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Did lockdown really trigger an upsurge in family violence?

Before Australian data started coming in, predictions about how the coronavirus would affect family relationships were based on information coming out of China, the likely impact of government policies and previous research.

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Severely restrictive policies introduced in the regions of China most affected by COVID-19 led to a reported upsurge in domestic violence. Police and women’s rights organisations linked the rise to the increased exposure of women to their abusive partners, the economic strain experienced by families and decreased availability of support services and shelters.

In Australia, it was feared that efforts by the state and territory governments to limit the spread of the virus may have also unintentionally increased the risk of family violence. Restricting non-essential services, closing schools and introducing home isolation policies heighten the risk of violence experienced by women and children.

Household members have been forced to spend more time together, increasing exposure to violent partners and limiting access to support organisations.

Previous social science research has linked social isolation with a higher risk of victimisation among women. With limited opportunities for interaction outside the home, abusers are able to exert increased control over their victims, monitoring the minute details of everyday life. Additionally, nearly one million Australians have lost their jobs since social distancing measures were introduced.

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Loss of employment, reduced family income and the associated financial stress have also been repeatedly identified as key risk factors in family violence.

Increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic is also cause for concern. A South Australian drug and alcohol service noted that more clients contacting the service for counselling have reported violent behaviour. This is unsurprising; perpetrators of family violence are more likely to become violent after consuming alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t cause the violence but can exacerbate the offending.

To mitigate this predicted risk, federal and state governments responded with new programs. Victoria Police launched the Operation Ribbon taskforce, which focused on contacting and monitoring high-risk perpetrators and their victims. In NSW, the government committed extra funds to domestic violence services.

So why are some reports now suggesting that the anticipated blowout in family violence did not occur?

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The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics reported a 12 per cent decrease in domestic assaults in April 2020 compared with the same time last year. Similarly, police in South Australia reported no increase in domestic violence reports during the pandemic.

On the face of it, there are logical explanations for this. Police reports require the victim to contact police to report violence, something that is not easy when lockdown measures give abusers more opportunity to monitor their victims and limit their access to support services. Yet victims face the same difficulties when accessing legal aid and court advocacy services and these contacts appear (at least in NSW) to have increased in recent months.

It may be that less family violence has occurred as crime generally has decreased during the pandemic. Or government policies may have been effective. Alternatively, the violence may be occurring but is not being reported to police.

Understanding what has really happened and reconciling conflicting views requires a broad analysis that includes multiple points of the criminal justice system, as well as an evaluation of the effectiveness of government policies. A crucial but missing part of the discussion is to have victims describe their experiences. Research being undertaken at Deakin University will deliver this perspective. By speaking with victims, police and other criminal justice personnel, and evaluating the impact of governmental policies, it will offer a comprehensive understanding of the impact of the pandemic on family violence in Australia.

Dr Mary Iliadis is lecturer in criminology at Deakin University. Co-authored with Professor Marilyn McMahon from the Deakin Law School and Dr Danielle Tyson, senior lecturer in criminology at Deakin University.

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