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With the nation in near lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, family violence is on the rise, with many victims now unable to access the help and services they need. By Rick Morton.

Family violence increasing during Covid-19 lockdown

The director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Dr Kate Fitz-Gibbon, working from home this week.
Credit: Michael Young

It’s the silence that terrifies front-line family violence workers the most. A national lockdown, coupled with a shattered economy and tens of thousands of jobs lost, has created a new type of uneasy quiet. Many victims are now inside the home with their abuser almost all day, every day.

“There are so many people suffering right now and they can’t make the call,” says Tracey Turner of the Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (SWDVCAS). “If I do get through to someone on the phone, I’ve had to read between the lines, you know, because the person of interest is in the house with my client…”

In some states, calls have spiked as families descend deeper into violence, or experience it for the first time, but this early flurry of activity is masking a pervasive, unsettling lack of noise.

“There have already been a few clients who I just cannot get in contact with. They aren’t answering phone calls or texts,” says Bridget Mottram, a co-ordinator at SWDVCAS. “I’ve had women say to me, ‘I just can’t get away from him.’  ”

At the Centre Against Domestic Abuse in Caboolture, north of Brisbane, chief executive Holly Brennan has registered a similar concern. There are no more face-to-face meetings between women and children and her staff; everything is now done by phone or email.

“People who live in danger have an amazing skill set but that is being tested right now,” Brennan says. “It can be very difficult to reach out for help if you are locked down. We do anticipate that after this is finished, we will have an enormous job ahead of us to pick up the pieces.”

The conditions are akin to a perfect storm. Businesses are haemorrhaging jobs or have been shuttered entirely and families are in enforced isolation, dramatically scaling back small freedoms that offered a reprieve from violence.

Pubs are closed but bottle shops remain open. Recent sales at liquor stores jumped 86 per cent compared with the same time last year, according to credit and debit card data from Commonwealth Bank and ANZ. Alcohol doesn’t cause intimate partner violence but it does increase the risk of abuse occurring, and the severity.

Family violence services knew this was coming. So, too, did New South Wales Police Force, which verbally instructed officers in branches such as road safety and traffic that they would be redeployed as needed to conduct welfare checks on people known to have suffered abuse.

Bridget Mottram says most of their work at the court advocacy service comes from these police referrals. “On Thursday we had 16 referrals when usually we would have three or four,” she says. “But our Monday was comparatively quiet. The old rules don’t seem to apply.”

The number of people in need of help who are being controlled by their partners in more extreme ways than ever is impossible to know. But services are already seeing abusers adapting to the pandemic, using the threat of the virus to control women and children. In one case, Mottram says, a man told his partner he had coronavirus so she couldn’t leave the house. Women cannot be admitted to a shelter unless they have been tested for Covid-19 and returned a negative, but the wait times for the results have been long.

For women in Australia on temporary protection and bridging visas, the situation is particularly precarious.

Aditi* was left without access to Centrelink or Medicare after her abusive husband pulled his sponsorship of her permanent residency.

She had moved from India to Melbourne with her young daughter after a marriage to an Australian–Indian man was arranged between their respective families. Once she arrived, his behaviour changed dramatically.

“He hit me, he beat me, but the most tortured thing was the emotional abuse,” Aditi tells The Saturday Paper. “He told me if I don’t send my daughter back to India, he would kill us both.”

A pattern of financial control, emotional abuse and violence emerged against a backdrop of Aditi’s struggle to find work because her qualifications are not recognised in Australia.

After one bitter screaming match, in which Aditi’s husband mocked her daughter for crying, Aditi took her child and left. The next day, she was told her husband had pulled his sponsorship of her permanent residency.

In order to support herself, Aditi began working as an Uber Eats delivery rider; her daughter often came with her because there was no one to leave her with.

“The coronavirus is making it worse. Everything has vanished. Emotionally, I am broken now,” Aditi says.

On Wednesday afternoon, after speaking with The Saturday Paper, Aditi was told her special claim for residency on domestic violence grounds had been approved. She will still have to serve a two-year waiting period before accessing Centrelink payments.

Many others are waiting, too.

