Fears for further surge in family violence this Christmas

Morgan Liotta

16/12/2020 1:41:28 PM

Historically, family violence incidents peak over the festive season – and that number is expected to skyrocket this year.

Broken Christmas decorations
There were 49% more reports of family violence incidents on Christmas Day 2019 than the daily average for that year.

Christmas may be an event many people are looking forward to, after an unexpected year of social distancing and lockdown measures prevented families from seeing each other.
But police and family violence support services have raised concerns about an expected spike in family violence incidents during the festive season, particularly in Victoria after months of lockdown.
The number of family incidents in Victoria recorded by the Crime Statistics Agency rose by 6.7% from 82,651 in 2018–19 to 88,214 in 2019–20. This year, the number of family violence-related calls or referrals to the Victims of Crime Helpline increased by 8.2% compared to 2018–19.
These trends recorded in the last half of 2020 were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions, the agency specified.
Due to the pandemic, the number of family violence incidents in Victoria was higher in every month during 2020 than in 2019, with Victoria Police responding to an increasing number of incidents every year.
A new campaign, ‘Safe Silly Season’, launched today by Victoria Police, No to Violence, and Respect Victoria aims to raise awareness of the risk of family violence during the festive season, and the support available for victims and perpetrators of family violence.
‘This year has been one unlike any other we’ve seen in Victoria, and the Christmas and holiday period might be the first time many people are getting together with family, with new and unique challenges as a result of the pandemic,’ Acting Superintendent Marnie Johnstone from Family Violence Command said.
‘It’s important to remember that for some people, coming together with family, especially after a difficult year, can be a particularly stressful time.’
The campaign is a timely reminder that this time of year, when people like to ‘overindulge a little and let off steam’, family violence is never okay and there is no excuse.
The expected increase in family violence incidents is also based on Crime Statistics Agency data from previous years. On Christmas Day 2019, there were 49% more reports of family violence incidents than the daily average for that year, and 27% more on Boxing Day.
Professor Kelsey Hegarty is Chair of Family Violence Prevention at the University of Melbourne and clinical lead of the RACGP’s Abuse and violence: Working with our patients in general practice (the White Book).
She told newsGP that she is not surprised by the expected rise in family violence rates in the coming weeks, especially given the significant stress the pandemic has placed on households, and earlier predictions that were met.
‘In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments all over the world instituted lockdowns where women [or other people] may then be isolated at home with their abusers for prolonged periods of time,’ she said.
‘Studies have consistently shown that intimate partner abuse increases after large-scale disasters or crises as catastrophic events destroy social networks that usually provide safety nets, and this escalation often continues post-disaster.’
Professor Hegarty noted that factors such as economic instability, unemployment and uncertainty serve to increase the violence, and that isolation makes it more difficult to call for help. The abuse and violence may then be hidden from friends, family members and services who may have previously noticed it.
She said it is important for healthcare providers to be aware of the signs of family violence, including any new circumstances introduced with the pandemic.
‘I think we should be thinking of it as a pattern rather than incidents, as COVID-19 has also brought about new forms of psychological abuse,’ she said.
‘[For example], perpetrators telling their partner they have the virus so they can’t leave the house, increase in surveillance and control, withholding of essential items such as cleaning equipment and hand sanitiser, [and] misinformation about quarantine measures.’
GPs and other healthcare providers should prepare for patients experiencing family abuse and violence as the country emerges from lockdown, according to Professor Hegarty.
‘I think people may reach out more for help post-lockdown, so we will likely see above average calls for services,’ she said.
‘We need to keep our eyes and ears open to indicators of abuse and violence so we can engage early to prevent further harm to women and children.
‘We should be aware of any patient presenting with mental health symptoms, chronic pain or unexplained symptoms, as these may have underlying abuse and violence red flags.’
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