Protecting against the unintended consequences of social isolation

Social isolation, job losses and economic downturn, not to mention the prospect of lethal illness, will  almost certainly be heightening anxiety for all of us. But for many Australians an extra danger – family violence – also lurks within the home and will be exacerbated by isolation or quarantine.  Family violence is difficult to respond to, whether you are a front-line worker, a police officer, a concerned family member or a friend. Current best estimates in Australia suggest that around five per cent of women are in relationships that have been violent in the past 12 months.  That’s roughly two-thirds of a million women.  Most of these are aged between 15 and 44 and half have children in their care.  That is before coronavirus.

The message is still not being received across the community that family violence does not constitute physical violence alone and that many families live in fear where no actual physical violence has occurred. The trauma associated with living one’s life in fear of harm filters into other public health issues such as mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and neglect.  Across Australia, there are families whose lives are constantly monitored, whose actions are constantly criticised, who were already isolated from support networks.   The virus brings additional complications and it is highly likely that perpetrators will deal with the stress and anxiety of economic uncertainty by putting more unrealistic and punitive restrictions on their families. For these families, social distancing and isolation are the normal tactic of their abuser.

Domestic and family violence increases during times of natural disasters and pandemics.  Additional stress and anxiety do not cause abuse but they increase the risk in families where abuse is already occurring.  Increased mental ill-health, increased alcohol or drug use from forced isolation are also likely consequences.

As a group of researchers who specialise in the study of vulnerable populations and responses to domestic/family violence and abuse, we are gravely concerned by the unintended consequences of social distancing and self-isolation. We are already hearing reports of abusers using the virus to provide legitimacy to their controlling tactics.  Service providers and concerned families and friends dread the potential for escalation in the frequency and severity of existing abusive behaviours and the adoption of new ones.  Social isolation is a crucial strategy to respond to the virus but has the potential to unleash unintended consequences.

It is a particularly unsafe time for some children who will be spending more time at home. For these children in unsafe or neglectful families, school may have been a temporary safe haven each day. We also know that trauma from living with an abusive parent is a driver of poor mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and criminality later in life.

Despite close to fifty years of evidence gathering around the topic of violence and abuse in families, we are still not able to keep families safe.  With coronavirus, we are focusing on one public health problem, yet should not ignore the impact one response might have on another. Similar to parties with no-contact orders finding themselves in the same bushfire evacuation centre, the unintended consequences for families forced into isolation with an abusive member creates a perfect storm.

The pandemic comes close behind the murders of Hannah Clarke and her children in Brisbane.  In pre-lockdown circumstances, the existing protective services were unable to prevent their deaths.  Major red flags for escalation, such as separation and abduction, were ignored; and while orders had been served, breaches of orders were not dealt with according to policy. For any specialist in the area of family violence, the danger signs were strikingly obvious. We are left wondering whether the status and personal charm of the killer created blinkers for the system.   Hannah Clarke and another eight women were killed in an environment without the complications of a pandemic.  It is important for the situations associated with state-sanctioned isolation to not precipitate unprecedented increase in severe violence and abuse.

We ask police and emergency workers to appreciate the significant barriers to reporting abuse and to be vigilant for the signs of coercive control when they interact with the public, especially in ‘concern for welfare’ visits.  We ask police and other emergency workers to look for patterns rather than be incident focused.  Join the dots in your risk assessments.  Abuse does escalate in severity and frequency over time.  Look for fear. See reluctance to engage as a symptom of abuse.

We ask readers to be aware of the potential for abuse to escalate in times of social distancing and community isolation.  We want you to be aware that the threat of violence is enough to cause trauma. Be aware of loved ones acting as though they are unable to speak freely in front of their partner or parent who may be monitoring their communications with others.  Perhaps develop some code words for use if situations are getting intolerable and consider whether you have a safe and isolated space for loved ones to seek refuge until police arrive.

If what we are describing relates to you, we know that leaving is often more dangerous than staying. Try and devise a safety plan.  There are phone support lines out there, but we know that you may be not be able to reach out to them as your actions are under surveillance. Having a response plan can help you to deal with the situation, at least mentally. Try to document what is happening and collect evidence if you plan to involve authorities.

If you find yourself compelled to increase control over your family, please seek help.  The No to Violence website ( has resources that can guide you to stop harming your family now and can provide links to services to support you once normal operations resume.

Dr Romy Winter

Dr Isabelle Bartkowiak-Theron

Dr Ron Frey

The researchers are members of the Tasmanian Institute for Law Enforcement Studies at the University of Tasmania.

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