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Dr Bronwyn Hudson, The Yellow Gate Medical Clinic, Byron Bay, Bangalow, Lismore 

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has seen an increase in the incidence of family violence. Movement restrictions aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus are leading to violence in homes becoming more frequent, more severe and more dangerous. This is a pattern playing out around the world. 

It is known that DV goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as at Christmas and holiday periods. Increases in substance use during the crisis are also a contributing factor. 

While being confined to the home is difficult for everyone, the experience for victims of family violence presents more serious issues. For some, distancing rules have left them even more vulnerable. 

The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, tweeted a post calling for urgent action to combat the worldwide surge in domestic violence: “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” 

At the start of the pandemic, service providers reported a decrease in family and domestic violence enquiries. However, this soon took a turn to an increase in calls and internet searches relating to family violence as situations in the home escalated. Statistics from the Victorian Magistrates Court show an increase in calls to the Family Violence Contact Centre of 50 per cent in April, compared to February, before lockdowns began. There are reports of an increase of over 70 per cent of Google searches relating to domestic violence.

In contrast, calls to emergency services have dropped, as has actual access to DV services. This is an indicator of the covert forms of family violence, such as coercive control, which are also of considerable concern. Controlling behaviours have escalated, particularly in relation to victims leaving the home, financial issues and issues relating to the care of children. Isolation tactics are often an expression of family violence and community containment measures are providing a greater opportunity for this to occur. 

As restrictions start to ease, it is anticipated that there will be a rush to access DV services once more. 

When it comes to Family Court matters, COVID-19 has been used as a means by which opportunistic abusive partners are attempting to exert further control over care and financial agreements. There has been a 39 per cent increase in urgent applications filed in the Family Court, and a 23 per cent increase in the Federal Circuit Court over the past month. Will Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court and Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, announced that urgent cases relating to parenting disputes during the crisis will be rushed through Courts within 72 hours. 

Frontline health professionals are well placed to screen for potential domestic violence, and are encouraged to do so, now more than ever. It is important to be alert to all the forms of abuse and control that a perpetrator might use. Be alert for subtle cues. 

Julie Gilfoyle, Solicitor, Mediator and Domestic & Family Violence Consultant, states that we need to get more creative in the ways we can keep supporting victims of DV and to escalate our identification of perpetrators during this challenging time. Part of this creativity must stem from our front line health workers as they could be the only lifeline for people affected by family violence, where the mere act of even picking up a phone can put someone at increased risk of harm. 

Ms Gilfoyle goes on to say that without access to legal support, such as legal aid or other online/free legal services, the ongoing cycle of fear, and limited understanding of the rights and available services can perpetuate a woman’s experience of DV. She also raises concerns about the immigrant community and certain visa holders who are ineligible for Medicare. Threats of being deported and separated from their children are not uncommon. 

Frontline health professionals are well placed to screen for potential domestic violence, and are encouraged to do so, now more than ever.

It is essential that we are all aware of the support services available and have a plan for how to deal with the violence, if and when it is disclosed. 

In researching this piece, one of the resounding messages that came through was that service providers are standing at the ready to service our community in the essential support of people at risk of harm. 

Another side of our response is to be prepared to give assistance to the perpetrators, or potential perpetrators, if presenting patients are concerned about their own violence towards their intimate partner or family. Asking patients directly if they are concerned about their actions during these challenging times and enquiring about the safety and wellbeing of loved ones in their homes, needs to be a priority for us all. Again, having a plan should this be identified, is an important part of the strategy. The men’s referral service is accessible on 1300 766 491. 

There are a range of services providing immediate support to individuals experiencing domestic or family violence. The following is a list of national and local support services. 

National Services

  1. 1800 RESPECT - 1800 737 732 - is a confidential information, counselling and support service;
  2. NSW Domestic Violence Line - 1800 65 64 63 - is a state-wide telephone crisis counselling and referral service for women;
  3. Child Protection Helpline: 132 111;
  4. NSW Elder Abuse Helpline: 1800 628 221;
  5. Men’s Referral Service - 1300 766 491 - provide telephone counselling, information and referrals for men;
  6. Link2Home - 1800 152 152 - can help refer women experiencing domestic violence to crisis accommodation; and
  7. Lifeline - 13 11 14 - is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Services in our local area include: 

  1. Women Up North Housing Inc: 40 Wyrallah Road, Lismore. Ph: 02 6621 7730, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  2. Momentum Collective Support for those fleeing DV, 4/79 Tamar Street, Ballina, Ph 1300 355 305 or 02 66813622
  3. Indigo House. Sexual Assault Service, 17 Weaver Street, Lismore, Ph: 02 6620 2970 or 24 hours on  02 6621 8000 
  4. Grafton Sexual Assault Service: Arthur St, Grafton. Ph: 02 66402402 or 24 hours on 02 66218000 
  5. Tweed Valley Sexual Assault Service. Ph: 07 5506 7540 or after hours 07 5506 7416
  6. Men and Family Centre (for men who want to stop their own violence). 1 Club Lane, Lismore, Ph: 02 66226116, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  7. ACON (for LGBTQI populations): 17 Conway Street, Lismore, Ph: 02 66221555, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  8. Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre: 16 Carrington street, Lismore, Ph 02 6621 1000 or 1800689889, www.northernriversclc.org.au
  9. Women’s domestic violence court advocacy services northern rivers: Ph 02 66211044 or 1300720606, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
  10. Lismore Women’s Health and Resource Centre: 60 Uralba Street, Lismore, Ph 02 6621 9800 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
  11. The Family Centre: Located in Tweed, Ballina and Murwillumbah, Ph: 0755248711, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  12. Lucy’s project (support for pets when owner is fleeing DV): This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

It is important to encourage people to call 000 or present to their local police station if they are in danger or in an emergency. It Is also helpful to advise people to ask for the Domestic Violence Liaison Officer (DVLO) when communicating with Police regarding DV matters.