Family Violence & COVID-19: A conversation with Rita Butera, CEO of Safe Steps – Podcast Episode 3

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way we live, socialise and work. While social isolation is proving critical to slowing the spread of the virus, the impact this will have on the Australian economy and community will likely be devastating. As we observe other countries’ experience of the pandemic around the world, family violence experts are advising that we will inevitably see a spike in the incidence of family violence.

In our second podcast, Andrea Bunn of Nicholes Family Lawyers speaks with Rita Butera, CEO of Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre. Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre is a non-for-profit organization providing essential services to women and children experiencing family violence in Victoria. In this pod cast, they address the service providers’ response to the pandemic, to reassure our community of the services available to help those experiencing family violence and encourage us all to reach out and support those in need during these trying times.

For more information about Safe Steps and the services they provide please visit the Safe Steps website at: www.safesteps.org.au/ or call their 24/7 emergency hotline on 1800 015 188.

 

Andrea:

Welcome everyone to the Nicholes Family Lawyers Podcast. My name is Andrea Bunn and I am a lawyer here at Nicholes Family Lawyers. I’m joined today by Rita Petera. Hi, Rita. How are you going?

Rita:

Andrea, good. Thank you.

Andrea: 

Rita is the CEO of safe steps Family Violence Response Center. Safe steps is a non-profit organization, providing services to women and children in Victoria experiencing family violence. To list just some of their services, they operate at 24 hour emergency hotline offering support information and referral pathways to callers. They offer emergency accommodation, clothing and basic necessities for women and children who flee their home, so t’s a really important service. Not only that, but they also place social workers in Melbourne and Dandenong Family Law and Magistrates’ Court to provide support to women through the court process, which can be quite traumatizing. I provided you with just a snapshot of what this amazing service provides the Victorian Community, but I guess the key things that we want to talk to today and to provide information to the public is obviously in the wake, the current covid-19 pandemic. All of our lives have been upended. We’re all experiencing school closes and businesses closing down and widespread job loss, which is quite unnerving and creating a lot of anxiety in our community. But on top of that, family violence experts are advising that we will be seeing a spike or likely we will see a spike in incidents of family violence. This is largely a result of increased social isolation and financial pressures that are being exerted on our community at large. So I mean, obviously it goes without saying, family violence is never acceptable in any circumstances, but we can see that this will likely increase in coming weeks and months. Services like Safe Steps could become really important to our community and I wanted to talk to you, Rita, today, about how Safe Steps is meeting this challenge, but also how it meets this challenge while keeping its staff and everyone safe and healthy. So Rita, are you joining me from the safety of your own home, practicing social distancing?

Rita:

Very good. Thanks Andrea! Same to you. Practicing social distancing here. Although a lot of the Safe Step staff are still operating as usual in the workplace. So, we’ve got some teams off-site and some on-site.

Andrea:

So that leads straight into my first question to you, how is Safe Steps had to adapt its services in response to this pandemic? It’s obviously social distancing has impacted in how it operates, but if you could give us a bit of detail about how your services might have changed.

Rita:

I suppose safe steps in 2020 has been an interesting year with originally bushfires, and we saw an increase in family violence post bushfires. And so that’s sort of state also a bit of a peek. But we then hit 2020 COVID-19 and that’s actually created a probably unprecedented opportunity for us to see how do we work around this and how do we continue to provide services to women and children who are mainly in nee d. So the first thing I think that is really important to say is that Safe Steps is operating as usual in terms of the crisis phone line. The phones are working and it’s a 24/7 service. So I think it’s really important for everybody to understand that nothing has changed when it comes to the operation and we will continue to undertake risk assessments for women and children. We will continue to do safety plans for women and children and we will continue to find them emergency accommodation to keep them safe. Covid or no covid, we will deal with each case individually and we will make sure that all women and children have the safety that they need in their home or in an alternative arrangement.

Andrea:

I think that’s a fantastic message to get out. you’re not alone, you’re not alone in reaching out and accessing the services that are still operating and still there. As we talked about the emergency accommodation, has there been any redress to that – is emergency accommodation about to change, how its presented, or is it pretty much business as usual?

Rita:

We’re working pretty closely with the state government and there is an understanding and a recognition that there will be an impact on an emergency accommodation services and we’re very confident that they’ll be capacity to support women and children with the increase of the potential increased when we hit a peak, as a result of this. I think it’s really important to understand that we’ve had family violence. Family violence was a huge issue before this pandemic. We had a woman a week being murdered and children highly at risk with deaths every fortnight as well. So there’s the same reasons for family violence to continue in terms of some of the gender drivers of family violence, and we shouldn’t forget that. COVID-19 doesn’t cause family violence, but what we’re concerned about is the added barriers that are going to be in place for women who have been able to call us when they need help. With socially isolating in a home, we’ve already had calls from some women who have said they know they’re going to be locked in with their perpetrator and they’re frightened of what that might mean. There are issues around the challenges and coercive control that exists in the level of surveillance systems and how women will manage that when they’ve got no outlet as they have had in the past, for example going to school, going to the public library, those sorts of things, which gives them an opportunity to make a call or to get help. So we recognize that that’s an added barrier for women in seeking safety. We’re very concerned about that more than anything. We’re working very closely with the police to look at what that might mean in practice as we’re all learning. I think we’re all going to be adjusting because we don’t really know what we’re in for. We have heard of terrible increases in some countries of rates of family violence, and we expect that many more will come to us when it’s a triple O-type call, and that the police and other agencies will be the one making the referrals when women are not able to. We will be relying much more on messages to families, friends and the community in general, whether it’s in the legal profession, whether it’s in the health profession, whether it’s in a hospital setting. Talking to experts about the situation that women and children might be in, knowing that they may not have an opportunity to seek help in any other way. So friends, families and others can actually call Safe Steps as well. And we can look at how we can implement some strategies to address some of those problems.

