As many parts of Victoria move to Stage 4 restrictions, it’s a critical time to reflect on how measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 impact the incidence of family violence and how professionals can overcome challenges associated with supporting victim survivors under lockdown.
The Monash Gender and Family Violence Centre recently published a research report capturing the voices and experiences of 166 Victorian practitioners supporting women experiencing violence during Victoria’s initial COVID-19 shutdown period.
The responses, collected through an anonymous online survey between April and May 2020, are insightful, inspiring and informative. Here’s a summary of the key findings.
More frequent, more severe violence
Among the practitioners surveyed, 59% of respondents reported that COVID-19 has increased the frequency of violence against women, while 50% said it has increased the severity. 42% of respondents reported an increase in women experiencing family violence for the first time.
As violence has become more frequent and severe, women’s support needs have become increasingly complex. Over three quarters of respondents reported an increase in case complexity and 55% reported a significant increase.
Enhanced tactics of control
Practitioners also highlighted that perpetrators are using new forms of violence and “enhanced tactics” to control, coerce and socially isolate victim survivors during the pandemic.
These tactics include weaponising the COVID-19 restrictions and using the threat of infection to control women’s movements and decision-making power. As one practitioner articulated:
“Perpetrators are using COVID-19 as a reason to keep women isolated, for example, not letting them out of the home to ‘protect them’ from COVID-19.”
Additional barriers to support
In addition to impacting the prevalence and nature of family violence, the pandemic has also diminished women’s capacity to reach out for support. In particular, practitioners were concerned by increased perpetrator surveillance over victim survivor’s devices and online activity, restricting their ability to safely contact support services. As one practitioner voiced:
“Partners who are monitoring phone use now have an increased amount of power and control in this domain as the phone is now quite literally the only connection with the outside world. “
“Women have been very concerned about their phone calls being overheard and not having a safe space to speak freely. Women have often ended phone calls, changed the topic or called back later when it is safe to talk.”
According to the report, lockdown measures have also further isolated victim survivors from their usual support networks, increasing the overall invisibility of their victimisation.
Overcoming challenges posed by lockdown
Across the sector, services and professionals are working in new, innovative ways to continue safely reaching and delivering support to at-risk women during COVID-19. A few innovative approaches to service delivery professionals shared via the survey include:
- Integrating family violence support into “essential services” that have remained open through lockdown periods, including GP clinics, Centrelink and childcare centres.
- Creating new alert systems victim survivors can use if in trouble or in need of support.
- Partnering with all-women rideshare company, Shebah, to provide safe transport and deliveries to women and children experiencing family violence.
- Getting clients to provide virtual “house tours” to provide more information to support risk assessment and safety planning.
- Using alternative phone solutions that do not require app downloads to devices, such as Gruveo.
- Utilising video streaming technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and WhatsApp to connect with clients and do virtual risk assessments and safety planning.
Implications for professionals’ wellbeing
The research also drew attention to the effects COVID-19 has had on practitioners’ wellbeing. Several respondents reported that – since shifting to remote service delivery – the lines between work and home had become increasingly blurred, making it harder to “switch off” after a day of work. As one respondent shared:
“Boundaries for me personally – [having] work computers at home [I’m] more likely to check emails out of business hours because of concern for the family [and] wanting to see a response to be reassured they are ok. “
Others mentioned that adapting to new modes of service delivery when family violence is increasing in severity and frequency has created additional work-induced stress. In the words of one practitioner:
“[There is] increased stress on clinicians due to the pressure to not place the client at greater risk of harm when delivering an adapted service model whilst the client is in isolation with the perpetrator.”
If you’re struggling at the moment, remember there are particular services and people in your organisation you can lean on for wellbeing support. Check out this section of The Lookout for information on what supports are available to you.
To learn more about this research project, and read the entire report for yourself, click here.
For more information and resources to support your practice during COVID-19, check out our COVID-19 and family violence section.