapid response. “It’s fantastic to see that — when they want to — they can implement drastic reforms quickly, such as free childcare or increases to welfare. We’d like to see a similar swiftness of action in terms of preventing domestic family violence and providing funding for services.” Foster agrees: “We must ensure the services that [DFV victims] rely upon for their safety and support are adequately resourced for the task.” Since the COVID outbreak, “The urgency has stepped up a notch,” said Foster. And while the urgency has upped a notch, the shortages and shortcomings in the DFV support sector have become ever-more apparent.

Another casualty of the COVID crisis, say DFV advocates, is the NSW justice system. Under the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures Act) 2020, some courts have been conducting legal proceedings remotely, while others have closed completely. This happened at a time when the Family Court reported a 39 percent increase in urgent applications relating to parenting orders during the lockdown; the Federal Circuit Court saw a 23 percent increase. Indeed, both the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court found themselves deluged with so many urgent applications that they were forced to fast-track cases in which there was deemed to be an increased risk of family violence as a result of COVID restrictions.

Meanwhile, the NSW Government passed emergency legislation allowing the Corrections Commissioner to release some of the state’s 14,000 prisoners in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus within the prison system. The move was duly slammed by Women’s Safety NSW. “Victims of domestic violence are calling our services terrified that their abuser is going to be released without them knowing,” said Foster. “This is not the time to be causing additional fear and apprehension for women and their children who have been traumatised by domestic and family violence.”

In such cases where DFV offenders were released, Foster called on Corrective Services to work closely with frontline domestic violence organisations “to ensure all relevant information is shared for the purpose of managing the ongoing safety of victims”. Foster sought assurances, too, from NSW Police that women and children’s safety would continue to be prioritised during the lockdown period. Upon hearing anecdotal evidence that abusive partners were weaponising the coronavirus to coerce and threaten women, Foster also requested that exclusion orders be used to eject domestic violence offenders from the home.

Such concerns led NSW Attorney-General, Mark Speakman, to assure the sector that the laws currently in place to protect abuse victims would be rigorously upheld during the COVID outbreak. “If an alleged perpetrator is out on bail the police can make a provisional apprehended domestic violence order,” said Speakman during a press conference. “You don’t have to wait for the court to make that order.” Speakman also later announced a $21 million funding package to be directed toward frontline domestic violence services.

The rise in cases of DFV during the COVID outbreak have by no means been confined to NSW nor, for that matter, Australia. Authorities in Greenland were forced to ban the sale of alcohol following a surge of violent incidences in homes. In Tunisia, just days after people were ordered to stay in and lockdown, the number of calls to a DFV helpline increased fivefold. In Russia, domestic violence cases more than doubled under lockdown. In Brazil, a DFV refuge saw the demand for its services increase by up to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, in the UK, domestic abuse killings more than doubled amid the COVID lockdown. However, speaking to The Guardian, Karen Ingala Smith, founder of Counting Dead Women — a pioneering project that records the killing of women by men in the UK — was quick to point out that, while COVID-19 may “exacerbate triggers”, the virus was no excuse for violence against women. “I don’t believe coronavirus creates violent men. What we’re seeing is a window into the levels of abuse that women live with all the time.”

The global spike in cases of DFV became so widespread that the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, had to appeal for “peace at home” out of concern domestic violence was rising rapidly as the social and financial toll of the COVID pandemic deepened. Describing the trend as “a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”, Guterres said in a statement: “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest — in their own homes. I urge all the governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.”

Back in Redfern, Field is unsurprised that there’s been a global spike in DFV cases. “Unfortunately, domestic violence is across all races, nationalities and classes, and it’s something that we as a community really need to get on top of. Most domestic violence occurs in the home so it makes sense that women would be experiencing less safety during lockdown.”

As for the future, Field believes that the full extent of domestic violence in Australia during the lockdown won’t be known for at least 12 months after the COVID crisis ends. “So I think that we need to be long-term about what people will need.” And, says Field, the number of Australian women reporting domestic violence is only likely to increase now that lockdown restrictions have loosened. “That’s when women will be safe to reach out for help.”

If you need help and support call the NSW Domestic Violence Line on 1800 656 463; the Women’s and Girl’s Emergency Centre in Redfern can be contacted on 9319 4088.