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Surge in family violence expected in wake of coronavirus pandemic

By Charmayne Allison

Self-isolation and social distancing might seem like a daunting, lonely road.

For many, it will be a living hell.

Victims of domestic violence could be trapped with their abusers as Kyabram and district prepares for a state-wide lockdown due to coronavirus.

And with stress and uncertainty on the rise and increased control in the hands of perpetrators, local family violence agencies are bracing for a spike in cases.

“Evidence shows during times of crisis, gender-based violence increases,” Uniting Vic Tas senior practitioner Shane Maskey said.

“One issue can be enough to lead to an increased risk, but there are so many intersecting issues at play currently.

“You've lost your job, you're stuck at home, your mental health is suffering, the kids are there and you're facing mortgage and rental stress.

“Plus the footy clubs and pubs are closed, so your social outlets have basically dried up.

“When a person can't control an unknown situation, they'll look around for what they can control — and that's family members. This control can become abusive, which can, tragically, then flow onto violence.”

Mr Maskey has been running a Men’s Behaviour Change Program in Shepparton since February.

A collaboration between Uniting Vic Tas and Court Services Victoria, the new program aims to keep local perpetrators of family violence in sight through regular counselling sessions.

The group has recently shut down due to social distancing measures — but Mr Maskey will continue meeting with perpetrators one-on-one as long as it is safe to do so.

“Family violence is predominantly a gendered concern, as most abuse is by males toward females and children,” he said.

“I've met with several men recently whose jobs have dried up.

“Regional footy has also been postponed and that is a massive red flag, as it was a social sphere where men could go twice a week for training and matches.

“When that's removed it reduces outlets and can lead to potential increased drinking at home.”

Mr Maskey said widespread lockdowns not only increased the risk of violence, but limited the avenues where victims could seek help.

“You are literally being confined to a space where your actions can be constantly scrutinised,” he said.

“There are so many family violence resources available to victims and they are all ramping up phone access. But this crisis may make it difficult for victims to access services.

“Thankfully the Australian Government has lifted the 30-minute restriction on hairdressing appointments.

“It may sound innocuous, but hairdressers are a social area where women will go as a place of social connectedness. And it's a place where they could safely make these calls.”

“Access to services can be different here than in Melbourne, as the public transport is not as integrated as in metro areas,” Mr Maskey said.

“And perpetrators now have control of the car as they're home all the time, whereas before victims had access to drop the kids at school.

“And with poor telephone coverage and intermittent internet access in this region, it can be even more difficult for people to seek help.

“Plus there can be technological violence or abuse, where perpetrators control victims’ access to the outside world through technology.”

Mr Maskey said Ask Izzy — an app which allowed people on the Telstra network to access services without data — was an excellent resource.

As for men considering or perpetrating family violence, he urged them to access the Men's Referral Service.

“The issue is that shame and guilt can stop men from seeking help,” he said.

“This service allows men to reach out anonymously over the phone for help and guidance.

“The problem is, for too long we've been focusing the responsibility on women and children.

“For instance, there's the age-old argument of ‘why don't they just leave?’ — when evidence shows women are at the highest risk of injury or violence when they try to leave.

“Instead, we should be placing that responsibility on men. Because the decision to consciously use violence to control someone is the man's responsibility.”

In these uncertain times, the wider community is urged to be hyper-vigilant and safely call out family violence where they suspect it.

“Call triple zero if something is affecting somebody's safety, otherwise there are many excellent resources such as 1800 RESPECT and Safe Steps,” Mr Maskey said.

But this vigilance shouldn't stop once the coronavirus crisis is over.

“Once things ‘go back to normal’, that doesn't mean family violence rates will decrease,” Mr Maskey said.

“When we hear something in our neighbourhood or on the streets, we need to keep calling it out.”

● If you feel unsafe or are concerned for someone’s safety, call 000 or contact police;

● For confidential crisis support, information and accommodation, call Safe Steps 24/7 family violence response line on 1800 015 188.

● For confidential phone help and referral, contact 1800RESPECT, the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 737 732.

● For a specialist LGBTIQ family violence service, contact W|Respect on 1800 LGBTIQ (1800 542 847) or visit withrespect.org.au

● Men’s Referral Service is available by calling 1300 766 491.