Like many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on family violence.
We know that family violence is driven by expressions of gender inequality: the unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunities between men and women.1 Gender inequality is the outcome of and is exacerbated by rigid gender stereotypes such as men’s control of decision making.
Other factors including financial pressure, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and social and economic exclusion can also increase the risk or severity of family violence, but are not the underlying drivers. 1, 2
There is strong evidence that the gendered drivers and factors that exacerbate gendered violence are heightened during and following emergencies and crises, resulting in increases in violence, particularly against women.
During the pandemic, public health directions requiring home isolation exacerbated the risk of family violence, with the restrictions increasing opportunities for perpetrators to monitor and control victim survivors.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we consistently communicated that victim survivors could leave home to escape family violence at any time regardless of restrictions. However, we know victim survivors found it more challenging to access support securely and discretely.3
Victoria Police reported an increase in family violence incidents during 2020 and 2021. Significantly higher numbers of incidents were recorded in June and October 2020. There was also an increase in first-time reporting and new forms of violence, which included tactics to achieve social isolation and forms of violence specifically relating to the threat and risk of COVID-19 infection.3, 4, 5
Service providers also reported seeing:
- increased complexity in client presentations, with victim survivors needing higher levels of psychosocial support. This included a loss of control due to the public health directions and stress from managing work, schooling and childcare responsibilities3
- an increase in clients presenting with factors that exacerbate family violence. This included financial stress, drug and alcohol misuse, mental health issues and social isolation
- longer stays in emergency accommodation for victim survivors
- an increase in first-time service users, fewer referral options and the need to provide support for longer periods of time. This resulted in increased wait times for clients to access services such as Men's Behaviour Change Programs.
Frontline services continued to adapt to support women, children and families at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. These services include crisis accommodation, police and courts, and sexual assault services. Maintaining contact and safe engagement with victim survivors was often especially challenging if they were isolating at home with the perpetrator.3
Remote working arrangements also had a detrimental effect on family violence practitioners.6 This increased stress and vicarious trauma. Practitioners felt greater responsibility for clients, worked longer hours to meet demand, and felt a blurring of boundaries between work and home.
A survey of family violence practitioners by the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre found that responding to family violence from home during COVID-19 had a detrimental impact on practitioner wellbeing. Of survey respondents, 69 per cent reported suffering moderate levels of burnout, and 37 per cent reported moderate levels of secondary stress symptoms.6
The prevention workforce also reported increasing demands to redirect resources away from prevention activities towards response as the rate of family violence increased, and physical distancing requirements limited opportunities for face-to face delivery of prevention programs.
Conversely, the pandemic created opportunities to adopt technological innovations and new service delivery models to manage the safety of victim survivors and keep perpetrators in view. These changes also increased accessibility of services to people living in regional, rural and remote areas.
Some service providers integrated family violence support into essential services. These included doctors’ clinics, Centrelink and childcare. This assisted victim survivors who may have otherwise been unable to seek help.
Organisations also created new alert systems, such as code words in telephone and text communication as well as physical signals, for victim survivors to discreetly signal when they needed support.3
Many of these adaptations are still in use, as they have enabled victim survivors to seek support in challenging and dangerous settings.
As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family violence became apparent, we responded rapidly. We funded new initiatives and bolstered existing services to protect and support victim survivors and meet the increased demand for services.
- providing $20 million for short-term accommodation for victim survivors who did not feel safe isolating or recovering from COVID-19 at home
- provided $20.2 million to help Victorian family violence services meet the expected increase in demand during the coronavirus pandemic and provide critical help for victim-survivors
- implementing the Multicultural COVID-19 Family Violence Program. This funded 20 multicultural, faith-based and ethno-specific organisations to raise awareness of the drivers of family violence and support early intervention
- ensuring the continued provision of crisis accommodation and all family violence, sexual assault and The Orange Door services working with the sector. This strengthened the system’s capacity to continue providing these services throughout the pandemic
- launching Operation Ribbon. This involved police proactively checking on victim survivors’ safety and wellbeing, and monitoring perpetrators’ behaviour to keep them in view
- increasing the accessibility of Men's Behaviour Change Programs by moving to online groups and one-on-one engagement to keep men who use violence in view. This also ensured support continued when face-to-face groups were suspended
- established the Men’s Accommodation and Counselling Service for men who use violence, providing crisis accommodation, wrap-around support to address immediate concerns and link men to services to address their offending behaviour
- fast-tracking the Magistrates’ Court’s Family Violence Intervention Order Online Form in 2020 to enable applicants to apply online, a critical innovation to help maintain access to justice
- improving accessibility for perpetrators and people at risk of using violence to move into short-term or long-term accommodation. This allowed victim survivors to remain in the family home
- building the capacity of family violence and sexual assault services, including Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, to provide dedicated support to adolescents who use violence and their families
- establishing a Family Violence System and Operations Group with representatives across government. This group monitored the impacts of COVID-19-related family violence responses and ensured strong information sharing and coordination
- developing the COVID-19 Family Violence Data Portal launched on 2 November 2020 by the Crime Statistics Agency.
1 Parkinson D 2017, ‘Investigating the increase in domestic violence post-disaster: An Australian case-study’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, March 2017. .
2 State of Victoria 2016, Royal Commission into Family Violence: Summary and recommendations, Parl Paper No 132 (2014–16).
3 Pfitzner N, Fitz-Gibbon K and True J 2020, Responding to the ‘shadow pandemic’: practitioner views on the nature of and responses to violence against women in Victoria, Australia during the COVID-19 restrictions. Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Monash University, Victoria, Australia.
4 Boxall H and Morgan A 2021, ‘Who is most at risk of physical and sexual partner violence and coercive control during the COVID-19 pandemic?’ Australian Institute of Criminology, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, no. 618, February 2021.
5 Boxall H and Morgan A 2020, ‘Social isolation, time spent at home, financial stress and domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Australian Institute of Criminology, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, no. 609, October 2020.
6 Pfitzner N et al. 2020, When home becomes the workplace: family violence, practitioner wellbeing and remote service delivery during COVID‑19 restrictions, Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Melbourne, 20 October 2020.
Reviewed 09 May 2022