THE “SHADOW PANDEMIC” – FAMILY VIOLENCE DURING VICTORIA’S COVID-19 LOCKDOWN

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a great deal of stress for businesses and households across the globe, putting pressure on workers and their families. Victoria’s hard lockdown over the past 8 weeks in particular has left many victims of domestic violence feeling vulnerable and exposed to their abusers.

Fuelled by job losses and financial stress, working from home and government-imposed distance learning, tension and abuse has escalated. In many instances, cases of domestic violence may also be exacerbated by increased use of alcohol or drugs to deal with anxiety, depression, anger and boredom.

The Family Law Act 1975 recognises that family violence is not restricted to physical abuse. It can include emotional or mental abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour such as a perpetrator restricting a victim’s movements, communication with friends and family members and restricting access to technology. In circumstances where parties are separated under the one roof or are in the process of separating, particularly amidst Victoria’s hard lockdown, instances of domestic violence are on the rise.

The Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court has reported that between March 2020 and July 2020, the Courts saw a 70 percent increase in urgent applications in the Federal Circuit Court and a 200 percent increase in urgent applications in the Family Court. This significant spike in urgent cases was largely attributed to an increase in domestic violence. There are fears that these figures will increase further in Victoria when lockdown restrictions begin to ease.

A Monash University study conducted in relation to family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic identified an influx of first-time domestic violence offenders as well as the weaponizing of children as part of shared care arrangements. It was found that perpetrators are using children and the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 to control their former partner’s access to the children. In extreme cases, victims have ultimately been forced resume sharing a house with their abuser.

New forms of violence have also been reported in light of the pandemic, including abusers spreading rumours that their victim has caught the coronavirus in an effort to further isolate them from their friends and family and demanding that they wash their hands excessively to the point of bleeding.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, significant concerns have been raised about the increased exposure of women and children to domestic violence at the hands of a parent, intimate partner or former partner. In April 2020, the United Nations declared the increase in domestic violence a “shadow pandemic” and called for governments globally to address the prevalence of family violence and commit more funding to ensuring the safety of victims of domestic abuse during these unprecedented times.

The Victorian Government has identified that seeking assistance and or escaping from domestic violence situations is a permitted reason to leave one’s home under stage 4 restrictions.

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria also remains open during this time and Family Violence matters, including Family Violence Intervention Orders, continue to be heard. These matters may be conducted remotely where appropriate.

Victims may feel as though they are isolated in their family homes with no way to escape the pressure-cooker environment, however, those experiencing domestic violence are encouraged to seek help. Domestic Violence services remain open throughout the pandemic and anyone who feels threatened or unsafe is allowed to leave their home and is exempt from the 9:00pm curfew implemented across Metropolitan Melbourne.

Victims of domestic violence are also encouraged to call Safe Steps on 1800 015 188 or the national domestic violence hotline on 1800 RESPECT.

If you are feeling apprehensive about your current living arrangements or you know someone who is suffering any form of family violence under lockdown, encourage them to contact Victoria Police in the case of an emergency on 000 or a specialist family law practice. Support exists during this challenging period.

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