The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has released another report into whether domestic violence has increased in NSW as a result of COVID-19.
BOCSAR’s problematic conclusion- no increase in actual domestic violence?
Once again, the agency claims there is “no evidence” to suggest social isolation measures have increased domestic violence. To reach this conclusion, a reliance is placed upon reported incidents of domestic violence related assaults, a portion of domestic violence related police call outs, calls to the NSW Domestic Violence Line (up 24% but as part of a continuing trend) and the compliance checks being undertaken by NSW Police of Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs).
The report does note the possibility of an increase in domestic violence being “masked by isolation strategies affecting victim willingness or ability to seek assistance from police” but goes on to conclude this to be unlikely as the most serious forms of physical domestic violence (i.e. murder and assault resulting in grievous bodily harm) which are assumed less sensitive to discretionary reporting, had not increased.
It is noted that the sample size relied upon for these measures are extremely small. Two domestic murders in April 2019 compared to one domestic murder in April 2020. Twenty-eight (28) domestic related grievous bodily harms in April 2019 compared to 27 in April 2020.
“It’s not a lot to hang your hat on” says Hayley Foster, Women’s Safety NSW chief executive officer. “Our concern is that BOCSAR is really going beyond its brief here in making a determination as to whether there has in fact been an increase in domestic violence or not.”
Foster says it is entirely valid for BOCSAR to report upon domestic violence related police incidents, charges, ADVO compliance and calls to the Domestic Violence Line. However, it was not appropriate for the agency to then be drawing conclusions to whether there was in fact an increase in violence and abuse going on behind closed doors.
Who is qualified to make an assessment as to whether domestic violence is actually increasing?
“As assessment of this manner would require much more qualitative data and specialist expertise” says Foster. “Everyone with specialist expertise who is working with women, children and families impacted by domestic and family violence knows that the conditions of social isolation have increased risk for victims whilst at the same time reducing their ability to reach out for help.”
Women’s Safety NSW has been consulting with its membership who are frontline specialist women’s domestic and family violence services in every metropolitan, regional, rural and remote location in NSW throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and has producing a series of reports and briefing papers as to the impacts for women, children and families experiencing domestic and family violence at this time.
“What frontline specialist domestic and family violence workers have been reporting is an increased incidence and severity of violence but a reluctance and a lack of opportunity to connect with support through the lock-down” says Foster. “And now, we are seeing more women coming out of the woodwork and planning exit strategies which we know to be a really high-risk time.”
What is the risk of getting it wrong?
Women’s Safety NSW notes that there may be unintended consequences of drawing erroneous conclusions as to the actual incidence of domestic and family violence at this critical time. “This is not the time to be getting these details wrong” says Foster. “If policymakers, the Parliament and the general public are led to believe that there is nothing to see here when it comes to the domestic and family violence impacts of COVID-19 then the risk is that the measures we urgently need to take to save lives are left by the wayside.”
Still some lessons
Nevertheless, Women’s Safety NSW points out that data presented in the BOCSAR report does still lead to some useful questions for policy makers in the field of domestic and family violence. Firstly, why are victims of domestic and family violence not reporting when we know they are at greater risk? Secondly, why hasn’t the NSW Domestic Violence Line seen the same relative increases in demand as other domestic and family violence helplines around the country at this time?
After the BOCSAR report was released, Women’s Safety NSW conducted a snap survey with 34 victim-survivors of domestic and family violence. It asked: “Have you ever experienced domestic and family violence and not reported it to police?” All but one (or 97%) of them said “Yes”. Indeed, 16 (or 47%) of them said they had experience suffering a significant physical injury from domestic and family violence and not reporting it to police, and 11 (32%) of them even said they had presented to hospital or a GP after sustaining a significant physical injury from domestic and family violence, but when they did so, did not disclose the real cause of the injury. In the words of one victim-survivor: “Not just once, but most acts of violence were not reported to police or at a hospital due to fear of retaliation from the perpetrator. I’m free of the violence now but I imagine it’s worse now that there is no escape due to Covid 19”. Another said “After police have failed to charge for previous breaches, I don’t see why I should bother. I feel much worse when I turn to police for support and am ignored.”
Women’s Safety NSW are also concerned that victims of domestic and family violence in NSW have not been given enough information about where they can go to get help and don’t have all the safe means of doing so that people have in other jurisdictions.
“We want to see more advertising of the Domestic Violence Line. Other states have invested in this quicker and more intensively and they are seeing a much greater increase in calls to their helplines,” says Foster. “We also want victims of domestic and family violence in NSW to be given the option of accessing help online through webchat. We’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of victims accessing help in this way in other jurisdictions and we want this to be available in NSW too.”