Back to News Listing

The Drum / By Stephanie Boltje Posted Tue 10 Aug 2021 at 6:00amTuesday 10 Aug 2021 at 6:00am, updated Tue 10 Aug 2021 at 6:49am

Domestic violence services are reporting a pressure-cooker environment during the pandemic, issuing stark warnings about a rise in demand for help across New South Wales since the latest lockdown began. 

Key points:

  • Domestic violence services say lockdowns are creating pressure-cooker situations at home
  • More than two-thirds of NSW service providers have reported increased demand for help
  • Waitlists are getting longer and cases are getting more complex

Muslim Women Australia, based in South-West Sydney, is witnessing “severe” cases of domestic violence, including mental, physical and financial abuse. 

“Crisis accommodation has been literally all filled because you have to test, you have to worry, about the family already in the crisis service,” Muslim Women Australia chief executive Maha Abdo told The Drum.

“Transitional homes are all filled up. There are no spaces left”

Women are also seeking food, financial assistance and emotional support. 

“You can’t move from your place to your neighbour, let alone go support a friend of yours who is in crisis [during a lockdown],” Ms Abdo said. 

Amani Haydar stands next to a painting, smiling into the camera
Amani Haydar’s mother Salwa was killed by her father in 2015. She has used a new memoir to share her mother’s story.(Supplied.)

Women’s safety advocate Amani Haydar told The Drum it was important Australians became “vigilant neighbours” and not passive bystanders “when we witness or hear violence next door”.Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from September 9 with a look back at our blog

Ms Haydar has detailed her experience with the insidious nature of family violence in her raw memoir The Mother Wound.

“There is a new cohort of women reporting violence to the service who had not previously approached the services,” the Bankstown Women’s Health Centre board member said.

“Everyone in the sector is treading water at the moment, trying to support families with basic needs, as well as navigating really complicated issues that predate the pandemic.”

As lockdowns continue, demand for help grows

A recent survey by peak body Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW) found more than 70 per cent of service providers had seen demand rise since late June, when New South Wales’ stay-at-home orders began, and many were stretched to capacity.

Family and domestic violence support:

“I think the psychological and physical impacts are simply taking their toll this time,” DVNSW CEO Delia Donovan said. 

Stuck at home, women are seeking help online, including on social media platforms Instagram and Facebook, to avoid being caught by their abuser.

Waitlists are also on the rise. 

“We know from the survey that we just did with the 78 services that 48 per cent of them have seen an increase in their waiting lists,” Ms Donovan said. 

“One of our services tells us that one in two clients are being turned away.” 

Of the 78 domestic violence providers surveyed, 84 per cent reported an increase in the complexity of referrals and of the types of abuse within one month. 

Elizabeth Hukins from BaptistCare HopeStreet said homeschooling and working from home were adding pressure to already tense environments. 

A support worker in a cap and green sweater sits at a computer, talking on the phone.
Organisations such as BaptistCare say they are concerned about the impact of stay-at-home orders on people facing domestic or family violence. (ABC: Fletcher Yeung)

“The restrictions that have been put in place to keep people safe and healthy are also putting some people at risk, particularly women and children who are experiencing domestic violence,” she said.

“There is an increase in all types of violence, but particularly that coercive control and intimidation of having a perpetrator in the house much more regularly than usual,” she said. 

Concern over support workers’ heavy workload

After a tough year, nearly a quarter of specialist workers are struggling with the high demand and 10 per cent are at high risk of burnout. 

Like other services, BaptistCare said it had policies in place to manage vicarious trauma, but Ms Hukins said it was concerned about “resourcing and meeting the need”.

Adding to workers’ concerns is how their response has had to change. 

“Normally we would be seeing people face to face or in a group setting, and now we are seeing people and talking to people over the phone or video conferencing,” Ms Hukins said. 

“Of course we are seeing people face to face when there is a critical situation that requires that, but it is difficult.”

Domestic violence remains big issue nationwide

The federal-government-funded hotline 1800RESPECT found that during each lockdown calls increased compared to the previous year, but reporting did not always immediately occur.

Calls from Victorians during the stage 4 restrictions between July and October rose from 20,200 to 22,300. 

Victoria Police said they responded to almost 93,000 incidents in the year to March 2021 — “the highest on record” and 7,000 more than during the same time the previous year.

“I know from some of the work that I have done here in Victoria that the severity of callouts for police just anecdotally was considered to be much, much higher during the extended lockdown we had,” Swinburne University researcher Troy McEwan said. 

The forensic and clinical psychologist told The Drum there were a range of factors that led to family violence but “immediate stress” triggered family violence incidents.

A headshot of a woman.
Troy McEwan says most assaults police deal with are related to family violence. (Supplied)

“Lots of people who may have had some ability to cope more effectively or deal more effectively with that have lost that in the current environment, and that is really a big part of what is happening,” she said. 

Victoria Police said they continued to doorknock high-risk perpetrators and check on victims through Operation Ribbon.

In South Australia, calls to the Women Safety Service South Australia decreased during state lockdowns. 

“During those times we see an increase in web chat, particularly in the early hours of the morning,” a Women’s Safety Services SA representative told The Drum. 

“We think that is because women are trying to find the safest time to make contact.”

Ongoing, holistic support needed

Domestic violence support workers remain particularly concerned for the people they have not heard from, and about the impact on children. 

In Greater Sydney, Muslim Women Australia said it expect an influx of people “who are needing support, who are needing counselling, who are needing more of the wholistic approach to health and wellbeing”. 

A group of women stand together in a group, smiling at the camera.
Muslim Women Australia, based in South-West Sydney, is witnessing “severe” cases of domestic violence, including mental, physical and financial abuse.(Supplied)

DVNSW has put the call out for greater ongoing funding, as well as an increase to social housing. 

In a statement, NSW Attorney-General and Minister for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence, Mark Speakman, said his office remained committed to supporting the sector.

“The NSW and Commonwealth governments have provided record funding boosts of more than $52 million to services to ensure that they have the resources to adapt and/or expand their work to support victim-survivors during the pandemic,” the statement said.

“Distribution of this funding aims to respond to many of the concerns services have raised in their work to support women and children fleeing domestic violence.” 

The Drum airs weeknights on ABC and News Channel.

If you need assistance, call 1800 RESPECT