Year on year, the average weekly rate of men referring themselves to the Men’s Referral Service nationally (it is only funded by three states) is up 23 per cent, to 211 per week.
In Victoria the average number of weekly referred calls year on year has jumped to more than 400 a week so far in 2020. In New South Wales, in the week of April 1 to 7 as restrictions came into force, the helpline received 678 calls from men referred by police or other means.
We’ve had a number of men calling us saying they don’t want to be that guy.
Jacqui Watt, No to Violence
No to Violence CEO Jacqui Watt said men were phoning the service from around the country and even New Zealand and Papua New Guinea seeking counselling and other help. Some of the callers said they were using COVID-19 as an excuse for violence or control over partners.
The closure of face-to-face Men’s Behaviour Change groups due to the virus had cut men off from in-person support. The groups, which serve 4000 men in Victoria in 20-week blocks, have waiting lists up to months long.
The February murders of Queensland woman Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged partner, Rowan Baxter, had increased awareness among perpetrators of the risk any escalation of their behaviour would pose to others.
“The level of alarm and distress in the community about COVID-19 has affected all of us,” Ms Watt said.
“We also had the bushfires [after which family violence incidents increased] and the murders of Hannah Clarke and her children, which seemed to get into people’s minds more than others because of the graphic nature of it and the fact children were murdered in broad daylight.”
Ms Watt said a number of callers had referenced killer Rowan Baxter, who died by self-inflicted stab wounds after killing his family. “We’ve had a number of men calling us saying they don’t want to be that guy,” she said.
Men seeking support are spending 18 per cent longer on No to Violence helpline calls than they did before the pandemic. Ms Watt said this “highlights the increased complexity of calls in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
“These are calls from men acting proactively – either because they have been violent towards their family and are seeking help, or because they fear they’re about to.
“It is important to note these are separate from calls where men are calling the men’s referral service because they have been directed to after police intervention in a family violence incident,” she said. The fact calls were coming in nationally in large numbers illustrated the urgent need for a national service specialising in men’s violence prevention.
Australia’s family violence agencies have been predicting a surge in violence against isolated women and children, but until now data documenting increased reports has been slow to emerge.
Last week family violence experts reported calls for help from women had dropped by up to 30 per cent due to victims being unable to call safely while they are compelled to stay home with their abuser.
Rita Butera, CEO of Victoria’s family violence crisis centre Safe Steps, said she feared many cases are going undetected. “This service has been going for years and we’ve never, ever seen a trend down like this,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
In early April the federal government handed states and territories a $150 million domestic violence package, much of which was expected to be devoted to funding emergency accommodation for women and children stuck at home with violent partners. The Accor hotels group has begun housing violence victims in NSW.
On Friday the Victorian government announced a $40 million funding package to boost support for family violence victims, including for accommodation and tech support to establish means of online chat communication for those who cannot safely make phone calls.
Men seeking help can call No to Violence on 1300 766 491. If someone is experiencing or afraid of family violence, they can call Safe Steps 24 hours on 1800 015 188 or the national helpline on 1800 RESPECT. If there is an emergency, call 000.
Wendy Tuohy is Lifestyle editor.