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Australian domestic violence: Services scamble to support victims during coronavirus pandemic

The Advertiser 2020-03-24 14:30:00

Domestic violence services across the country are frantically overhauling operations to accommodate COVID-19 health guidelines and what is predicted to be soaring numbers of women and children in crisis.

A perfect storm for tragedy has emerged as family violence incidents are expected to triple during the pandemic, if Australia follows international trends such as those seen in China. This comes as domestic violence services are being forced to scale back facilities and contact points in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Many DV support organisations are no longer offering face-to-face contact for clients, requesting those in distress receive support via phone only.

Others, such as NSW-based Domestic Violence Service Management (DVSM) which helps women experiencing violence find safe accommodation, have decided to freeze refuge admissions.

“In an effort to reduce the risk of exposure and impact of COVID-19 from communal living, DVSM has put in place temporary measures to not place people into Western Sydney communal refuge setting until further notice,” the organisation said in a statement.

Several frontline staff across the country said they had already noticed a spike in clients’ anxiety ahead of long periods of social isolation and fears perpetrators would use COVID-19 as a new avenue for abuse.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around what could happen,” said one worker from a Sydney-based support service, who requested not to be named.

“Perpetrators are clever and will use anything to their advantage. They might use the virus as a threat and tell the woman if she doesn’t do what they want they will ignore the rules so the kids are exposed to the virus and get sick, or use social distancing as an excuse not to bring the kids back after a contact visit,” she said.

Other concerns surround perpetrators withholding protective supplies such as hand sanitiser or medicines.

Stacey Ross, CEO for Brisbane-based not-for-profit The Centre for Women & Co. noted the reduction in face-to-face support was causing emotional and psychological distress:

“We have heard that some services are still attending court whilst others, including our service, have pulled that support and can now only offer over the phone support. It is causing distress and anxiety among women and children as well as our frontline teams.’’

However there is concern this leaves victims vulnerable and confused about how to access help, particularly during quarantine.

Melonie Sheehan is National Program Manager of 1800RESPECT, a 24-hour phone and online counselling and support service for Australians experiencing intimate partner violence.

“It’s critical during periods of social isolation that those impacted by domestic and family violence know that support is available,” said Sheehan.

“When it is safe to do so, you can contact 1800RESPECT over the phone or via webchat and speak with a counsellor who can provide support, assist with safety planning and connect you with local services.

“1800RESPECT counsellors are experienced in how to sensitively handle contacts from those impacted by domestic violence, who are in the same house as the perpetrators.

“We also encourage those impacted by domestic and family violence to download safety apps, like Daisy and Sunny. Daisy provides support to those experiencing violence or abuse and can connect them to services in their local area. Sunny provides support for women with disability who have experienced violence and abuse.”

Alison Macdonald, CEO of Domestic Violence Violence, admitted there were infrastructure concerns of how the family violence workforce would adapt but stressed the importance victim-survivors knew help was still available and planning was underway to provide pandemic-operational crisis accommodation.

“People need to know it’s business as usual – you can still contact support services. There will be a response there for you to safety plan, particularly in this period when we’re probably pre-peak in terms of the pandemic so our systems are still operational and contingency plans are underway,” said Macdonald.

Originally published as What domestic violence victims must know amid pandemic