Over the past few weeks, there has been of the heightened risk of family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, there has been a silence around perpetrators – in terms of the justice system’s ability to hold them to account during the crisis and the wider family violence system’s need to keep them “in view”.
Both are critical to manage and monitor the heightened risk and danger to women and children during this period of uncertainty and isolation.
Keeping perpetrators ‘in view’
In 2016, a on reducing violence against women recommended numerous steps to hold perpetrators to account and more support to change their behaviours.
Since then, all Australian states and territories have implemented family violence reforms to ensure numerous “check points” are embedded in their systems to keep perpetrators “in view” at all times.
Keeping perpetrators “in view” refers to the process of identifying, assessing, monitoring and managing their risk over time.
This notion of increased perpetrator visibility relies on coordination and information sharing between a range of men’s services, criminal justice agencies, family violence specialists and other support services, such as those dealing with mental health, alcohol and drugs.
But these responses have been significantly hampered by the COVID-19 restrictions, which limit the ability of victims to seek help and highlight the need for others to step in and .
This raises the very real risk that new perpetrators will remain invisible for longer. Patterns of escalation among known perpetrators may also go “unchecked” unless they are monitored during this time of heightened risk.
Fewer men’s services during lockdown
One of the key ways known family violence perpetrators are held to account and kept in view is through (MBCPs).
These programs require men to attend weekly, group-based sessions, as well as engage in short or long-term case management programs.
An immediate impact of the coronavirus restrictions has been the suspension of some face-to-face men’s services and many MBCPs. While this has not stopped family violence interventions altogether, it does make known abusers less visible and may prevent them from getting the support they need.
Some men’s services are seeing a surge in demand for telephone services. Coinciding with the beginning of the lockdown last month, , a national telephone counselling service operated by , has seen an alarming increase in calls from perpetrators of family violence.
This included a in phone traffic and an average 20 per cent increase in time spent with callers.
Despite the increased need, resources are still lacking. The federal government has a $1.1 billion boost in funding for mental health services, Medicare assistance and domestic violence support.
But this package does not specify additional funding to the Men’s Referral Service. Instead, the service makes do with funding from three states (Victoria, NSW and Tasmania).
In the absence of increased funding and availability of men’s services, and random household checks of known, high-risk perpetrators will be critical during the lockdown.
Police resources have also been strained by the coronavirus crisis, but these spot checks should be seen as a priority. Victoria Police to doing this.
Similarly, the Family Law Court has taken urgent action after reporting a in applications relating to parenting orders over the past month.
Both the Family Law Court and Federal Circuit Court will fast-track cases in which there is an increased risk of family violence as a result of COVID-19 social restrictions. This may not guarantee long-term protection to women and children, but it brings perpetrators into view quicker when they are subject to urgent parenting orders during the crisis.
How the family violence system is innovating and adapting
Despite the current challenges, there has been a prompt response from the family violence service sector to the changing environment. For instance, some men’s intervention programs are adapting their strategies to reach known perpetrators who otherwise would be unsupported.
The in Victoria, for instance, has moved all 200 men in its program to online or telephone services.
To replace MBCP group sessions, facilitators contact each man and conduct a 30-minute phone call to discuss topics usually covered in group, as well as other sources of stress (job loss, financial pressure, isolation at home).
A pilot MBCP for perpetrators with problematic alcohol or other drug use, developed by , has taken similar actions.
With a new, in-person group meeting unable to start at the moment, men who had been referred to the service are now receiving a combination of phone support and educational materials via group emails. This allows the agency to “check in” with known perpetrators and keep them “in view” until the next face-to-face group can start again.
There are likely many other examples of adapted and innovative practices in Australia, which has been a leading nation in family violence reform over the last five years.
It is essential the momentum of the work advanced nationally to keep perpetrators in view is not lost during the crisis.
There is no road map to achieve this. But it is clear we must prioritise and provide resources for the monitoring, assessment and management of family violence perpetrators during this time to keep women and children safe.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
Kate Fitz-Gibbon is Director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre. Kate receives funding for family violence related research from the Australian Research Council, Australian Institute of Criminology, ANROWS, Family Safety Victoria and Victoria Police. Kate is part of a research team currently completing a funded evaluation of a Taskforce program. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Respect Victoria.
Silke Meyer is the Deputy Director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre. She currently receives funding from TaskForce Community Agency for a pilot program evaluation and the Australian Institute of Criminology to examine perpetrator risk assessment practices. She is an adjunct staff member of CQUniversity and a former non-government member of the Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board.
Jessica Burley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.