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Border shutdowns play into hands of domestic violence bullies

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Queensland’s border shutdown is leading to domestic violence perpetrators increasingly using COVID-related threats and restrictions to coerce, control and restrict the movements of their victims, with domestic violence services across Queensland predicting a surge in calls for help once restrictions ease.

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As the pandemic and its shutdowns continue to impact the risk and number of domestic and family violence cases, a trend has emerged directly linking State Government announcements on border controls and public health restrictions with an immediate bump in calls to domestic violence hotlines from men.

Queensland’s leading domestic and family violence hotline and counselling service, DVConnect, said calls to its Mensline peaked within 48 hours of the government imposing new border controls.

The DVConnect Mensline is for men using violence or experiencing violence in a relationship.

DVConnect CEO Beck O’Connor said border shutdowns led to the number of calls to the Mensline doubling, with men largely wanting to find out the implications for them and their partner of the border slamming shut.

“We have seen a number of spikes in demand for the Mensline, often aligned with times where there has been an escalation in social distancing restrictions or significant COVID-19-related public updates,” O’Connor said.

“Within 48-hour periods of COVID-related announcements, the incoming calls peaked to be upwards of double compared to a normal day on the Mensline.”

She said referrals from police regarding men who were using violence had jumped state-wide.

Police referrals to the Mensline had increased by 1430 cases or more than 100 per cent from 1,119 in 2019 to 2,549 between January and April this year.

On top of those figures, Mensline had received 140 direct referrals from the police Vulnerable Persons Unit between 1 January and 17 June this year, she said.

“DVConnect Mensline are also seeing an increase in the number of complex clients we are being referred,” O’Connor said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, significant concerns have emerged about the heightened risk of family and domestic violence for women and children.

Among these are reports of perpetrators “weaponising children” by using children and the threat of COVID-19 infection to gain access to women, to force them to share a house with their abuser instead of living separately, and to control access to children.

In Queensland, the State Government has embedded extra domestic violence workers at five police stations across the south-east, including two on the Gold Coast on top of an existing squad of DV specialists, as a result of a rise in domestic violence calls to police during the pandemic.

The Government is also facing pressure to criminalise coercive control, which includes domestic abuse behaviours such as isolating, degrading and manipulating victims through financial, emotional and sexual abuse.

The calls come six months after Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered on a suburban Brisbane street by Ms Clarke’s estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, with evidence suggesting Clarke was subject to a long history of coercive abuse by Baxter.

In Victoria, despite the state’s strict COVID-19 lockdown to flatten the spiralling death toll of the virus’s second-wave, Victorians under threat of family violence are being reminded domestic abuse is one reason to leave home.

“If you are experiencing family violence, if you are unsafe in your home, it is perfectly legitimate to leave,” Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence Gabrielle Williams said.

O’Connor said demand for services from women across Queensland had remained steady, which meant the helpline averaged around one call for help every seven minutes, increasing to one call for help every three minutes during busy periods.

About 35 families, of women with children, were currently in emergency accommodation waiting to access a safe refuge vacancy, she said.

But she said the pandemic was making it more difficult to help women, including cuts in public transport options to and from regional or remote areas, general restrictions on travel, and limitations around where women could access face-to-face counselling sessions or other services.

“We are anticipating a possible surge in demand once the restrictions are further relaxed and people have increased opportunities to confidentially contact us,” she said.

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