COVID-19 and Family Violence Services in the Hunter

Photo by a Name.Narrate.Navigate participant

These are some reflections by Louise Rak, Tamara Blakemore, Joel McGregor and me about the impact of COVID19. They were written last year and, while the impact of COVID in Australia was not as great as feared, the reflections are still relevant.

Although so far, Australia has escaped the high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths experienced by many countries, it has not been immune to many related social, political, and economic challenges. In this post we discuss impacts of COVID-19 in relation to domestic and family violence and family and community service responses. We draw on our experience as practitioner-researchers with Name.Narrate.Navigate (NNN), a preventive intervention program exploring trauma-informed, culturally sensitive responses to youth perpetrated domestic and family violence.  NNN works with young people who have committed family and domestic violence, are identified at risk of encountering the justice system for the same, or who live in family and community contexts with high rates of family and domestic violence. At the heart of the program are small group workshops with young people to examine the role of violence in their lives and to build skills that can help them explore alternatives to violence. NNN also works to upskill practitioners in a range of sectors to work with these young people in ways that address the spectrum of violence, abuse and trauma from victimisation through perpetration. Central to NNN are practice principles of mindful engagement, reciprocal communication and relational and reflective practice.

In late-March 2020 as the number of COVID-19 cases grew, Australians were directed to stay at home as much as possible. Social distancing measures were introduced and enforced and a range of businesses and services were directed to close. In this context, face-to-face workshops with young people involved in NNN ceased, and the NNN team commenced regular online meetings to work, plan, and debrief with each other. Depending on how we were travelling, our debriefs became longer and we connected in deeper ways than we would have, had we not had the shared challenges brought by COVID-19. Our discussions covered the challenges of home schooling while working, managing being with our families more, supporting aging parents and immune supressed children , fears for the health of ourselves and others, lack of toilet paper, new recipes, what we were reading or watching, and a pervasive concern for the young people we work with. We dissected ways to continue to support young people who use and live in violence, in the age of physical distancing.

But increasingly we wondered about the impact of COVID-19 on families experiencing violence (in many forms) and the services supporting them. Having experienced the benefits of our regular check-ins with each other, we decided to meet via Zoom with the broader community of practice associated with NNN. Through these conversations we were able to support each other and share experiences of trying to continue working meaningfully with people, especially those young people who use and experience violence themselves. This paper discussed two of these conversations with practitioners, one in early April (at the height of the restrictions), one in early June (by which time some of the social distancing measure were being relaxed and schools had returned to face-to-face teaching).

The first conversation (FG1) was held with members of the NNN practitioner working party (which consists of community practitioners working young people or addressing domestic and family violence), and the second (FG2) was held with the NNN steering committee (which consists of managers from local services and government departments.) Through the conversations or focus groups, practitioners identified challenges they, and the people they work with, faced as well as opportunities and positive outcomes they saw resulting from changed practice in response to COVID-19. For some practitioners and managers, the experience of COVID-19 challenged their assumptions about the people they work with, their ability to cope with adversity, and established ways of working with them.

Concerns about increased risks

Most of the practitioners and managers we spoke with were concerned that in the contexts of COVID-19 “risk has increased for a lot of families” (FG1). Particularly relevant to this journal were risks concerning interpersonal conflict and family or other violence. Practitioners and managers told us that because families were at home much more there seemed to be increased tensions and conflict between family members and that this conflict could lead to increased risks such as homelessness. For example, young people living with their grandparents had conflicts about refusing to stay at home with the grandparents saying:

 “This is not safe. Can you just stay home?  You need to also think about the risks that it poses to us when you are walking around and hanging out with your friends.” And that then leading to family conflict quite a bit. Leading to our young people then leaving home, being homeless, having to go into refuges. (FG1)

Practitioners and managers were concerned about increased risk of domestic, family and other violence occurring in contexts of having to stay home more, however surprisingly, one justice system worker, suggested that there had been no real increase in domestic violence in the area where she worked.