Manjula O’Connor, a psychiatrist who also campaigns against domestic abuse in immigrant communities, says abuse survivors are at great risk if they don’t have residency or citizenship. They don’t have access to Medicare, so she will often treat them free of charge.

“Even the Salvation Army hostels require rent to be paid as a proportion of a Centrelink payment,” Dr O’Connor says.

“If they don’t have Centrelink, [the hostels] won’t take them. Any woman who experiences domestic violence in Australia should have access to support, regardless of what visa they are on.”

The wait for visa status resolutions has become even longer during the extraordinary outbreak of Covid-19 in Australia. Courts are jammed, and the backlog will take many months to clear, family violence workers say.

Last week, the Family Court refused a bid from a woman who wanted to return to her home country with her three children. Her abusive partner has access to the children. The woman lives on $350 a fortnight.

“The anxiety and stress, it is unbelievable,” says O’Connor. “It makes the trauma so much worse.”

 

Around the world, wherever Covid-19 has shown up, reports of family violence to crisis helplines have soared.

Rates of reported abuse tripled in one part of China’s Hubei province during its February lockdown and jumped by about 50 per cent in Brazil. In Italy, the calls almost stopped entirely – but advocates were swamped with desperate texts and emails from women trying to avoid their abusers.

French authorities have started relocating women and children who have been beaten by their partners and relatives into hotels after a 30 per cent increase in reports of abuse. Women can also use a code word at pharmacies – one of the few places not in lockdown – if they need urgent help.

In Britain, Karen Ingala Smith, founder of the Counting Dead Women project, said the number of women killed by men in the two weeks of a coronavirus lockdown had doubled from the trendline of four every fortnight to eight.

“It is terrifying to think what those statistics will be for Australia in 2020,” says Kate Fitz-Gibbon, director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre. “This is not a new problem. Australia declared a national emergency in 2015 … this year, we will see a peak of violence. It will present in greater numbers and in complex and challenging ways that we just did not see before coronavirus.”

SWDVCAS’s Tracey Turner, an Aboriginal specialist worker, says these concerns are even more pressing for First Nations peoples. “With a lot of my clients, sometimes they will invite the defendant back to their own home because the isolation or fear of getting the virus is worse than the fear of the abuse,” she says.

“And when the abuse does happen, when the violence starts, they are reluctant to phone the police.”

There are twin emergencies playing out – a public health emergency, and the onset of a major economic depression.

“The financial pressure itself adds to the violence because it causes stress, it causes people to argue, and that is how things escalate,” says Turner. “I have had clients lose jobs, but you have to remember, many of them cannot read or write, so it’s not just a case of referring them to a service to fill out the forms to get support.”

As it stands, people experiencing family violence who need to leave the home can access an immediate needs package of about $5000, although wait times for this are currently about three weeks. That will be stretched once the lockdown ends, Bridget Mottram says.

This week, the NSW government announced an extra $34.3 million in funding to support shelter and safe housing options for women; the Commonwealth has offered an extra $150 million.

 

What the nation is witnessing now, violence prevention workers say, is like the eerie calm of a distant detonation. The sound and fury are yet to sweep over the country, but it will come, later, once lockdowns are lifted and the fallout finally reaches family violence services.

A survey released by Women’s Safety NSW late last month found 15 per cent of its affiliated front-line workers are already reporting violence that is happening for the first time. Almost half are reporting escalating violence.

“The clean-up is going to be big,” says Mottram. “We are going to need housing for women and children, we will need locks changed, strict AVOs and moving costs paid.”

For now, though, she says, “we are in survival mode”.

Kate Fitz-Gibbon points to the small mercies. The unfolding crisis has not closed schools right around the country, for example, as they are sometimes the only safe place for children. Unfortunately, many other options are currently frozen or almost impossible to access.

“We do know that leaving a relationship during the coronavirus pandemic will not be a safe option for many women,” she says. “There is a long way to go in this crisis yet.”

On Thursday, NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said the lockdown conditions in NSW will last for three months and could be extended if the state does not bring its Covid-19 outbreak under control. This will rival the measures put in place a century ago for the Spanish flu, although in terms of sheer numbers and complexity, such a lockdown has never been seen in Australia. 

 

* Not her real name.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "Double jeopardy".

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Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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