Support services say domestic violence is expected to rise as COVID-19 restrictions ease. (ABC News)
Domestic violence survivor Serena* has rarely felt more lonely than during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Domestic Violence researchers warn of a ‘tsunami’ of victims post COVID-19 restrictions
- Women’s Safety NSW says new referrals are up 56 per cent
- Support for free, anonymous services is urgently needed
In the middle of extricating herself from her partner, the pandemic cut her access to counsellors and support networks, making her challenging life even harder.
“The chaos of COVID along with the trauma that is happening in the family, has been full-on,” she said.
But Serena is more worried about women she knows who are still living with their abusers.
“It’s heartbreaking; they’re in a house where they have to keep quiet … I just couldn’t imagine,” she said.
As restrictions begin to ease, researchers and counsellors are preparing for a “tsunami” of victims facing the most life-threatening element of domestic violence, attempting to escape.
During the outbreak, support services reported a 56 per cent increase in new clients, according to Women’s Safety NSW.
Domestic violence peak bodies met again with the NSW Government on Friday to discuss ways of meeting the urgent need for help.
‘No escape’ under COVID
Serena’s experience is one of the thousands encountered by Women’s Safety NSW chief executive, Hayley Foster.
“We are seeing an escalation in violence but also a change in the way women are responding to that,” she said.
“They have been tip-toeing around, doing everything they can because there was no escape.
“Now abusers are going to have less control, and we are concerned that they will use more extreme measures to exert control.
“Specialist help needs to be available, and the Government needs to act pretty quickly in this space.”
While it is often hard for victims to access help, Ms Foster says minority groups are particularly vulnerable right now and need special attention.
Hayley Foster wants urgent support for women escaping domestic violence. (Supplied: Women’s Safety NSW)
‘Tsunami’ of victims expected
The timing is crucial, according to Sarah Wendt from Flinders University, who says the most dangerous moments of a victim’s life is when they try to leave an abuser.
“COVID enabled an environment that could keep domestic and family violence much more hidden,” she said.
Professor Wendt says women are experiencing violence at a more “intense level” as they try to survive the restrictions and plan their escape as measures lift.
“I hope there are enough resources for frontline workers to be prepared for that tsunami; otherwise, it will be devastating for women to make that decision and not have that support,” she said.
It is a trend echoed worldwide as communities isolate due to COVID-19, according to Andrew King from Relationships Australia.
“The consequence of isolation has been a fear of many … sadly it has been a perfect storm,” he said.
“That’s where the violence is starting to express itself as restrictions ease.
“It wasn’t until the lockdown finished in Italy that the number of calls to support services went up in record numbers.”
Some positive signs
Professor Wendt says she would like to see policymakers use COVID-19 to understand better ways of reaching men who use violence.
Family and domestic violence support services:
“How we engage and assist men is a significant piece of the puzzle,” she said.
This year, there are promising responses to men engaging in online counselling, perhaps feeling less shame.
Liz Reimer from Southern Cross University said there were optimistic signs men have been feeling more comfortable to discuss their problems.
“Some referral services say more men are coming to them than before,” she said.
“Perhaps due to increased talk around how isolation is affecting our mental health.”
Reformed abuser challenges men
There have been moments in recent months that have reminded Jerry Retford of when he would explode with anger and violence.
The former abuser targeted his ex-wife with “physical, verbal and emotional abuse” for years before reforming.
Reports that domestic violence is rising make him sad but not surprised.
“COVID has created stresses on even the best relationships, let alone ones where there’s control and abuse,” he said.
“But it’s never OK to make your partner the object of your frustrations.”
Mr Retford urges men who feel anger rising inside them to seek professional help.
“I used to have MensLine on speed dial, and I would suggest that any man who is struggling to do that,” he said.
“I just implore men who are at the end of their tether; just get away and make a phone call.”
The NSW Government has been contacted for comment.
*Name changed at the request of the source.