COVID-19: The bystander role has never been more critical in calling out family violence

Monash University

By Silke Meyer and Kate Fitz-Gibbon

The Australian government’s response to the COVID-19 health crisis has placed households into physical isolation across all states and territories. As anticipated, these policies have resulted in an increased prevalence of family violence (FV).

This was expected as a result of additional household stressors identified as risk factors for FV, such as loss of employment and family income, increased alcohol use among household members, closure of schools and extracurricular activities, and family members being forced to spend increasing amounts of time together.

While these are risk factors associated with an onset or escalation of FV in and of itself, the isolation policies implemented at state and federal level have further increased opportunities of coercive and controlling behaviours for perpetrators who were already controlling victims’ whereabouts, telephone conversations, and access to social media.

Never has it been easier than right now for a controlling partner to completely isolate their victim.

While Australia, along with other countries, reported an initial increase in FV and related support needs, we are now starting to see a drop in calls to support services and first responders, including the police and FV specialist services.

This is to be expected during a time where family members are being isolated together, as it has dramatically increased perpetrators’ ability to monitor a partner’s actions, and thus drastically reduced victims’ privacy.

The recently reported decrease in help-seeking, particularly by women and children, during a time of identified heightened risk for families affected by FV suggests that as isolation continues, vulnerable family members become increasingly invisible.

In addition to victims’ proactive help-seeking being significantly restricted, families are also becoming increasingly invisible to external support sources that were previously in a position to pick up on cues or warning signs (such as co-workers, teachers, and maternal child health nurses).

On the other hand, family life has become more visible – or at least audible – to other community members. Neighbours have never before played such a critical "bystander" role as they do during periods of households’ physical isolation.

With all individuals being increasingly directed to stay home, neighbours will likely witness warning signs of FV that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. For some households the warning signs may be new, arising from an accumulation of family stressors. For others, existing FV may be exacerbated by current stressors, leading to an increased risk for women and children’s safety in the home.

The importance of bystanders during COVID-19

Bystanders, including family, friends, neighbours and co-workers, have always played a key role in supporting victims of FV and facilitating help-seeking.

Research has repeatedly shown that these informal sources of support are often the first point of contact for FV victims. Bystanders can play a substantial role in encouraging or discouraging further disclosures of FV. At the same time, however, research has identified that many bystanders, while concerned for their neighbour, friends or family member, feel helpless as to how to respond to witnessing or suspecting FV.

During this time of physical isolation, it's reasonable to expect that neighbours will overhear FV, including belittling or humiliating behaviour ,as well as episodes of physical violence.

In their brief interactions with women and children outside the house, neighbours may also witness body language that suggests fear and reflects the daily reality of "walking on eggshells". In more overt cases, neighbours may observe bruises and physical injuries as victims leave the house for essential tasks.

It's critically important to equip bystanders with the necessary knowledge and confidence as how to respond or where to seek help.

Existing services and campaigns

Australia has seen a number of excellent examples of bystander awareness-raising campaigns, including Victoria’s Respect Women: Call it Out campaign and Queensland’s #dosomething campaign. The lessons from these campaigns, however, are limited in the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves.

These campaigns are aimed at bystander interventions to FV in settings where public life and social contact with family, friends and neighbours was unrestricted. The current situation creates a range of challenges for bystander interventions in the community.

Yet bystanders, in particular neighbours, will become the best bet for many victims who require support but cannot and/or don’t know how to seek help. With everyday exposure to what goes on in the household across the fence or in the apartment next door, the bystander responsibility of neighbours will reach a new level. In turn, this significantly increases the need to support, inform and upskill all potential bystanders in the Australian community.

Governments must play a key role in ensuring these support needs are met.

There are no specific services available in Australia to address bystander questions, and enhance the potential effectiveness of individual bystander interventions. This has repeatedly been identified as a barrier to bystanders facilitating access to support for victims of FV.

Many FV specialist services are set up to provide crisis support and advice to those immediately affected, rather than those concerned for another person’s safety. Services, such as 1800 RESPECT, provide support and information to any caller regarding FV.

There's a need for a dedicated bystander information service. During this time of heightened risk, this will avoid overburdening existing FV helplines while also serving to promote the importance of bystander support.

What Australian governments must do

The Australian government has already announced increased investment in existing resources. This is good, but unfortunately will not be enough. State and territory governments must develop new and innovative responses to address known gaps in system responses to family violence.

1. It's essential that governments support enhanced understandings of FV, its warning signs, and its risk of escalation, among potential bystanders – that is, everyone in the community.

This can be done in a range of ways, through the streaming of existing awareness-raising campaigns that have been previously used to enhance awareness and understanding of FV among the general public. This is an immediate and cost-effective strategy that will assist many community members to feel more confident to observe and identify a range of warning signs among family, friends and neighbours. Without an increased understanding of the range of behaviours that constitute family violence and the various manifestations of abuse, these warning signs will go unnoticed during the current period of isolation.

A family violence-specific public awareness campaign, akin to the current "checking in" messages for elderly neighbours and family, will remind all Australians that it's everyone’s responsibility to "do something" to ensure the safety of Australian women and children.

2. Governments must address the critical gap in services available to support bystander intervention by introducing a dedicated bystander helpline.

While calling the police in emergency situations may seem an obvious option for most neighbours, there will be various indicators of FV that will raise bystander concerns without the individual knowing how to act on that concern. Providing a support and information service specific to bystanders is a critical need to enhance women and children’s safety, and maximise opportunities to connect those at risk with appropriate support and services.

We call on the Australian federal and state governments to invest in establishing a dedicated bystander helpline, staffed with FV specialist workers, to assist those who will inevitably become witness to FV in their community with support and information.

As a community, we cannot expect every neighbour to know what to do or where to generate specific support for someone affected by FV. But wherever possible we need to upskill bystanders to know how to act when they suspect that someone is affected by FV. Remote access to a helpline that provides information and supports bystanders who may be distressed by their growing suspicions of victimisation in neighbouring homes will achieve this. Through the helpline, practitioners can facilitate support mechanisms for affected households.

The need for such a service has never been so evident than in the current environment.

For a list of services available for persons experiencing, or at risk of, family violence, please visit the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre website.

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