Aboriginal Domestic Violence Workers Speak Out on the Impacts of COVID-19
Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialists supporting women and their children across NSW are speaking out today in a report which shows Indigenous women and children are being put at further risk of violence due to social isolation measures.
About the Report
The report pulls together the views and perspectives of 16 Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialists who support women following a police incident in NSW as well as through Local Court where apprehended violence orders or domestic violence charges are laid. There are 22 of these workers right across NSW whose primary role is to ensure culturally safe and accessible specialist responses to the more than 6,000 Aboriginal women supported through this pathway every year.
“This is really a first,” says Ash Johnstone, Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialist for Illawarra Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service and Women’s Safety NSW Spokesperson for Indigenous Women. “It’s so important that we hear the voices of Aboriginal specialist domestic violence workers at this time, as we’re in the best possible position to advise on what’s really going on for the women we’re supporting and what’s needed to better assist them in achieving safety.”
Nearly half (43%) of the Aboriginal Specialist Workers surveyed reported an increase in the number of clients during COVID-19, a fact that Johnstone called “extremely worrying”.
“The numbers show that Indigenous women are experiencing higher rates of domestic and family violence. For example, we know that Indigenous women are up to 5 times more likely to experience domestic and family violence or be killed in a domestic homicide than non-Indigenous women. We are also hospitalised at more than 35 times the rate of non-Indigenous women as a result of domestic violence related injury, so any increase in rates beyond this already high base is extremely worrying.”
The report also found more than half (56%) of Aboriginal Specialist Workers surveyed noted an increase in the complexity of client needs during lock-down, with 50% also noting COVID-19-specific abuse related to matters such as financial pressures, having children at home or other stresses. 56% observed Indigenous women deprioritising their own safety over basic needs like housing and income at this time.
“For so many of our Indigenous clients, the focus has been on keeping everything going, keeping the family together and keeping up with home-schooling. People losing their jobs has also been a really common feature. We are seeing that women are having to choose between leaving a DV situation to be safe or having a roof over their heads and food for her children” says Johnstone.
Unique issues facing Indigenous women experiencing violence were picked up in the report such as Indigenous women’s inability to connect with the community at this time as well as a lack of transport options hindering their ability to access traditionally relied upon supports.
“Spending time with our Aboriginal Community is exceptionally hard, with services closed and no transport available, and children are home. Clients have complex issues within their families and it’s harder than ever to [access] face-to-face [support] which is needed.” – Tess*, Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialist, Regional Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
A fear of engaging with police due to historical experiences may also be a barrier.
“[C]lients may need to seek support from [E]lders or community workers and this work is done normally [face-to-face] and having the real fear of travelling to see a worker would impact on the wellbeing of clients with a fear that the police may pull them over etc, these can raise some historical issues for clients and whether police would deal with appropriately is another thing.” – Annabel*, Aboriginal and Youth-Focused Case Worker, Outer Metropolitan Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
It[’]s important to remember that young people often aren’t safe in their own home and often seek support from their peers and this may raise some concerns for young people as they can no longer move freely in the community without a fear of police questioning them.” – Annabel*, Aboriginal and Youth-Focused Case Worker, Outer Metropolitan Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
Another issue which has been a significant barrier to Indigenous women seeking safety has been the health concerns related to COVID-19.
“It is very hard to advise someone on how to be safe, when they are essentially trapped in their homes with perpetrators….Aboriginal women must choose whether to face COVID-19 or to face their abusive family member” – Katherine * Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialist, Regional Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
What action is needed?
The report calls for an urgent response to address what have been described as “critical” service gaps for Indigenous women and their children who are at the highest risk of domestic and family violence, more than any other group.
First and foremost, Indigenous domestic and family violence case workers must be funded in every geographical area of the state.
“Indigenous specific domestic and family violence case management was the number one recommendation of our Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialists, with 92% agreeing this was the most urgent need”, says Johnstone.
“We need the funding to case manage our clients. If we don’t, often our clients fall through the cracks. Our clients build trust with us, it can be hard to find culturally appropriate services, plus with COVID-19, services which support our clients are limited”, says Tracey Turner Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialist for Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
“[B]eing able to walk alongside all Aboriginal women is essential. We need to be able to provide continuity throughout the justice system and every step of the way. Case management would provide Aboriginal women with culturally appropriate support and ensure that they are able to tell their story and feel safe and supported whilst doing so”, says Stevie-Lee Molina, Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialist for Hunter Valley Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
Additionally, Aboriginal Domestic and Family Violence Specialists regarded ongoing accommodation and cultural support for Indigenous workers to be essential for any meaningful approach to tackling violence against Indigenous women and their children.
“We have an incredibly important message for policy makers and for our communities. COVID-19 has created unique and unprecedented challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but those hardest hit have been our women and children who have been subjected to high rates and more severe violence, with fewer means to obtain safety and support” says Johnstone. “It is vital that those in power listen to the Aboriginal Specialist Workers who are supporting Indigenous women and their children through this time. We need you to work with us to make these support services more safe, more accessible, and more holistic, so women and children can have the safe home and the safe life they deserve.”
Download full media release HERE.