Aboriginal social workers in the New South Wales town of Bourke fear that lockdowns have created a spike in rates of domestic and family violence.
Gomeroi man and Manager of Bourke Aboriginal Corporation’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing Program at their Centre for Excellence and Wellbeing Joseph Clarke said lockdowns are not only keeping victims of domestic and family violence at home with perpetrators, but also making it much harder for them to report the violence.
“Domestic and family violence is running rampant,” he said.
“COVID is being used as a weapon. Basically, [perpetrators say] ‘you can’t go anywhere, you have to stay home,’ whether that be the male or the female perpetrator, it doesn’t matter.”
Social epidemiologist Dr Vanessa Lee-Ah Mat is from the Yupungathi and Meriam people and sits on the Domestic Violence NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Steering Committee.
She said they have found an increase in domestic and family violence in Aboriginal communities that isn’t reflected in reported statistics.
“[Survivors] are having trouble getting access to the services to report it,” she said.
“What we’re seeing is Aboriginal families that usually might have had three or four [in the household] now suddenly have six to eight people living in it.
“And the perpetrator might not just be the intimate partner, it could be a child, a brother, or sister or something else.”
Keren Barker works in Bourke as the Manager of Birrang Enterprise Development Company’s Domestic Violence program, ‘Gawimarra Burrany Ngurung, Picking up the pieces’.
Barker said often domestic and family violence victims don’t know that they can leave lockdown to escape.
“I’ve experienced that with family members of mine who have been needing to escape domestic violence, and I’m telling them, ‘it’s okay, you can actually leave’, and they’re just terrified that they’re going to get in trouble for breaking a health order,” she said.
“There’s been so much messaging around getting vaccinated, and there has been messaging around domestic violence in those times as well, but it just hasn’t been pushed up as much as the vaccination message has been.”
NSW Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence, Mark Speakman confirmed that people experiencing violence do not need to stay at home.
“Domestic and family violence (DFV) is a serious and devastating crime that impacts people from all walks of life. Lockdowns are about staying home to keep the community safe from COVID-19. But for victim-survivors of DFV, home is often not a safe place to begin with,” he said.
“Stay-at-home orders do not apply to people escaping domestic abuse, and the NSW Government has been working hard to get this message out.”
Speakman said the ‘Speak Out’ domestic and family violence campaign has been running ads in retail precincts, female restrooms, on social media and radio to let people know they can leave home to seek help or stay safe during a lockdown.
But Barker said in her community, many people aren’t reached by that advertising.
“Not everybody has Facebook. I’m seeing a lot of that stuff gets shared on Facebook, but not everyone has the access to that, so they don’t know what they’re actually able to do.”
The Gawimarra Burrany Ngurung program works to build respect and resilience in the community, working with both perpetrators and survivors of domestic and family violence.
But the restrictions make it much harder for Barker and her staff to support mob.
“It is really challenging, because so much of our work is based on our connection with who we’re supporting,” she said.
“[It’s difficult] not having access to just go and have a yarn or chat with someone, versus ringing and not knowing if perpetrator was there.”
With lockdown restrictions easing in NSW on Monday, Clarke is concerned that being isolated for so long will make it more difficult for survivors to access services again.
“The biggest risk factor is that the perpetrator has had access to the victim for so long,” he said.
“Whether or not the person in crisis is willing to come forward after being in isolation for so long, that’s a tricky question. Because, if they’ve been situation where they’ve been isolated and out of out of public view for a while, it could be a bit daunting.”
Dr Lee-Ah Mat said being isolated with a perpetrator during lockdowns will have long term impacts.
“It’s going to really cause a lot of mental health damage to a lot of people,” she said.
“People who have had programs in place, plans in place for themselves and the kids, it’s going to send them backwards; in some situations, we’re putting people back into a control situation where they’ve lost control and the perpetrator has taken back full control,” she said.
“We need to now put support in place to help the victims get back on track, to help them get back on onto a plan of self determination, and resilience.”
Barker said she’s looking forward to being able to meet with her clients in Bourke face-to-face once the restrictions ease.
“I’m really looking forward to being able to actually go out and have a conversation with someone, somewhere that’s safe, and just being able to have that connection and letting people know they’re not in this alone,” she said.
By Sarah Smit
If you are experiencing family or domestic violence, please contact:
- National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence counselling service – 1800 RESPECT
- Domestic Violence Line NSW – 1800 656 463
- Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800
Visit respect.gov.au for more information and to download free resources.