“I was already scared before, for my daughter and myself, but having him here in the house all the time – it’s unbearable. His moods are all over the place; he doesn’t have work at the moment and I feel like there’s no space from the tension. I’ve become really anxious – so aware of every move I make, trying not to set him off, to make sure nothing happens in front of my child. I feel like I’ve barely slept a wink for the three weeks we’ve been in isolation.”
Over the past few months, the majority us have been spending more time at home than ever before. This presents a range of issues – boredom, inactivity, isolation, homeschooling – which, while undoubtedly challenging and even distressing, are made far more manageable by having a safe place to live. It’s something that most people take for granted. But what if home isn’t safe?
Across Australia – and indeed, around the world – for countless individuals, the measures taken to help protect our communities from COVID-19 have increased their exposure to another equally insidious threat: family violence.
The surge in rates of intimate partner violence – both the escalation of existing violence, and onset of new violence – following disasters is well-documented. With many still reeling in the wake of the 2019-20 bushfires, the onset of coronavirus and associated lockdown measures has served to further destabilise already-fragile communities.
Disasters disproportionately affect women, who are more likely to be in vulnerable jobs or underemployed, with less access to financial resources and greater caregiving responsibilities. Coupled with compounding factors such as increased tension and financial stress*, the risk is significant.
“When it comes to family violence, the need to shelter in place has created a so-called perfect storm,” says Eithne Donlon, Program Manager of Client Services at Jewish Care.
“Both perpetrators and victim-survivors are spending larger amounts of time in the home. There is less access to the routines and community spaces that provide relief from the violence, such as work and leisure – even errands like grocery shopping. There is reduced contact with family and friends, and less opportunity to seek support from services. How do you call your support worker or a helpline when you haven’t been alone in weeks?”
Across the sector, frontline workers have been on tenterhooks as they anticipate the fallout of these restrictions for vulnerable families. The impact has been varied: some services have reported a significant spike in numbers, while for others, the phones have been eerily quiet – perhaps reflecting victims’ reduced ability to seek help while in lockdown.
Coronavirus hasn’t just forced victim-survivors into closer contact with perpetrators – it presents a new opportunity for abusers to increase control or surveillance of their partners, or to justify the use of coercive or isolating behaviours. Greater reliance on technology and virtual platforms to access work or learning and to maintain social connection may also increase vulnerability to technology-facilitated abuse. Reports suggest that some perpetrators are even “weaponising” the health crisis by threatening to deliberately expose their partner or children to the virus.
For our Jewish community, along with other culturally and linguistically diverse groups, the current changes pose a particular challenge. The close-knit and geographically concentrated nature of the community means that measures often used in the mainstream sector to keep women and children safe, such as relocation, are less feasible – instead, service providers will often utilise a ‘safe and in-view’ approach, leveraging off the role of community touchpoints such as schools, shuls, childcare centres, mikvahs, even kosher stores and other businesses, to help support vulnerable families. With the advent of social distancing and the associated closures, the loss of this community gaze adds significant risk.
“For children living with family violence the loss of usual routines is particularly impactful. School and childcare provide both refuge from conflict and relief from the tension or hypervigilance or ‘walking on eggshells’ of being at home; it’s a place where children can ‘let go’” said Marilyn Kraner, Manager of Individual and Family Services.
“It’s not just those who are currently experiencing violence who are impacted; often forgotten are those families who are recovering from abuse. Even if a woman and her children have left and are safe physically, access to school and other supports are an incredibly important part of healing from violence.”
The recent announcement by the Victorian Government of $40 million in family violence funding comes as a relief however many already-stretched service providers are concerned that it won’t be enough as they anxiously await the anticipated surge in help-seeking. Like many ethno-specific organisations, Jewish Care receives no government support for frontline family violence services, with the annual appeal – now a crisis appeal – seeking to bridge the shortfall.
For the Individual and Family Services team, it is business as usual when it comes to supporting families at risk. “Our message to those who are experiencing family violence is clear,” said Ms. Kraner. “You are not alone. We are here and we can help.”
Supporting your safety at home
- Create plausible reasons to leave the house throughout the day, such as exercise or getting essential supplies, to create some physical and psychological space for yourself and your children. Use these times to contact a support line or friend.
- If you have an existing support worker, maintain contact as much as you are able. Identify the safest time to call, eg. when the perpetrator is asleep; from the bathroom with the shower running; when out of the home getting groceries or other supplies. Let them know if your circumstances change, for example, if you or your partner are now working from home, or if you are currently unwell or in self-isolation.
- Identify the safest areas of your home – for instance, a room that has windows facing a road from where you could signal for help; a room that has an exit point, such as a laundry with outside access; a room that can be securely locked from the inside.
- Contact trusted family and friends to set up a safe word that you can use if you need them to seek help on your behalf.
- Social distancing does not mean you need to isolate yourself from others altogether. Maintain social connections online or over the phone, if it is safe to do so; it is important to keep connected at this time. Try to let neighbours know you are at home.
- If there are children in the home, do not assume that they know nothing of what is going on. Children are very alert to what is happening around them – speak to them, comfort them, assure them that you love them and are doing everything possible to keep the family safe.
- If it becomes extremely unsafe – leave. Develop a plan of how you would leave, if you needed to do so. If possible, leave while the perpetrator is out of the house. Familiarise yourself with the location of the nearest police station or hospital. Keep your phone charged and within reach, and have fuel in the car. Keep spare keys and important documents in a place that is easy to access (provided you are able to gather these items safely and without arousing suspicion).
Where to go for help
- Jewish Care – 8517 5555
- 1800 RESPECT (24/7) – 1800 737 732
- Safe Steps (24/7) – 1800 015 188
- w|respect – 1800 542 847
- Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491
- In an emergency, call 000
*It is important to note that factors such as these neither cause nor excuse family violence; rather, they can serve to exacerbate the underlying conditions that lead to it.