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Domestic Violence Spikes During Coronavirus As Families Trapped At Home

A new survey has found COVID-19 is already hitting Australian homes in dangerous ways, and there are urgent calls for the Federal government to step in as domestic violence is expected to get much worse.

As millions of Australians social distance and self-isolate, experts warn that  scores of domestic violence (DV) victims are now trapped with their abusers.

And a new survey already indicates the pressure DV workers have begun to face.

Women's Safety NSW sent a survey to 400 frontline workers across the state about what they were witnessing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

So far, 40 percent of workers are reporting increases in pleas for help and 70 percent said there is an increase in the complexity of cases.

"This means more clients with high-complex needs, an increase in escalation of the violence and the abuse, and people are experiencing real difficulties in accessing services," Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women's Safety NSW said.

Image: Getty

Given social distancing and self-isolation requirements, many services have moved to online and over the phone, and while most shelters are still operating, Foster said they trying to divert people into less communal living.

"People are calling for support and they are having trouble getting through because the lines are clogged up with people trying to get help," she told 10 daily.

Foster said the sector needs help swiftly, before the situation gets even more dire.

If the government is forcing women and children to stay home which is often an unsafe place for them to be, then they need to be providing public information about where to access safety and support.

Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) has written to the Federal government asking it to put in place urgent measures.

This includes urgently funding emergency accommodation for women fleeing abuse, an injection of money to train and support specialist police officers, and support for trackless phone technology.

"We want to see a public education campaign, a public health response that lets everybody know that everybody has a right to be safe in their homes right now, and that no amount of stress justifies violence," Foster said.

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Experts said isolation and having your domestic life controlled fuels domestic violence.

"We anticipate this will only be the calm before the storm as we tip over into extreme rental and mortgage stress," Jon Owen, pastor and chief executive of Sydney's Wayside Chapel said.

So much so, that on Thursday Wayside Chapel launched an emergency appeal in a desperate bid to raise funds to help those escaping violence.

Owen said the pandemic was causing increased anxiety and drug and alcohol addiction -- and in cases they've seen, it has been playing out violently.

His advice is to "build your lifelines now" and this includes befriending neighbours and developing signals with friends when you are in danger.

"You can get on the phone and start your coded conversations now to be able to check in with your friends, like 'The Arnotts biscuits are fine now', or 'we are running really low and it's getting a bit desperate'," Owen told 10 daily.

Research shows that financial instability and unemployment leads to increased violence at home, however authorities say it's too early to have conclusive pandemic DV data.

Image: Getty.

Victoria Police said in the year ending December 2019, police responded to domestic violence calls every six minutes.

"Victoria Police anticipates there could be a spike in family violence incidents reported to police and family violence services during this time due to heightened stress and uncertainty," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Domestic Violence Victoria told 10 daily that women reaching out for help is "always increasing". While not directly linking the increase to COVID-19, a spokesperson said the "new normal" is for DV service providers to be overstretched.

New South Wales Police and the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research​ told 10 daily it's too early to have statistical evidence of any shift in arrests or police call-outs.

The 1800RESPECT hotline is also bracing for the worst and will continue to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

"Our counsellors are very experienced in how to sensitively handle contacts from those who are in the same house as the person using violence. The caller’s safety is our main priority,"  a spokesperson told 10 daily.

If a person does not feel safe to speak to 1800RESPECT over the phone, they can also communicate with counsellors via webchat.

Federal Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told 10 daily she is working on a charities and community services package in response to the coronavirus outbreak which is expected to include resources to support domestic violence services.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 000. If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, Men's Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. A range of domestic and family violence resources based around the country can be found here

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au