Family violence during COVID-19—what have we learned so far?

Posted: 09/07/2020


As we continue on this COVID-19 journey, many stories are emerging about the increased rates, and changing face, of family violence. We are also hearing many stories about the creative and innovative ways people are finding to connect with adult survivors and their families.

What changes have we seen in terms family violence during COVID-19?

Our Watch is a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia. Their CEO, Patty Kinnersley, says:

‘While road deaths and traffic incidents have decreased during COVID-19, it appears that the opposite may be true for incidents of violence against women, particularly for those isolated at home with their perpetrators.’

However, despite the fact that Google searches on domestic violence are up by 75%, there has been a drop in people contacting family violence services.

The CEO of Central Victoria’s Centre for Non-Violence (CNV), Margaret Augerinos, says it is always difficult to know the true number of domestic violence victims, but the silence during this global pandemic is telling.

‘Because we are being asked to socially distance and remain at home unless it is essential to go out, women have limited opportunities to make calls away from their abuser, or access services.

‘We have seen fewer calls, but many of those coming are in the high-risk category – which means women are not in a position to be able to reach out for the help they need until they are in crisis.

‘This is not what we want. We want to reach those women before the abuse or violence escalates.’

What are the challenges?

CNV notes that one of the biggest challenges for practitioners and support services who are working remotely is finding ways to assess for safety.

‘CNV is hearing from women that some men are changing their tactics of abuse during COVID-19.

‘Some men working from home are not giving their partners respite from their demands, and others are stopping their partner leaving the house for essential items. In some cases, vulnerable children are being prevented from attending school.

‘Other tactics of abuse include restricting or monitoring someone’s movements, monitoring conversations with others, or stopping a woman calling support networks; monitoring devices or social media accounts or taking them away; withholding money or food; using misinformation about the virus to scare someone or using the virus as an excuse to ignore parenting or intervention orders.’

One of the other big challenges facing workers who are supporting families experiencing family violence is staying connected with adult survivors and their children.

Karen Piscopo, lead trainer at Anglicare Victoria and facilitator of the Safe and Together program, says that workers are having to change the way they connect with people at the moment.

‘When practitioners make contact with the adult survivor in the current environment they always have to assume that the perpetrator is in the room or able to monitor the call.

‘The advice I have given practitioners is to keep conversations general by focussing on family functioning, asking questions like Who is in the home? What are the routines in the house? Have these changed since the pandemic started? What is everyone’s role in the home and have these changed? These kinds of questions can give us a lot of information about what is happening in the home.

‘We can ask about the adult survivor’s hopes and fears, How do they get some “me” time and privacy in the home? Are they in contact with family or friends? Has this changed and why? How are the children? Who is supporting the children with home schooling?

‘Although these questions seem very general they will help us gauge what the home environment is like and if we listen for changes in the tone and language of the adult survivor this may also be able to tell us if things have changed.’

She says workers are finding some really creative ways to stay connected to families during this time.

‘I have heard that practitioners are dropping groceries and craft packs to families to be able to sight their clients and the children. If practitioners have been unable to see the children, they have asked parents to take photos of the child doing the activity. They are having home visits in the driveway or garden, they are engaging with children through windows.’

Hearing the voice of infants

One of Karen’s greatest concerns is that the ‘voice’ or experience of the infant is being lost in the current climate. While this was a gap prior to COVID-19, she says that it presents an even bigger risk now.

‘When engaging with families it is important that we make sure we include the voice and the experience of the infant in our conversations as they are entitled to be heard and have a right to be included. I think that it is believed that because infants cannot speak that they cannot tell us anything, but their body language, presentation and the way they interact with their parents can tell us a great deal.

‘During the pandemic this can be challenging as we are not able to enter the home and when we are talking to parents over the phone the infant is often not in view.

‘Practitioners who are working with parents and their babies have told me that they are using many strategies such as asking for videos or pictures of the infant. Whilst on the phone they ask questions such as Tell me what baby is doing now? Describe your baby to me. Or they ask the parent to send them a video of the infant walking or playing.

‘We can also ask a parent curious questions that can bring the infant into the space and conversation. We can ask, I wonder what your child would say if you were to ask them how they have been going since the pandemic started? What would your baby say about how you are going during the pandemic? What have you noticed is different about your baby’s behaviour since the lockdown started? If your baby felt unsafe, how would you know? What would your baby say about what it is like to be in your family at this moment?

What can people do to support those experiencing family violence at this time?

CNV CEO, Margaret Augerinos, acknowledges it can be difficult to know how to safely support people, but suggests that the following strategies can be helpful:

  • Listen without judgement.
  • Don’t make excuses for the abuse, which can be physical, but also psychological.
  • Don’t question the person’s choices—understand that for many reasons, they may not be ready to leave. For many people, leaving a relationship is the most dangerous time.
  • Find practical ways to help—for example, deliver groceries or keep copies of private documents, and offer your home as a safe place to escape to.
  • Help the person prepare a safety plan.
  • In an emergency, call 000.

Karen Piscopo from Anglicare Victoria believes that it is more important than ever that services work collaboratively.

‘Collaboration is crucial during this time. We have observed that although practitioners are calling their clients regularly, some clients are not answering the phone. It is important for these clients that we work with other services that may be engaged with the family. If we work in collaboration with other services we know this will lead to better outcomes for children and families.’

A message of hope

Karen says that if there was one thing she could say to practitioners supporting families experiencing family violence in this changed environment, it would be:

‘Don’t underestimate the work that you are doing. Your contact with your families may look different at the moment but even a five minute phone call will still be seen as support and will increase the likelihood that the family will contact you if they need help.’

No Room for Family Violence cards  $54.50 inc. GST

Product Code: 4945

No Room for Family Violence (digital cards) $44.50 inc. GST

Product Code: D4945

If you in Australia and are experiencing family violence and need urgent medical or police help, call triple zero (000).

If you are self-isolating or are required to isolate, but are in immediate danger, you are still able to leave your house. Contact 000 or a local domestic violence support service for advice about continuing to isolate in a safe place or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) 24/7.

If you are outside Australia, contact your nearest family violence support service.


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