With all efforts focused on containing the coronavirus, a second epidemic is flourishing - domestic violence. Kirsty Johnston reports.

In the first two weeks of lockdown, the counsellors at Victim Support heard stories about stress, stories about panic, and stories about aggression.

A brother got sick of his sister playing music in the lounge where he was sleeping, so he stabbed her.

A wife, whose husband was taken away by police after assaulting her, but who also took her only access to their bank account - leaving the woman unable to buy food.

Advertisement

Grandparents, stressed at having extra children in their homes. Teenagers, physically fighting with their parents after being told they weren't able to go out.

READ MORE:
Covid 19 coronavirus: Family violence increasing during lockdown, police say
Covid 19 coronavirus: Family violence tipped to rise, but help services are there 24/7 during lockdown
Covid 19 coronavirus: Domestic violence victims are trying to keep their children safe in lockdown. Their path is fraught.
Covid 19 coronavirus: Supermarket staff describe abuse and stress in lockdown

All of them arising amid the pressures of lockdown, but usually linked to relationships that were already fraught. The incidents worried the support workers, as they answered phone referrals from home, because they knew there were several more long, tense weeks to go.

But the stories that worried them most were the ones they weren't hearing at all.

"There are women out there who don't have a way out now," said Janeta Vasega, a family harm service co-ordinator for Victim Support at Counties Manukau.

"I have a woman who I've supported for a while, and I only talked to her at work because her partner was monitoring her mobile phone. I haven't heard from her since lockdown began."

Vesaga, whose job is to both listen to people and get them help, feels caught in a predicament she can't seem to solve.

"I can't send the police around. I can't ring her mobile or text her to check in because if he sees it, it will make things worse. But I'm concerned for her, I don't know how she's coping and that's really hard. And there will be a lot of women in that situation. It's a really scary time."

Advertisement

Around the world, lockdowns enforced to stop the spread of coronavirus have led to a second epidemic - the escalation of violence against women and children.

In China's Jianli County, the police station reported receiving 162 reports of intimate partner violence in February — three times the number reported in that month last year.

In Australia, a survey of 400 frontline workers indicated that 40 per cent reported an increase in "pleas for help" and 70 per cent indicated an increase in complexity of cases, a report for the Gender and Covid-19 Working Group said.

On Good Friday, New Zealand police released statistics about domestic violence - which it calls "family harm" - here for the first time. It showed a 20 per cent spike in cases on the first Sunday after the lockdown, March 29, when compared with the previous three Sundays.

Experts say this was expected. The nature of pandemics provides an environment that is known to exacerbate violence against women and children. For one, being at home with an abuser makes victims more vulnerable, because there is no escape.

Equally, events that cause financial insecurity and stress, particularly when coupled with uncertainty, have been shown to lead to an increase in aggression at home. Studies previously found such spikes during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and when natural disasters - such as the Christchurch Earthquake - hit.

Advertisement

It also presents unique ways in which abusers can control their victims - things like withholding soap or showers - which leave the victim feeling scared and exposed. And in shared custody cases, abusers have already begun using the lockdown rules as an excuse to breach their parenting orders in New Zealand.

Researchers say the nature and associated fear and uncertainty of pandemics provide an enabling environment for violence against women and children. Photo / 123rf
Researchers say the nature and associated fear and uncertainty of pandemics provide an enabling environment for violence against women and children. Photo / 123rf

One woman told the Herald her ex-partner even went so far to get their daughter tested for Covid-19, just so he had an excuse not to return her on the appointed day - holding on to her instead until the test came back.

The worst part, domestic violence victim advocates say, is that because the abuser is ever-present - meaning even more in control - there are even fewer opportunities for a victim to escape, to call for help, or to notify the police. Agencies like Shine, which runs refuges, have reported New Zealand women in lockdown making a quick phone call for help when their abuser was in the shower, or out for a walk with the dog.

But for some, even a small window might be "practically impossible" to find, the agency said.

On Friday, when reporting the New Zealand statistics, Assistant Commissioner of Police Sandra Venables said she knew the number of real incidents would be higher than the number reported. She urged victims to reach out.

"We want everybody to know police will continue to prioritise family harm incidents and we will come when you call. Everybody deserves to be safe, and feel safe."

Advertisement

Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury said she knew Venables' assessment was likely to be right. The figures were unable to reflect reality at this time, she said, as the most vulnerable would be struggling to make contact if they were being constantly monitored by an abuser.

Some measures of violence against women were actually down, she said. For example, there was a 50 per cent drop in protection order applications. Data released by the Ministry of Justice showed without notice applications had dropped from 100 a week in the month before lockdown, to just 55 in the first week of the level 4 restrictions.

Jury said there were other signs women were struggling. For example, where women usually phoned for help, now they were using the organisation's email address and Facebook page.

"We used to get an occasional request via Facebook but now it's two, or three or four a day. It's unusual," she said. Similarly its shielded site - which looks as though a victim is looking at something benign like The Warehouse page - was also seeing increased numbers.

"That says to me, women are finding it very difficult," she said.