In relation to DV [domestic violence] related offences, I think most of us in our office are in agreeance that there’s not been a spike in domestic violence related offending during this period. In fact, I think perhaps from our perspective it’s probably been a bit lower, which has been a good thing. (FG2)

This was not the experience of most of the other participants in the focus groups who identified concerns about increased risk of domestic, family and other violence across their areas of practice. Not only were practitioners and managers concerned about what they perceived was an increasing incidence of violence in the community during COVID-19 lockdown, but also about the potential ‘invisibility’ of this violence and how difficult it could be for those experiencing violence to be identified, and safely leave a violent situation.

Yes, so there’s a woman that I’m working with at the moment and when I started working with her, her ex-partner was supposed to be incarcerated until late April.  It was a horrific domestic violence incident; he broke into her home and he has now been released on the weekend.  So there’s a lot of fear for her obviously around that.  Her goal was to move houses, but she can’t even do that because there’s no inspections happening.  She can’t get a removalist because everyone is shut down. (FG1)

Several participants highlighted examples of how COVID-19 (and fears around exposure to the virus) had been used as a mechanism of coercive control, with one participant noting:

The realities of COVID being used as a vehicle for threats of violence, it’s certainly happening more and more. I don’t have any information that it is or isn’t happening for young people or to parent/carer violence… But definitely for adult relationships that’s something we’re seeing at [organisation] a fair amount at the moment. The threat of going out or bringing someone in who might have COVID, even if there’s no evidence that they do or don’t, but that’s being used as a violent mechanism. (FG1)

Understandable attempts to keep people out of prison, and the closure of other services, had also led to young people being placed in unsafe situations. For example, a manager spoke about a 14-year-old boy with significant drug and alcohol issue who had been violent towards his mother. She explained that the Police didn’t want him back at his mother’s (where the violence has been occurring), the Children’s Court didn’t want him in detention, and there were no detox services available.

So they wanted to try and get him into detox, so get him to rehab, but that just was not going to be an option yesterday. It was let’s try everything before we lock him up, let’s give it another go at home with Dad for seven days and see how that goes. He got bailed back to an address [his father’s] where there’s been neglect over the past six months. Dad’s not been living at the address, this is a 14-year-old boy, living there on his own for six months with Mum and Grandmother going over and delivering food, because Dad’s been living with his new partner. (FG2)

For some women, the pandemic meant that violent ex, estranged or current partners were being released from family or domestic violence charges on bail or parole rather than being kept in prison due to concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks.

But also there are multiple women in this same situation of now being legitimately in fear of ex-partners that they thought were supposed to be incarcerated for a certain amount of time and now are not and who know where they are. (FG1)

Related to perceived and reported increased risks of violence were concerns about self-directed violence including self-harm. One manager spoke about the very traumatic suicide of a school student that impacted on the whole of the school while another practitioner spoke about seeing more young people threatening self-harm.

What I’m seeing, just personally in my family, that a lot of our young kids aged between seven through to 14 are actually struggling and threatening self-harm and all that sort of stuff. Where the family has had to come in and try to deal with that ourselves as a family, because there’s very limited access to services that our young people trust, but they would open up. (FG2)

Impact on practitioners

A significant feature of the conversations with practitioners and managers was that conversations did not just focus on experiences of clients or the “other.” As demonstrated in the last quote, as well as speaking about the impact of the pandemic on the people they work with, focus group participants also acknowledged the impact of the pandemic on themselves; both personally and professionally, positively and problematically. Experiences of the initial period of COVID-19 lockdown were very varied: some practitioners and managers reported enjoying working from home, while others have found it really challenging.

I guess from a personal perspective I love the lockdown, but that’s because I live in a rural area and I’m used to being fairly – not so much isolated as it’s a very strong community. But I’m used to not having a lot of people around me and actually prefer it that way, which is probably a little bit strange. (FG2)

Working from home didn’t work for me and it’s pretty similar across a large number of community members. It did my head in, honestly, I had to get myself in the roster [to work from the office] because I didn’t want to work from home. So I don’t know. Like I said, I just gave the example earlier where some of my workers really struggled working from home and really relied on that collectiveness around engaging in Aboriginal business and providing support. (FG2)

Practitioners working directly with young people and families, reported that their workload “completely shifted and I guess blurred the work–homelife balance” (FG1), meaning that practitioners had to make changes to the way they practice. As this practitioner went on to explain:

It has been a really interesting transition onto the Facebook page… Often it’s late at night that they’ll be sending messages so although it’s amazing to see the women engaged really well, I guess for us as practitioners we need to re-establish boundaries around how we respond, how responsive we can be.  I think in these early days it’s been really nice to be able to respond quite quickly even though it’s probably outside of business hours most of the time. (FG1)

Practitioners we spoke to also highlighted the importance of keeping their relationships and connections with their colleagues while working remotely.

