Record rates of family violence meet anticipated COVID impact

Morgan Liotta

15/10/2020 3:37:31 PM

The pandemic-enforced lockdown has made true the grim prediction of an increase in family violence, particularly across Victoria.

Woman locked inside
New statistics show the number of family violence incidents in Victoria was higher in every month during 2020 than in 2019.

In Victoria, where lockdown measures have been the harshest and remain ongoing, latest crime statistics reveal a significant increase of family violence incidents based on trends over the past five years.
Victoria Police’s recorded crime trends show the monthly number of family violence incidents was higher in every month during 2020 than during 2019.
There was an increase of 6.7% from June 2019 to June 2020, with 88,214 family violence incidents reported to police, compared to 82,651 and 76,093 during the same time in the previous years.
In July 2020, when the second and more restrictive Melbourne lockdown began, there were 6810 incidents, increasing to 6930 in August. In comparison, July and August 2019 had 6186 and 6755 incidents, respectively.
The number of family violence incidents recorded between January to June 2020 was significantly higher than the same period in 2019, with the data showing the biggest increases in June (15.3%) and May (13.4%).
Kelsey Hegarty, Professor of Family Violence Prevention at the University of Melbourne and Director, Safer Families Centre of Research Excellence, told newsGP she is not surprised at these figures.

‘This [increase in family violence] was predicted, as the movement restriction is likely to make family violence worse due to the social isolation and financial difficulties,’ she said.

Recent survey-based research conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) identified that many women have experienced the onset or escalation of family violence in 2020. Of the 15,000 female survey respondents, 65% who had previously experienced physical or sexual violence said the violence had increased in frequency and/or severity since the pandemic.
The research also found that safety concerns have been a barrier to seek help during the pandemic, potentially contributing to decreased reporting of family violence to police or other services.
Dr Elizabeth Hindmarsh, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Abuse and Violence network, told newsGP that although it is important GPs speak to these patients alone – whether the consultation is in person or via telehealth – that is not always possible.
‘The AIC survey revealed that victims were not feeling safe to report what was going on at home, as they were spending more time at home alone with their perpetrators,’ she said.
‘Perpetrators felt out of control because of what was happening, so they resorted to use violence as a means of control. An increase of alcohol consumption also contributed.’
In response to COVID-19 and its predicted surge in risk of family violence associated with lockdown measures, Victoria Police launched Operation Ribbon in April, which focuses on active engagement with survivors and perpetrators through monitoring safety and ensuring compliance with family violence orders.
Financial stress, a rise in unemployment, healthcare concerns, and alcohol and other drug use can all contribute to risk of family violence, according to the RACGP’s White Book. And with many people working from home, those risks might be more difficult to avoid.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest data reveals that COVID-19 still has significant impact on workers and families, with around one in three Australians working from home.
Professor Hegarty leads research at the Safer Families Centre on the world-first CATCH model, which identifies healthcare providers’ readiness to address family violence. The CATCH model has been funded to be integrated with the update* of the White Book.
Since the pandemic, the CATCH model has evolved to incorporate more training for GPs using telehealth.
‘We are using it to train practitioners. In particular, the commitment on the part of practitioners has increased, as they are often the only people in contact through telehealth, as women find it more difficult to access specialised services,’ Professor Hegarty said.
Recent research confirmed the important role GPs play as the first point of contact for survivors of family violence.
Dr Hindmarsh said the GP’s place is to continue a trusted relationship with their patients.
‘The most important thing is that GPs ask people, and that they work with patients on safety and are aware of the available services,’ she said.
Professor Hegarty predicts there will be even more support needed as people emerge from lockdown and family violence survivors start to access more services.
‘I think there will be more women describing a change in the nature and severity of their experiences of family violence when they are able to access services,’ she said.
‘The combination of mental health, alcohol and drug issues and family violence as a result of the lockdown will have far-reaching ongoing effects.’
In order to best prepare for the post-lockdown impacts of family violence, Dr Hindmarsh believes a combined effort is needed.
‘We really need to get GPs’ commitment,’ she said.
‘We have a role to play and are willing to work as an advocate with victims. We also need to consider how we are going to try and work with perpetrators, as well as their children who are  impacted by family violence, in addition to other lifestyle changes such as remote learning and loss of social interaction.’
*The RACGP’s White Book is currently being updated, with Professor Hegarty and Dr Hindmarsh as clinical editors, and the next edition scheduled for release in 2021. The current edition is available on the RACGP website.
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