Times are changing, but one thing’s not

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By Jack O’Neill

It is what dreams are made of.

Putting a tracksuit on, spending the day with your furry friend and even having a quiet drink with lunch while working from home.

For some, the move to working from home would have been welcome news. But for others, this stay-at-home period cannot end soon enough.

Those people are the victims of family violence.

With novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is more commonly known leading to restrictions being enforced by all levels of government, people are being strongly urged to stay home.

With the current COVID-19 restrictions in place, Sexual Assault and Family Violence Centre CEO Helen Bolton is worried this will further impact victims of family violence.

She noted that Google searches about domestic violence had increased by 75 per cent since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded.

“Perpetrators might use COVID-19 as a tactic of family violence to justify, coerce and control another person,” she said.

These tactics include threatening to contract COVID-19 and infect the victim, providing misleading information around the virus – in order to further isolate the individual – and increased monitoring of the victim’s phone and messages.

Family violence is widespread, with cases in overseas countries tripling in February when compared with the same time last year, according to Chinese publication Sixth Tone.

“It is important for anyone experiencing family violence to know that violence is never ok, no matter the circumstances or situation,” Bolton added.

Like the virus, family violence does not discriminate either.

More than 82,000 family violence incidents were recorded across Victoria during the last financial year, with Geelong the third-highest local government area according to the Crime Statistics Agency.

Shockingly, this was an eight per cent – or 6500 – increase on the previous year. Across Geelong and Surf Coast that figure was a lot higher.

Sadly, many victims are often too scared to seek help or report abuse.

“Emotional abuse, control and fear can be just as harmful as other forms of abuse (and) sadly, we know that in times of crises, the severity and frequency of family violence and sexual assault can increase,” Bolton said.

While her centre was still providing its “full range of services during the health pandemic”, vulnerable people being confined to their house find accessing assistance difficult.

Lauren Hutson, a lawyer with Barwon Community Legal Service – which provides free legal advice – pre-empted a rise in people accessing help, even more so when restrictions were finally lifted.

“Across the sector we do expect one, (but) the difficulty in the current climate is people knowing that services are still available and how to access them,” she said.

With family violence occurring at a residential location 90% of the time in Geelong, Hutson explained that accessing help over the phone was made more difficult by the current health pandemic.

“(It) can be a problem for victims of family violence who are still at home with the perpetrator and it may not be safe for them to have that kind of conversation over the phone,” she said.

Hutson said the current government restrictions were likely to put people off physically going into court to apply for protection but expects a spike in applications when people are free to move around again.

“Family violence tends to spike over periods we associate with an increase in alcohol consumption … and also over periods of high stress,” Hutson said.

Although Victoria Police would not release data on family violence call-outs over the COVID-19 period, Hutson said “she wouldn’t be surprised if the police are responding to an even greater number of family violence call-outs and subsequently issuing more safety notices.”

A safety notice is issued by police after conducting a risk assessment if they believe that immediate protection is required for one or more people – prior to an application being made in court.

More than 12,600 safety notices were issued by police in the 12 months up until June 30 last year, with data for the Easter period to be made available by Crime Statistics Agency later this year.

Across the state, police applications made up almost 75 per cent of applications made in the Magistrates’ Court for family violence intervention orders.

The Court experienced a rise in applications, rising from 39,570 in 2017/18 to 40,952 in 2018/19.

The Geelong Magistrates’ Court, which is one of more than 50 courts of its kind across the state, heard more than 7 per cent of the applications.

Changes have been made right throughout the judicial system in response to COVID-19, including limiting the number of people at court and extending listing dates for most criminal matters.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the timeline in place for hearing family violence applications.

In October last year, the first specialist family violence court was opened in Shepparton in response to recommendations from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

With a total of five specialist family violence courts in operation, or soon to be operational, Hutson suggested Geelong should follow suit.

“Pandemic or not Geelong would really benefit from a specialist family violence court,” she said.

“We did have the remote witness pilot where AFMs (Affected Family Members) could appear for their intervention order applications by video link from a (different) location,” she added.

The State Government recently announced $20 million funding for family violence services, but it is time for the numbers to change – to go down.

If you are experiencing family violence, you can contact the Sexual Assault and Family Violence Centre on 03 5222 4318. In an emergency, call 000.

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