Has the impact of COVID-19 on cities and housing affected the incidence of family violence?

Coronavirus restrictions present additional pressures for families.

Last updated 5 May 2020

Housing support for women and children facing domestic and family violence (DFV) has been an important policy focus in recent years, and the restrictions put in place as a result of COVID-19 may impact that support. Additionally, with people around the world being forced to stay home in order to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, medical professionals and policing organisations are warning of an increase in cases of DFV.

Social infrastructure supporting vulnerable families

Restrictions on movement and social interactions have had unintended consequence in that, with less opportunity to leave the home, people experiencing DFV have lost access to social supports, both formal and informal. As places like libraries have closed to prevent the spread of the virus, women and children no longer have access to places of refuge and reprieve. Public centres (such as libraries) also serve as sources of information about family violence and opportunities to reach out for assistance.

Other social distancing measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus have inadvertently removed the safety nets that are built into the everyday social infrastructure of cities, ones that allow detection of DFV and opportunity for intervention. With schools and other institutions closed, there is less opportunity for teachers and others with mandatory disclosure obligations to notice problems and raise concerns. Doctors are providing consultations by teleconference and are less able to notice and flag signs of concern; it also means such consultations are not necessarily private and confidential.

Access to support services

Nevertheless, the states and territories have continued to operate their existing DFV support services in some form,  understanding that crisis accommodation, police and courts that operate to support women, children and families are essential services.  For example, NSW Department of Communities and Justice has affirmed that ‘refuges will remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic'.  Services are following NSW Health regulations to maintain social distancing’, and that DFV support phone lines are open all day, every day.

There is, however, no available data yet as to whether accommodation support services are able to operate as effectively as normal during the current pandemic in Australia.

Is DFV increasing due to COVID-19?

Internationally, the World Health Organisation has published details of a report from China which stated that ‘the number of domestic violence cases reported to a police station in Jingzhou, a city in Hubei Province, tripled in February 2020, compared to the same period the previous year’.

Police in Israel have reported 16 per cent more DFV cases in March 2020 than for the same period last year, ‘in part due to the fact that adult probation offices have curtailed operations as a result of the epidemic and that some of the groups offering therapy for domestic violence offenders have been shut down entirely.’ The report offers up the comparison that other rates of violent crime remain unchanged.

In Paris, France, there has been a 36 per cent increase in the number of DFV reported to the police, and a 32 per cent increase in the rest of the country.  Likewise, in New York, USA, state police have reported a 15 to 20 percent increase in DFV cases.

The situation in Australia

In Australia, similar increases in cases of DFV are emerging. Previous times of widespread community stress, such as after the 2009 Victorian bushfires, (where increased rates of financial stress and unemployment are risk factors for DFV) showed ‘an escalation in domestic violence from men who had shown no signs of ever being aggressive towards their partner,  while those prone to inflicting domestic violence became even more aggressive.’

A recent survey of DFV services across New South Wales conducted by Women's Safety NSW points to a likely increase in DFV during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report reveals that, through March and into early April 2020, DFV support workers and organisations saw a 50 per cent increase in client numbers; 75 per cent increase in complexity of client needs; 50 per cent increase in Escalating or worsening violence; 50 per cent increase in Violence specifically relating to COVID-19; and 47.5 per cent increase in violence being reported for the first time.

The Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Safety NSW, Hayley Foster is quoted as saying ‘Not only are we seeing increased client numbers in more locations, We’re also seeing instances where the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more extreme violence and abuse as well as cases where violence is erupting in relationships for the first time.’

In Victoria 14 per cent of calls made to the Police reporting cases of DFV during April were due to COVID-19. As part of their overall response, Police are increasing visits to people considered likely to perpetrate acts of DFV to ensure they are complying with court bail and DFV notice conditions.

Policy responses to DFV during coronavirus

The Federal Government has announced $150 million to support Australians experiencing DFV and sexual violence as a result of coronavirus. The funding will boost programs under the existing National Plan to reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

Supplying emergency accommodation is an important part of government response; for example, the Victorian Government has allocated $20 million for short-term accommodation for people experiencing DFV who do not feel safe isolating or recovering from coronavirus at home.

Other government responses to COVID-19 and housing for victims and perpetrators are framed in terms of laws. In Victoria emergency legislation covering the COVID pandemic increases interim family violence intervention orders and personal safety intervention orders from twenty-eight days to three months, while in In Western Australia existing legislation has been amended to allow for electronic monitoring devices to be worn by DFV offenders who may otherwise be placed in remand centres.

An initiative of the French government in funding 20,000 hotel nights for people escaping DFV,  as well as creating approximately twenty counselling centres in stores ‘across the country in order for women to be able seek out help while they leave their home to run errands’ are additional resource solutions that may be of real benefit to people escaping DFV during theCOVID-19 crisis. The French Government is also giving anti-domestic abuse organizations an additional one million euros ($A1.8 million) to help them manage increased demand for their services.