Services supporting victims of domestic violence are expecting a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking help as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease.
While these essential services were and are still ready and available to help women during the pandemic, Canberra's Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates said victims were likely to have been lied to about the extent of the shutdown by their abuser, or been under constant surveillance and unable to leave the home or call for help.
"Social isolation has long been a technique used by abusers to prevent their victims from having contact with the outside world and family and friends," Ms Yates said.
"And all the additional financial pressures of the pandemic, in terms of people losing access to steady employment and steady income and that contributing to the pressure cooker of circumstances in which someone might be more likely to use violence."
Ms Yates said victims of abuse often disclose abuse to health professionals that they have an existing relationship with, but many of those services have moved into telehealth environments or are unavailable for face to face visits.
Domestic Violence Crisis Services chief executive Sonia Di Mezza said they hadn't experienced a significant change in the number of people seeking help but they have noticed more people engaging with them via online chat and email.
Ms Di Mezza said there has been an increase in the severity of physical violence being experienced by victims who contact the service, and an increase in the number of people wishing to remain anonymous.
Typically, anonymous clients haven't yet separated from their partner but might be planning to leave, and trying to find out what support is available to them if they do so they can be prepared if they need a quick escape.
While some countries in Europe have introduced a codeword system for victims of violence to use at pharmacies to allow workers to alert police, this hasn't been introduced broadly in an Australian context.
People should stay home to stay safe but if home is not safe for you, you can leave and there are support services ready to help you with that.ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates
Ms Yates said we need to be learning from other jurisdictions and other countries to offer the broadest response, but the worst possible outcome for any new initiative would be if someone seeks help and doesn't receive the right response.
"I'd be interested to know more about the evaluation of the [codeword] approach," Ms Yates said.
"We would have to tread carefully with any new initiative to make sure the response is consistent and safe."
Ms Yates said she's has clients in situations where they've asked for help in the past and been told the violence doesn't sound too bad, and they should wait until their kids are older to escape.
Codewords are used in individual cases by the Domestic Violence Crisis Service when it has been pre-arranged by the support person and their client.
"A code word is usually used because a person cannot safely speak freely, Ms Di Mezza said.
"If there were to be a media campaign with a commonly known codeword, this could actually create greater risk to the person experiencing violence if they were to say it in front of the person impacting their safety."
The crisis service last year introduced an online chat facility on their website, and a few weeks ago launched a dedicated SMS number (0421 268 492).
"This is in addition to already being available by telephone, email, social media, in person and via a confidential contact form on our website."
"When COVID-related restrictions were introduced we commenced offering video conferencing which we have maintained."
Australian Women Against Violence Alliance program manager Merrindahl Andrew said they had discussed the codeword system within the national alliance but they didn't feel it would be worthwhile.
"Codewords, if they're to be communicated very broadly, are likely to be seen by perpetrators of family violence as well," Ms Andrew said.
"Codewords can be quite useful when they're set up specifically between a victim survivor and a support worker or family or friend, to alert that support person that a certain step might be taken if that's been agreed on beforehand."
Ms Andrew said as people are being encouraged to stay home more to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it was important to check in on friends, family and neighbours to ensure they were safe at home.
"We encourage people to equip themselves to identify those signs of violence and take steps to support their friends and family members, particularly when people might have less ability than usual to reach out to services," she said.
"There's always more violence than is reported. ANROWS, Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, says that 82 per cent of people who experience intimate partner violence never report it to police, that's an indication of how vast the underreporting is. On top of that, the COVID-context would be stopping people from reaching out for help with their safety."
Ms Andrew said across Australia their members are concerned there will be a big need for crisis response and long term recovery support.
"Some of our members are already reporting increases in help seeking with even the slight easing of restrictions that we've seen so far.
"The ongoing emergency of domestic and family violence is something that pre-dated the pandemic, and the pandemic has exacerbated it."
Ms Andrew said it has added an additional layer of complexity to the ongoing process of arguing for women's safety to be prioritised.
- ACT domestic violence crisis line: 6280 0900; in other states and territories call 1800 RESPECT.