Family violence during COVID-19—what we learned

Posted: 09/07/2020

During the ‘COVID-19 journey’, many stories emerged about the increased rates, and changing face, of family violence. We also heared many stories about the creative and innovative ways people are found to connect with adult survivors and their families.

What changes did we see in family violence during the pandemic?

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 decreased during COVID-19, it appeared the opposite was 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 were up by 75%, there was 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 was telling.

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

‘We saw fewer calls, but many were in the high-risk category – which means women were not in a position to be able to reach out for the help they needed until they were in crisis.

What were the challenges?

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

Some men were changing their tactics of abuse during COVID-19.

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

‘Other tactics of abuse included 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 were supporting families experiencing family violence was staying connected with adult survivors and their children.

Karen Piscopo, lead trainer at Anglicare Victoria and facilitator of the Safe and Together program, says workers were had to change the way they connected with people.

‘When practitioners made contact with the adult survivor in the COVID environment they always had to assume that the perpetrator was in the room or able to monitor the call.

‘The advice I gave practitioners was 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 asked about the adult survivor’s hopes and fears, How were they getting some “me” time and privacy in the home? Were they in contact with family or friends? Had this changed and why? How were the children? Who was supporting the children with home schooling?

‘Although these questions seemed very general they helped us gauge what the home environment was like and if we listened for changes in the tone and language of the adult survivor this could also tell us if things had changed.’

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

‘I heard of practitioners dropping groceries and craft packs to families to be able to sight their clients and the children. If practitioners weren’t unable to see the children, they asked parents to take photos of the child doing the activity. They had home visits in the driveway or garden, or engaged with children through windows.’

Hearing the voice of infants

One of Karen’s greatest concerns was that the ‘voice’ or experience of the infant was being lost in the COVID climate.

‘When engaging with families it was important that we made sure we included 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. It’s often 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 could be challenging as we were not able to enter the home and when we were talking to parents over the phone the infant was often not in view.

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

‘We could also ask a parent curious questions that could bring the infant into the space and conversation. We asked things like, 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?

Supporting those experiencing family violence during the pandemic?

CNV CEO, Margaret Augerinos, acknowledges it was difficult to know how to safely support people during lockdowns, but suggested the following strategies were 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 said it was more important than ever that services worked collaboratively.

‘Collaboration was crucial during the pandemic. We observed that although practitioners were calling their clients regularly, some clients were not answering the phone. It was important for these clients that we worked with other services who were also engaged with the family. By working in collaboration with other services, we knew it would lead to better outcomes for children and families.’


No Room for Family Violence cards $55 inc. GST

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

Contact a local domestic violence support service or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) 24/7.

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


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