Andrea:

I think that’s a really great point, Rita. To touch on that, while we are obviously as a community experiencing further isolation, it is also a perfect opportunity for us all to step up and be more vigilant and check in on our family and friends who might be likely experiencing family violence or having a tough time, and really ensure that we do still keep our sense of community its this really unsettling time. I think that’s really important message.

Rita:

Absolutely. And we also have an e-mail. People can e-mail us. If women and children are more comfortable emailing or if there is less risk, we recognize that making a call to us when the perpetrator is in the room is very dangerous. So what we’ve also done is we’ve updated our website and people can go to the Safe Steps website, and we have some information there around COVID-19, but also some additional safety planning that can be taken into account with regard to the current climate.

Andrea: 

Fantastic. Visitors can also access the link to the Safe Steps website from this podcast. I also want to talk about what the government announced, I believe it was last weekend, that it would be dedicating significant funds. One hundred and fifty million to telephone counselling services specifically related to family violence. Will this financial relief make its way to Safe Steps and is it enough?

Rita:

Well, I think it’s good to see this level of commitment and I think the added money coming also from the state government increases the support provided to address some of these problems. We understand that the majority of those funds will be going to telephone counselling services at 1800RESPECT and Mens Line. I also think there will be some kind of campaign that will come about through these funds. The detail is still not understood. Safe Steps partners with 1800RESPECT. We also provide that service with the specialist trauma counselling service. Safe Steps is a young risk partner with 1800RESPECT. So, we expect that there could be some flow through particularly in the specialist counselling of some of the service. However, we don’t know how that might look.

Rita:

I think the challenge for us is that the crisis service is very dependent on state government funds and we expect some additional support from state government to assist us in ramping up or in addressing any kind of workarounds that we have to do in our work to continue to operate. You see it’s not going to be two or three weeks, it’s going to be a long time. It’s going to be a long haul. So it’s really important that we look after our own staff, and do that well because our staff are working on those phone lines and  also needing to comply with social distancing, and the health and wellbeing of our staff is critical. We’re doing everything we can possibly do to make sure that our staff know how important they are and that they are supported in their work every single day, because it’s a 24/7 service as well. In terms of anxiety, there are a lot of people experiencing anxiety across the community and I think it’s really important that the message we give is that we are here to provide support and answer the call. It is business as usual, and COVID-19 will not impact on the quality or the level of service that we can provide at this stage. We are working very closely with Family Safety Victoria through this process, and with their support we meet very regularly with them to manage our business continuity plans, which is a dynamic document that changes every week. We are working together so that they understand what our needs are as well. And they are very keen to support us in maintaining our full operation, even though we really don’t know its extent or impact.

Andrea:

It’s evolving constantly from a health perspective and from an economic perspective, but it’s these assurances that people really need. If they’re feeling that they might need help, there are services that they can reach out to, make the call or send the email, because no one is going to be left behind. We’ve talked about the support being delivered by the government, what about the public? There are people sitting at home who want to do more to help and are in a position to help, or it may not be the case that they can, but is there anything as members of the public that we can do to support our community and maybe your organization?

Rita:

Well, I think that if the message is somebody’s concerned or hasn’t heard from someone for some time, someone you care about, a neighbour, or a stranger, that if you suspect there may be any form of family violence or any form control or coercive control, even financial abuse is a concern in these situations, that you seek help. You can find out more from Safe Steps. You can go to the website. You can make a call on behalf of people. You can let us know about your concerns and talk to one of the staff at any time. . And I think, again in terms of the legal profession, the role that you play, the clients that you have in terms of custody cases and issues associated with custody. You’re very familiar with some of the challenges that families face and I think if you take a special consideration that there’s another layer of danger for women and, Safe Steps is also there have that conversation with you to see how we can protect the safety of women and children.

Andrea:

Yeah, that’s so true. I think it is important to show love for many members of the public. They might hear family violence and instantly think physical assault, which is an element of family violence, but it’s so much broader than that and so much more nuanced. Economic family violence can constitute coercion. There’s emotional abuse. There’s psychological abuse, and it doesn’t always have to result in a physical assault to qualify family violence. I had a call with a client the other day who was contemplating separating from her partner, but found herself in a situation where she couldn’t afford to move out and to propose to him that he move out. She was very scared of his reaction and we were trying to workshop some ideas, such as suggesting an Airbnb. He couldn’t stay with family and friends because of COVID-19. He couldn’t necessarily go and live in someone else’s household. So yes, it can be a very frightening time, but at the same time there are people out there; lawyers and services such as Safe Steps who are more than happy to assist and workshop ideas and provide people way forward to get out of these situations that are just not serving them at this time.

 

Useful Links:

Kids Helpline: A free, private and confidential telephone counselling service – 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au/

Parent line: A state-wide counselling and support service for all Victorian parents – 13 22 89 or 1300 272 736

Safe Steps: A domestic violence hotline service for women and children – 1800 015 188

WIRE Helpline: A free support, referral, and information for all Victorian women (non-binary and gender diverse inclusive) – 1300 134 130

Relationship Space: An online program to help parents manage divorce – www.relationshipspace.com.au

Online Family Violence Intervention Order Application – fvio.mcv.vic.gov.au/

Relationships Australia: www.relationships.org.au/

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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