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Ongoing impact of the global pandemic

Ongoing impact of the global pandemic

For the past 12 months the impact of the global pandemic has transformed the way we delivered our services and changed how we lived in our homes and participated in the community.

Impact on clients

We are yet to see the full impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions have had on the community but we do know that there has been a significant increase and exacerbation of family violence and sexual assault over the past 12 months, with a 3 percent increase in total clients supported from the previous financial year.

Requests for family violence support has increased significantly over the past 12 months, highlighting the increase and exacerbation in violence within our community. Since July 2020, during the pandemic, we have seen a 20 percent increase in requests for support from women, children and young people for family violence case management. We have seen a 31 percent increase in children (aged 0–11 years) and a 26 percent increase in young people (aged 12–17 years) accessing support during this period for family violence case management.

In the Barwon area, we have also seen a 55 percent increase in the number of women accessing our court support service when applying for a Family Violence Intervention Order, with almost 600 children accompanying these women.

With such a substantial increase in the number of women, children and young people seeking support for family violence case management, it highlights the need for specialist case management for those impacted by family violence. Case management support includes identifying the level of risk, safety planning, relocation or access to crisis accommodation and high security refuge, court support and collaboration with other support services.

Research tells us that there are likely more women and children experiencing family violence in our community who don’t feel safe or ready to reach out for support; we know that natural disasters such as this global pandemic can make this more complex. In our 2020 Practitioners Report, clients reported to practitioners that they had experienced an increase in physical violence and abuse, sexual violence, controlling behaviour, psychological abuse, verbal abuse and financial abuse from the perpetrator during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our data tells us that the family violence risk levels of women we are supporting for case management is increasing. Between January to March this year, 56 percent of the women we supported for family violence case management, were at elevated risk, serious risk or serious risk requiring immediate protection. From March to June this year, these same risk levels were recorded for 75 percent of the women we supported. From January-June 2021, 38 percent of women also reported being sexually assaulted in addition to their experience of family violence.

We have however seen a decrease from the previous year in adults, children and young people accessing our therapeutic services including counselling and group programs. This decrease in seeking support for sexual assault trauma is consistent nationally, with many support services reporting a reduction. With the impact and added pressure of the COVID-19 restrictions, many clients seeking support for historic sexual assault trauma have delayed seeking support.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place for most of the year and many of our services provided virtually, we have also transitioned our therapeutic group programs to an online platform that is safe and engaging, and allowed the valuable connections that these group sessions promote to continue in a virtual space. For some clients, they expressed their preference to delay engagement until in person support was available again and others were apprehensive about speaking of their trauma while their children and family members were also present at home.

Spotlight on sexual assault

This year, there has been a significant spotlight on sexual assault and violence against women which has been vital in highlighting this important issue.

About 200 people helped spell out JUSTICE at Cosy Corner at the Surf Coast March 4 Justice rally. Photo: REBECCA HOSKING PHOTOGRAPHY

The media spotlight, the appointment of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year, the disclosure within Parliament House by Brittany Higgins and the March4Justice events happening across the country all created a strong focus on sexual assault, encouraging people impacted by sexual assault to not feel alone and to have the courage to share their stories and seek support for the trauma of sexual assault.

Far too often, sexual assault is an invisible topic within our community. But throughout this year, we have all seen how community activism and advocacy can educate and mobilise the community, reduce the stigma of sexual assault, highlight the prevalence within the community, along with creating awareness and understanding of the gendered drivers of violence, and how as a community we can take a stand to prevent violence against women.

Throughout March, coinciding with the March4Justice rallies, our organisation saw an increase of 41 percent of new referrals for sexual assault compared to the previous month. Our Intake team received 183 calls regarding sexual assault in March, with our Intake team reporting that most calls were of a complex nature. This was a 26 percent increase on the previous month. In the week commencing 15 March, which coincided with the national March4Justice event, we received 65 calls regarding sexual assault.

