There has been a significant increase in the amount of people living in the Victorian Central Highlands region reporting a family violence incident to police for the first time during the coronavirus lockdown period.
Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall of the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit said reports of family violence had increased by about 30 per cent during the past two months, while people reporting family violence for the first time had increased by about 50 per cent. The severity of offences, however, has not increased significantly.
"That tells me that we are doing a lot right but there is a lot to be done," he said. "We can't be complacent because we really don't know the exact effects of COVID-19 as yet."
About 1 in 3 of the reports made were for historical offences which occurred more than a month prior.
While the number of reports has increased overall, Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall believed the number of incidents were still under-reported and that the true outcomes of what has occurred during the period has yet to be realised.
"We won't truly know where we are at until the restrictions continue to be eased," he said.
One factor in this increase is that of third party reports - from neighbours, friends or family - which have increased significantly in this region.
It comes as a report based on the responses of 166 Victorian practitioners who support women experiencing domestic violence was released on Monday.
The report, conducted by Monash University, analyses practitioner views about the nature of violence against women in Victoria during restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.
With more people confined to their homes, the report found the coronavirus pandemic increased women and childrens' vulnerability to all forms of violence - resulting in a 'shadow pandemic'.
The survey was conducted during a four week period from April 23 until May 24, with the study finding there was an increase in the frequency and severity of violence against Victorian women during the period of stage 3 restrictions.
It found there had been a 42 per cent increase in women reporting family violence for the first time. In addition, 59 per cent of survey respondents said COVID-19 had increased the frequency of violence against women, while half reported the severity of abuse had increased amid virus lockdown measures.
Project lead Dr Naomi Pfitzner said the study justified fears family violence would increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perpetrators are using COVID-19 restrictions and the threat of infection to gain access to women and children and control their movements.Dr Naomi Pfitzner
"Perpetrators are using COVID-19 restrictions and the threat of infection to gain access to women and children and control their movements," Dr Pfitzner said.
While Victoria's pandemic control measures have been necessary from a public health perspective, Dr Pfitzner said they "inadvertently compounded barriers to help-seeking for women".
Following COVID-19 restrictions being put in place, some services working with perpetrators of family violence reported an increase in service uptake, such as an increase of more than 400 calls a week to the Men's Referral Service.
But with an increase of time at home, victims were less able to seek help.
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"With families being stuck at home, with even the playgrounds in our area roped off, this has been a tinder box in many households and has made the circumstances for many women unbearable," one practitioner said.
More than 85 per cent of practitioner respondents indicated there was an increase in the complexity of women's needs during the survey period.
When stricter restrictions were put in place, service providers enhanced the accessibility and quality of delivering support services remotely - moving from face-to-face support to virtual support.
Some respondents noted new methods of violence being carried out in homes, including using the virus as a means to isolate the victim.
Restricting the use of technology by removing mobile phones, monitoring the use of the internet and of movements was also noted.
Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said in this region there had been an increase in the use of technology by offenders, including a small increase in the use of tracking devices.
However, on a positive note, there had also been an increase in reports through web based platforms as well as online applications for family violence intervention orders.
Meanwhile, the survey also found some ex-partners used COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse to stay with a partner, while children were also used as a means to gain access to a woman through shared care arrangements.
"Victims who have escaped but who have children with the perpetrator are reporting perpetrators are using COVID-19 as an extra weapon in their arsenal, fearing that the family law system will be hard-pressed to protect them," another practitioner said.
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During the coronavirus pandemic, Victoria Police have conducted targeted Operation Ribbon as a means to show that while police had increased safety measures, they had not reduced their focus on family violence.
In fact, police have been even more creative with their investigative techniques during this period.
It has involved police making regular contact with known victims and monitoring high risk perpetrators.
Data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicts that for every three months that the lockdowns continue, an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence will occur worldwide.
Following stages of the research will building on understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women's experiences of violence and ability to seek help.
Call 000 in an emergency. Family violence support is also available via 1800 RESPECT