Coronaviruspressures see extra focus placed on family and domestic violence
Michelle* is a survivor of both family and domestic abuse.
- Although most crime rates are down, family violence rates are increasing
- The WA Government has created a COVID-19 violence taskforce
- New laws increase penalties and make it easier to apply for restraining orders
The 49-year-old grew up in a home where conversations quickly turned into arguments and those arguments too often into fights — her father was angry and controlling.
She found love, married and had two daughters of her own, but after struggling with post-natal depression, and later alcoholism, Michelle left her husband for another man.
The relationship with the person she believed to be the man of her dreams soon turned into a nightmare and she has had a number of unhealthy and abusive relationships since.
Today, when Michelle heads home after work as a bus driver, she will not have to worry about her environment.
But she keenly feels how hard it must be for people forced to stay at home in similar situations under the current coronavirus shutdown.
"It would be absolutely terrifying," Michelle said.
"Because even if you know innately that this is wrong, that you shouldn't be putting up with this type of behaviour, if you can't leave the house, I mean what do you do?"
The eye of the domestic violence storm
With reports of family and domestic violence increasing, service providers across the country have reinforced a single message — they are open for business.
In Western Australia the restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has seen the road toll drop and the crime rate plunge.
Yet those figures provided by WA Police to ABC Radio Perth, which compared the past month to the same period last year, showed domestic violence was increasing.
While a 5 per cent increase might seem small, WA Minister for Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence Simone McGurk said any increase was worrying.
"We're at about 48,000 reported incidents to police each year, just short of 1,000 a week, so either way we've still got a massive problem," she said.
She said the community may well be in the eye of the domestic violence storm,
"All the evidence internationally is that we can expect that this pressure of COVID — the social isolation, the economic destabilisation that's occurred — will actually give perpetrators of domestic violence additional opportunities to exercise control and power and to be violent."
Special taskforce and boost to laws
A dedicated COVID-19 family and domestic violence taskforce has been set up within the Department of Communities to work with police and service providers to ensure services remain open during the pandemic.
The legislation allows courts to impose electronic monitoring on offenders in a range of circumstances and also improves access to restraining orders, with applications now able to be lodged online.
A separate offence for breach of a family violence restraining order came into force from Monday with the penalty increased from $6,000 to $10,000.
The Federal Government has also committed $150 million towards family and domestic violence to be shared by states and territories over the next two years.
Ms McGurk said while that funding was still being distributed, WA was expecting $3 million before the end of June and additional crisis accommodation, to relieve pressure on women's refuges, was expected to be part of it.
"But you don't just want to give people accommodation, you want to make sure that they've also got support," Ms McGurk said.
Information is vital
A national advertising and awareness campaign was announced as part of the $150 million federal package but local advocates have called for a statewide campaign as well.
Lara Steel, a domestic violence specialist with Anglicare WA, said if coronavirus created an increased risk inside homes it was imperative the message that help was still available was shared widely.
"It needs to be on mainstream media, it needs to be on radio, it needs to be across as many platforms as possible," she said.
"If they just happen to turn the TV on and a message blares into the lounge room about family and domestic violence services, the person who's feeling unsafe isn't responsible for that but they still receive the message."
Ms Steel said while the focus needed to be on victims, she hoped it was a message heeded by potential abusers as well as those at risk.
"The other component of that work is also to encourage people who are struggling with the stress — and they know that stress is one of the risk factors for abusive tactics or violence — to actually take responsibility for that and get a professional on the phone from one of the helplines and create a safety plan," she said.
Whole community needs to help stop violence
With expectations of grim times ahead, Ms McGurk said she was encouraged by the collaborative approach being taken by the sector
But she added preventing family violence would need help from the whole community.
"It was only in February I think that Hannah Clarke died with her children and the country was quite rightly horrified and shocked — devastated by such a hideous set of murders and they likely should be," she said.
"Sadly though, we know that women are dying all too often, and they don't get that sort of attention.
"It's about stopping those deaths but also making sure that everyone's got the message there is help should they need it.
"Frankly, without the community, we're not going to get anywhere on this."
*Name has been changed to protect the person's identity
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