Three weeks into the job and Domestic Violence Crisis Service's new chief executive is bracing for the impact of coronavirus on her clients.
The service has already seen a 27 per cent jump in contacts in March. Over the past week, clients had reported higher than usual escalations of violence and property damage due to the stress of coronavirus and social isolation.
Chief executive Sonia Di Mezza is concerned abusers might deny medical attention for people who have symptoms of the virus or who are otherwise unwell. She's also worried what impact the home delivery of alcohol could have on vulnerable populations.
Ms Di Mezza said while a large portion of the community consumes alcohol responsibly, and alcohol is not the cause of domestic violence, it can contribute to risk and escalation of violence.
Clients have already started reporting an increase in alcohol consumption, she said.
Ms Di Mezza said the service had experienced "a significant jump" in client demand between January and February, and that had increased this month. In January the service responded to just more than 9000 contacts with clients, and in February that number was 11,200.
"March does not appear to be slowing down," Ms Di Mezza said.
Countries in lockdown have recorded an increase in domestic and family violence and the ACT government is wary of how the situation could unfold here.
Ms Di Mezza said heightened emotions and added pressures could lead to an increase in frequency or severity of violence at home.
"This is especially concerning for people who are required to self-isolate or quarantine," Ms Di Mezza said.
It's important to continue to engage with friends and family, even if that has to be virtually, she said.
"This supports our mental health and helps to keep complete social isolation at bay. We know that isolation is often a tool used by people who use violence as a way to exert power and control over their partner. Now that many people are required to isolate or distance themselves, we do have real concerns about how this might end up looking in a few weeks or months and as this situation continues to unfold."
"We are bracing for what we anticipate to be a very busy time, now and into the immediate future."
Ms Di Mezza said while the organisation will continue to provide essential support for women and children, they have cancelled fundraising events in response to coronavirus.
Ms Di Mezza was appointed chief executive of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service after forging a career in ensuring access to human rights.
She wanted to be part of the organisation that "makes a tremendous, positive difference in the lives of people [ in Canberra]".
"We hope the growth in terms of attention on this issue and funding continues and it doesn't just respond to horrific and tragic events that occur that people become aware of in the news but that there is an ongoing commitment to ensuring the funding increases and the programs are expanded," she said.
A spokeswoman for the ACT Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Yvette Berry, said reports from China and South Korea suggest that domestic violence cases have increased as people have been quarantined during the COVID-19 outbreak.
"There is a risk that the enforced isolation required to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus will contribute to triggering and exacerbating domestic violence," the spokeswoman said.
"The safety of women and children is still absolutely a priority for the ACT government.
"ACT government is working with Domestic Violence Crisis Service, women's refuges and other service providers to ensure that supports remain available for those experiencing domestic and family violence."
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact DVCS for support on 6280 0900 or visit www.dvcs.org.au. In an emergency phone Triple-0.
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