The pressure of quarantine on family violence rates – Expert Reaction

Support services have raised alarm bells over the lockdown, saying it could spark more cases of family violence in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this afternoon that nearly half of the $27 million allocated for NGOs and community groups had been allocated to support essential family and sexual violence services, including one-off grants to groups like Women’s Refuge.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the effect of lockdown on family violence.

Dr Denise Wilson, Professor Māori Health, Taupua Waiora Māori Research Centre, AUT University:

“In times of stress, family violence flourishes within our communities. Unfortunately, the strategies we need to take as a country to contain the spread of COVID-19 within Aotearoa has created the perfect storm for family violence to occur.

“COVID-19 has created a time of uncertainty for all of us. We do not know with any certainty what will happen in the future. Many people are losing income and jobs, which further increases their stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Our daily sense of normality has suddenly gone, and our world has shrunk to the size of our house.

“Added to all of this, confinement to our homes 24/7 forces us to be in prolonged and close contact with our family and whānau. No longer do we have the option of escape to work, the gym or other outlets when we are stressed.

“The COVID-19 lockdown has forced us all into our mirumiru (bubble) – our world has shrunk around us considerably and rapidly. While some people can cope with the change of this magnitude, some whānau struggle, this is the time when everyone needs to talk, listen carefully to one another, and work out how they will signal to one another they need space.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I research in the area of family violence and currently hold the role of Deputy Chair for the Family Violence Prevention Expert Advisory Committee.”

Dr Kiri Edge, researcher, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, comments:

“The current COVID-19 situation in Aotearoa is likely to have severe implications within households already vulnerable or isolated in some way, including those where family harm or violence is present. Life stressors, (including those specific to COVID-19 and more general) in conjunction with mandatory self-isolation, are likely to elevate and exacerbate family harm and violence, in terms of both incidence rates and the severity of violence.

“Self-isolation also means that for members of households where family violence is present, there is no reprieve or access to ‘safe’ spaces, including school or work. This means that the direct and indirect impacts of family harm and violence are likely to be severe and traumatic. In speaking to colleagues from within the family violence sector, some have noted a reduction in reports of family violence. However, it is thought the reduction reflects a decrease in reporting, with family violence likely to be continuing if not accelerating.

“The family violence sector is currently preparing for what is anticipated to be a dramatic spike in incidents of family violence. Some within the sector have also reported an increase in new cases, with people who might not normally engage in family violence, including conflict arising directly from the current COVID-19 situation. Crisis accommodation remains an urgent need, and one that is proving increasingly difficult with our current lockdown. Families also urgently need resources such as food, food vouchers, petrol vouchers, healthcare and hygiene items and entertainment activities (including games, art and craft supplies and sports equipment). Community providers are unable to access some of these resources, as many of the retailers are closed due to lockdown.

“As emphasised by many of my colleagues, it remains imperative that we work with, and support, families as a whole unit. This is a crucial aspect of our ability to support and care for people, and their families and communities through these unprecedented times, and also beyond.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Janet Fanslow, School of Population Health, University of Auckland; Co-Director, New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, comments:

“The COVID-19 pandemic brings specific risks around family violence. The pandemic conditions do not cause violence, but can mean abusers have more opportunities to perpetrate violence. Self-isolation can mean the risk of escalated or more severe violence from a partner. Victims may also experience challenges to connecting with supportive people or accessing help in usual ways.

“Family and sexual violence services are essential services and remain available at Alert Level 4, even if services need to be delivered in different ways. Specialist family violence and sexual violence services, NGOs, communities and government agencies are working together to provide information and services. If you or someone else is in danger, ask for help. Helplines are available. Talk to friends, whānau and neighbours if you need support, or to see if they need help.

“The New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse has established a special COVID-19 section of our website to help people access essential information on family, whānau and sexual violence. This includes information on how to help if you are concerned about someone.”

No conflict of interest.