Opening our doors

This year throughout lockdowns, our doors have remained open with specialist intake practitioners available onsite to provide in-person support to women and children experiencing family violence and people impacted by sexual assault.

Our practitioners are available on weekdays to support clients in-person, over the phone or video conferencing, and via webchat on our website to anyone needing support. We have a team of qualified practitioners to continue this support overnight and on weekends by providing in person care with access to crisis accommodation, police and medical assistance if needed.

During the five lockdowns in Victoria this financial year, with our doors remaining open, we have supported hundreds of clients and a large number of people who have walked in to our office seeking immediate support. Without keeping our doors open and continuing to support clients over the phone, via video conferencing or in-person, these clients may not have received the essential support they needed.

New ways of seeking support

We know how difficult making the first contact can be in seeking support, and we always ensure that people are physically safe to talk to us, as those who use violence may escalate their behaviour if they find out someone is reaching out for help.

To enable those experiencing violence at home could seek support safely, we implemented an online, confidential webchat function through our website, allowing clients who are in need of help but may not be able to talk on the phone, or who aren’t ready to talk yet, to reach out and get support from our specialist practitioners.

Our specialist practitioners are available online to provide support and help for people within the community who are experiencing sexual assault or family violence, and provide guidance to family and friends who are concerned about a loved one or friend. The web platform is safe and private, with all traces of the chats deleted once the user leaves the chat, leaving no history of the chat on any computer. Chats are anonymous and accessible to anyone experiencing violence or concerned about the safety of a family member or friend.

Since launching this channel during the pandemic in August 2020, we have had more than 110 chats with people seeking support.

“Webchat has been a valuable way to engage with clients and overcome some of the barriers of engagement that COVID-19 has created. Webchat has allowed us to continue delivering a safe and responsive service to clients while working remotely.

Our Intake team members have been adaptable and flexible in meeting the needs of clients who want to engage with our service through Webchat. Our Intake Practitioners have been able to adapt skills we would use on the phone or in-person and convert this to an online discussion.

Through typed conversations we are able to discuss safety, gather information, provide information about our service, while continuing to validate and empower the clients who have been brave enough to reach out in this way in a safe and trauma-informed way.” Intake Practitioner

Creative ways to conclude Counselling sessions

For one of our Counsellor Advocates, empowering their younger clients to decide how they would end their counselling journey with The SAFV Centre, in an online space, delivered some surprising and creative results.

The beauty of the online channel is that you can see inside their lives and what’s really happening, not just what they are telling you and this has been really important in my connections with younger clients.

You don’t always get to celebrate a final counselling session with a client, but when I do, I like to hand over the creative license to the client to make sure they feel empowered and leave counselling with a positive memory.

During lockdown and using Health Direct, it does have limitations, but it also allows some freedom in doing things that the client wants to do.

One of my young clients decided to celebrate our final session by cooking together over video call and playing an online game. They set the menu and we both bought the same ingredients and baked brownies together while chatting via video conferencing – something we wouldn’t have done in person. While the brownies cooked, they asked if we could play an online game together. I wasn’t familiar with the game but said yes and they taught me how to play it – flipping the script with the client becoming the leader. This was about my client sharing something important to them and imparting their knowledge to me; and leaving our counselling sessions feeling acknowledged and engaged.

Another client made a plan for our final session together that was special and unique to them. Their plan included what snacks we would eat, a song list for a dance party, an art project and playing the floor is lava – all online. I have worked with both the mum and child and in this final session, they both gave each other a hand written card – a beautiful and fun way to end our counselling sessions.

The Sexual Assault & Family Violence Centre acknowledges the traditional owners and custodians of the land we stand on. We are committed to working toward creating a community where all people indigenous and non-indigenous are safe, connected and empowered to live well. The Sexual Assault & Family Violence Centre recognises the diverse needs of our community and we ensure our services are inclusive of all children, young people and their families including those who are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, from culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds, those who identify as LGBTIQ and persons living with disability. We work collaboratively with people and partner organisations who also support our diverse client group. Interpreter and translator services are available to all our clients upon request.

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