15 Apr 2020

Domestic violence: 'If that bubble is unsafe you leave'

12:18 pm on 15 April 2020

The number of urgent protection orders being issued has dramatically halved during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Dr Ang Jury CEO of Women's Refuge

Dr Ang Jury says she doubts New Zealand has become a peaceful place for women during the lockdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Ministry of Justice data obtained by RNZ shows without-notice protection orders made in the Family Court dropped by 49 percent in the first week of lockdown.

Without-notice protection orders are an urgent measure to keep someone safe that don't require notifying a violent person before they're made.

There was a weekly average of 108 urgent protection order applications to the Family Court in the month leading up to the lockdown.

This number dramatically dropped to just 55 in the first week of alert level 4 as the government imposed lockdown restrictions across the country.

Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury said the drop is deeply concerning and by no means a reflection of what's really going on.

"I simply can't believe that all of a sudden New Zealand has become a peaceful place for women in their homes. It defies reason to think that all of a sudden everybody who had been in that sort of situation is now safe."

Dr Jury said protective factors like jobs, kids being in school and contact with friends and family all but disappeared when the country went into lockdown.

She said similar trends are being seen in other countries like Australia and parts of Europe that demonstrate it's harder for victims to ask for help during the pandemic.

"They've all started to see a flattening, if not a decrease, in the number of people reaching out for help which has got everyone really quite worried.

"It's much harder to call for help when the person who you want help from is in the same house as you."

Ebborn Law's principal lawyer Erin Ebborn said there had been a noticeable drop in protection order referrals which did not gel with the expected rise in family harm events.

"My experience as a family lawyer is that when there is stress it unfortunately coincides with an increase in family violence so I'm worried there's been less applications filed."

Ebborn said the drop off was particularly concerning because past events, like the Christchurch earthquakes, had proven services were needed more - not less - during major disruptive change.

She said it was possible people weren't asking for help because they didn't realise police, lawyers, social services and courts were still running as essential services.

Help available in situations of family violence

Women's Refuge: (0800 733 843)

It's Not OK (0800 456 450)

Shine: 0508 744 633

Victim Support: 0800 650 654

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): be 04 801 6655 - 0

The National Network of Family Violence Services NZ has information on specialist family violence agencies.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the drop in applications wasn't the full story and people should take care reading too much into it.

"There's other information that tells us a different story. We know that there's been a 19 percent increase in reported family harm incidents to the police; not all of them are serious but they are family harm incidents nonetheless.

"We know that police safety orders have remained largely the same since the lockdown period and we know from the frontline agencies that they are reporting an observed increase in the number of family harm incidents."

The police signalled they expected to see a spike in domestic violence at the start of the lockdown but admit they haven't seen a significant increase in callouts under alert level 4.

RNZ asked the police what steps they'd taken - out of normal procedure - to ensure people could still ask for help during lockdown but this question remains unanswered.

Safety comes first, police say

In a statement, Assistant Commissioner Sandra Venables said police accept it may be harder for some people to contact them during the lockdown and gave this advice.

"If people are in immediate danger and they cannot call 111, they should leave their bubble to get out of harm's way.

"Get to a safe distance and then ask a neighbour over a fence, or a passer-by, to call 111 for you. Your safety comes first."

Venables said it was everyone's responsibility to keep each other safe and people were encouraged to speak up for friends or neighbours if they had concerns.

The Aunties founder and head aunty Jackie Clark lived in an abusive relationship with her husband for 28 years.

She said the best way to approach someone you are concerned about is with love and kindness, not judgement.

"The biggest thing about being in an abusive relationship is the shame and guilt, it carries a tremendous amount of shame.

"So being in lockdown with somebody who is abusing you, you're just going to go further into that shame."

Clark said violence could be physical, psychological or financial and she was particularly concerned about victims who normally escaped abuse through their day jobs.

"If you're in a situation which is abusive, where somebody is telling you how to think or feel and they're making you responsible for how they think and feel you don't have to be there. You deserve better."

Assistant Commissioner Sandra Venables and Aunties founder and head aunty Jackie Clark

Sandra Venables, left, and Jackie Clark. Photo: RNZ / Jo Galvin / The Wireless

Dr Jury said it was important people realised the lockdown hadn't changed the help available to victims of family violence.

"Just because we're in lockdown, just because we're all tucked away in these tiny little bubbles, there is nothing in that lockdown that says that bubble has to be unsafe. So if that bubble is unsafe you leave that bubble."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

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