But one of the biggest challenges for the team has been not being physically connected with each other.  So that I think it’s shown how much we rely on creating that space where we can debrief and have those incidental conversations and connections to support the work that we do with families. (FG1)

From a cultural perspective, the impact of the social distancing impacts of COVID-19 were deep and divisive, with an Aboriginal practitioner outlining that for the Aboriginal community her organisation works with, face-to-face interaction is part of inherent cultural obligation to family:

Even when they got onto FaceTime, it didn’t allow that collective support that most Aboriginal families generally would have. With the lockdown, only having two in the home and all that sort of stuff, we know Aboriginal families work a lot better with their extended family, like the kinship model really comes into play (FG1).

Opportunities

Despite concerns that the pandemic has increased risk of violence (including self-harm) and other negative outcomes for many families, practitioners and managers also recognised COVID-19 has led to new opportunities and unexpected positive outcomes. For some individuals and families, the emphasis on online service delivery was quite positive. Practitioners and managers related that some people preferred online support and became more engaged.

In one case, one young person found that telephone appointments with external mental health services were more suitable for him than attending face to face.  He reports it took the pressure off him having to catch a bus to various locations, which was always difficult due to lack of available funds. (FG2)

We had some kids who hadn’t really engaged in much learning for a long time, really did engage. The kids who find school socially hard (and there’s quite a few of those, particularly teenagers), they would really just thrive off it. I’ve got a teenage daughter myself and she was somebody who said, “I could really cope with going to school two days a week,  and the other three be working from home, because I haven’t got to deal with all the other stuff that comes with going to school.” (FG2)

Focus group participants reported that being online allowed for new connections to emerge between families and with practitioners. For example, in an art program supporting women who have experienced violence the women appreciated the opportunity to meet women from a different town. Some of the women who had previously been involved were able to take up a mentor role.  

To have women from previous groups last year join the Facebook page and they’ve been through the group before, so to act in that mentoring role to just support and reinforce to the women that, “Yeah, it’s really hard to push yourself but keep going because…” It’s amazing. (FG1)

Practitioners also highlighted that the online environment of work presented new opportunities to engage an client’s informal networks in a more inclusive way.

Also I’ve had some really interesting conversations where I’ve called someone at a scheduled appointment time [in a men’s behaviour change program]… but having someone in the background who has then chimed in and it’s actually been this really interesting way to work with the men’s endogenous support networks. (FG1)

While many of those we spoke to noted challenges and increased demands of working from home, participants also identified COVID-19 related changes in work-place practice had personal and professional benefits. One participant remarked that for many families, lockdown presented opportunities for parent and children to deepen positive attachments. Others spoke about benefits in the workplace from greater consistency in staffing and increased recognition of the need for extra support.

What we’ve been hearing over the last two months is that actually for a lot of those young people [in out-of-home care], they’ve actually really settled in their placement. Because our providers have put, I guess, strategies in place where they’ve minimised the number of staff coming into the houses, so they’ve had more consistency in their staffing team. They’ve really responded well to that. (FG2)

Privilege, access and equity

It was clear that individual positionality (privilege, access and equity) had a major impact on people’s experience of COVID-19. Practitioners and managers we spoke to suggested positionality and privilege related to autonomy and choice, and having access to and control over resources. As one of the participants commented:

I think for me I’ve seen white privilege play out in so many layers in the last couple of weeks and just how privileged we are in our access to technology, our capacity to work from home, capacity to keep ourselves and our loved ones relatively safe. (FG1)

It was also clear that some families did not have access to technology, often with serious consequences. One practitioner spoke about a woman who felt “really strongly about not sending her children to school because she wants to keep the family safe” but, despite having “worked their way out of the child protection system over the last few years,” found herself re-entering the child protection system because she was keeping her children home and was unable to connect virtually for schooling and support service contact.