"Despite Jacinda asking everyone to be kind, I don't think people using violence in New Zealand before lockdown have decided 'we're going to be nice now'."

Advertisement
For some victims, access to a phone might be controlled by their abusers. Photo / 123rf
For some victims, access to a phone might be controlled by their abusers. Photo / 123rf

The challenge for agencies like the Women's Refuge now is how to get to the victims who can't get to them.

Overseas, agencies have responded by telling victims to head to drugstores. In France, for example, victims are told if they can't talk openly, they can use the code word "mask 19", to the pharmacist. It was inspired by a similar scheme in Spain.

Women's Rights Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo said New Zealand urgently needed a such solutions.

"In extraordinary times like this, we need to be creative in how support is made easily accessible and affordable. Assuming that people can dial in for assistance from the comfort of their home is not helpful," she said.

Sumeo said she had met with Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Iain Lees-Galloway to talk about how to give women who were non-essential workers a pretence to get out - such as a letter from an employer asking them to work from a certain place for a half day, so they can make a plan.

"That's just one idea. A letter would still work if the abuser has the phone, or the car keys, or controls the internet," she said.

Advertisement

Sumeo also wanted to look at ways to provide more places for violent men.

Currently, if men are removed from the home under a Police Safety Order, they are placed in a motel for a five-day "cooling down" period.

Sumeo said that wasn't enough.

"What happens after five days? They go back to the same tense environment and you know what's going to happen," she said.

"We need to do better. I've been thinking about churches, mosques, we've got these venues. Maybe they could make it a short-term residential place to take men. We have to think creatively instead of waiting for Government."

The Herald understands the Government is working on ways to address the escalating domestic violence issue.

Advertisement

However the office of Parliamentary Under-Secretary Jan Logie, the lead minister on Domestic and Sexual Violence Issues, did not respond to requests for comment.

Jury said her fear was any change would take so long it would be too late.

She had been looking overseas for help - the day she spoke to the Herald she had been on a 1am webinar with agencies in countries across the world - to get a head start from countries further into lockdown restrictions, on the way it might play out here.

"What we are seeing on the ground is consistent, thus far, with what has occurred in other countries," she said.

"The trend that has been identified is a flurry of activity at the beginning of the lockdown, then a period of calm before things begin to pick up dramatically as lockdown provisions ease."

Jury compared lockdown to a "slow boil", which might ultimately lead to more severe incidents.

Advertisement

"If other countries were any indication, we are preparing for an intense need in the coming weeks."

Support services available:

• 211 Helpline (0800 211 211) – for help finding, and direct transfer to, community-based health and social support services in your area.

• Find your Local Women's Refuge by calling 0800 743 843 (0800 REFUGE) to be linked up with an advocate in your area.

• Victim Support – call 0800 842 846. 24-hour service for all victims of serious crime.

• Victim Information Line/Victim Centre – call 0800 650 654 or email victimscentre@justice.govt.nz.

• Shine domestic abuse services – free call 0508 744 633 (9am to 11pm) if you're experiencing domestic abuse, or want to know how to help someone else.

Advertisement

• Family violence information line – call 0800 456 450 to find out about local services or how to help someone near you.

• Elder Abuse Helpline – call 0800 32 668 65 (0800 EA NOT OK) - a 24-hour service answered by registered nurses who can connect to local elder abuse specialist providers.

• Tu Wahine Trust – call 09 838 8700 for kaupapa Māori counselling, therapy and support for survivors of sexual harm (mahi tukino) and violence within whānau.

• Shakti New Zealand – call 0800 742 584 for culturally competent support services for women, children and families of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin who have experienced domestic violence.

• Safe to Talk – sexual harm helpline. Call 0800 044 334, text 4334 or email support@safetotalk.nz.

• Rape Crisis Centres – call 0800 88 3300 for contact details of your local centre. Provides support for survivors of sexual abuse, their families, friends and whānau.

Advertisement

• Male Survivors Aotearoa New Zealand – call 0800 044 344. Offers one-to-one, peer and support groups for male survivors of sexual abuse and their significant others.

• Tu Wahine Trust – call 09 838 8700 for kaupapa Māori counselling, therapy and support for survivors of sexual harm (mahi tukino) and violence within whānau.

• ACC Sensitive Claims Unit – call 0800 735 566 for access to services related to sexual abuse or sexual assault.

• Hey Bro helpline – call 0800 HeyBro (0800 439 276). 24/7 help for men who feel they're going to harm a loved one or whānau member.

• Korowai Tumanoko – text or call 022 474 7044 for a kaupapa Māori service for those with concerning or harmful sexual behaviour.

• Stop – support for concerning or harmful sexual behaviour.

Advertisement

• Need to Talk? 1737 – free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

• Youthline – call 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

• Kidsline – call 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age (24-hour service).

• Skylight– call 0800 299 100 helping children, young people and their families and whānau through tough times of change, loss, trauma and grief.

• Oranga Tamariki – call 0508 325 459 (0508 FAMILY) or email contact@ot.govt.nz for concerns about children and young people.