It’s really highlighted to me that I am privileged, and I do get to decide, “Actually, I feel safer with my children being home with me…” But this mum is essentially being told, or put in a position, that you don’t have a choice to keep your kids home and isolated from this virus because you don’t have access to technology. (FG1)

Focus group discussions have highlighted for us it is incorrect to assume that families and communities from higher socioeconomic areas coped better with the pandemic than those from lower socioeconomic areas. A manager who worked with several schools suggested that:

The lower SES [socio-economic status) schools actually had really positive experiences and they said the connections they were able to build with their community and working in partnership with people to just engage and build stronger relationships were things they thought would hold them for a good while to come. The higher SES communities actually found it a real challenge, because they were the ones where—and I was guilty of it too—we actually made some assumptions about how things were going to work and they didn’t quite work that well. So we really needed to adjust our mindsets and park some bias. (FG2)

Another practitioner described the families she worked with as being “battle ready” and suggested that the different experiences “really highlighted how unsettling this is for the middle class but how potentially not different it is for many others.”

Well they’ve just lived through hardship, financial uncertainty. Just a couple of them were speaking about not having access to their kids and that’s the worst thing that can happen to them anyway, which has also been impacted…  But, “Yeah, things like I haven’t had access to my kids for the last 12 months, like what could be worse, I’m at home anyway sitting alone?” (FG1)

Home/work boundaries

In talking with practitioners and managers about their experiences of the initial stages of COVID-19 lockdown, workers told us the story of their clients, but they told us these stories through the lens of their own experiences and expectations, narratives, assumptions and worldviews. The example of the blurring of home/life boundaries elicited critical reflections amongst workers on the sameness and difference of experience with clients. These conversations highlighted for us that the personal is always political and that without critical reflection, despite our positionality and privilege, we can assume that our “shared experience” (like COVID-19) is the same as our clients.

Practitioners and managers we spoke to reflected on their experience by relating, comparing and contrasting their own experiences of lockdown with those of their clients. A number of these reflections were deeply contemplative and appeared to challenge the worker’s assumptions, or raise awareness of previously unrecognised similarities or disparities in position, opportunity, need and experience. The conversations demonstrated that whenever we, as practitioners, tell the narrative of another, our own narrative is part of the story. In recognising this, we become better able to appreciate the spectrum of human behaviour and responses in ourselves, as well as in others, and their role in response to practice. It would seem that the pandemic (as perhaps all great shared experiences of crisis do), presented the workers we spoke to with the opportunity for deep critical reflection on shared experiences and parallel process.

The pandemic has forced practitioners to consider new ways of working. While some of these changes in practice are not ideal, some of them have been beneficial for at least some people. Our hope is that through ongoing critical reflection, practitioners will consider what can be learnt from the crisis and update their practice to incorporate new insights.

But a couple of things I noticed was that clients that I’ve got that are really quite complex like AOD and mental health, who would be repeat no shows, or really erratic attendance in our existing format—which is one-hour counselling sessions—I’ve had much better engagement with and it’s made me think about well what does this mean about how we do work in the future with people who have so much going on that attending sessions is a real barrier? (FG1)

Suggested citation:
Stuart, G., Rak, L, Blakemore, T. & McGregor, J. (2021, 19 May) COVID-19 and family violence services in the Hunter. Sustaining Community. https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/05/19/covid19/

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Name.Narrate.Navigate: a program for young people who use violence in their families
  2. Postcards from Practice: Initial Learnings from the Name.Narrate.Navigate Program
  3. 20 tips for an online workshop
  4. Creating a safe space for a workshop on Zoom
  5. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  6. Power and strengths-based practice

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to COVID-19 and Family Violence Services in the Hunter

  1. Chris brown says:

    Fabulous work! Always enjoy reading your updates

    Liked by 1 person

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