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Data indicates family violence spiked during COVID-19 as Victorian hospitals work on responses

Bendigo Health's Peter Faulkner says health services want to create safe spaces for violence victims. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

Early data from a study in Bendigo has showed there were "significantly more" female hospital presentations for physical and sexual assault after the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Researchers gathered in Bendigo during March to crunch health data and gain a greater insight into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with family violence among their main areas of study.

"We know from our own data and our own real-time experience, I suppose, that the scourge of family violence continues," Bendigo Health chief executive Peter Faulkner said.

"We need to do our best to respond."

The head of the Women's Services Network (WESNET), Karen Bentley, said the early results from Bendigo were anecdotally similar to what the network was hearing from services across Australia and worldwide.

"We have, globally, seen an increase in domestic and family violence rates during this time that we've had COVID," she said.

"We're not really sure what it is, but it seems like those added stressors maybe give people who are using violence a bit more of an excuse to lash out. That could be part of it."

Awareness of issue increasing

She also believed people might be more willing to disclose violence due to increased understanding and awareness of the issue.

"Most of the services who are working in that domestic and family violence space … are all experiencing quite a big increase in demand for their services," Ms Bentley said.

A spokesperson from 1800 RESPECT, a national sexual assault and family and domestic violence helpline, said the pandemic created a range of challenges that magnified pre-existing inequalities and exposed vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, to heightened levels of violence.

"While there was increased demand to 1800 RESPECT during this time, the service cannot directly attribute this increase to the pandemic," the spokesperson said.

"However, 1800 RESPECT experienced a number of changes in the way people seeking help accessed the service."

The spokesperson said there was an increase in late-night calls for help and in the use of the web chat function.

Reaching out for help

A maternal and child health nurse was one of the first people Lily Fetter reached out to for help when she realised she needed to leave her relationship.

The Melbourne mother and midwife said the youngest of her two children was only five months old at the time. 

"I knew I wasn't being treated well. I processed that as him being disrespectful, but it was far more than disrespect," Ms Fetter said.

"It was a moment when I discovered his image-based abuse that I was kind of jolted out of my bubble."

Lily Fetter is advocating for a consistent healthcare response to family violence disclosures. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

Ms Fetter's then-partner pleaded guilty in 2017 to using a carriage service to menace. Additional charges of stalking were withdrawn.

The magistrate told the court the behaviour before him "clearly amounts to family violence," according to a report in The Age.

Ms Fetter said no criminal conviction was recorded against her then-partner for using a carriage service to menace.

She said the court ordered him to attend a men's behavioural change program.

Support services evolving

Ms Fetter disclosed what she was experiencing to the nurse about nine years ago, before Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Ms Fetter says health service providers now have far greater awareness and knowledge of referral pathways.

"I recall the maternal child health nurse providing me a one-page document with a list of services," she said.

She said the list had contact details, but nothing about the specific support the services could offer.

"So I remember folding up that piece of paper and putting it away and not doing anything," Ms Fetter said.

"It's so vital that training and education of health service providers be consistent across services.

"It doesn't matter who you reach out to. You want to have something better than a piece of paper with random details.

Hospitals seek to improve responses

Bendigo this week hosted a forum for health professionals to improve hospital responses to family violence, where Ms Fetter shared her experiences.

"There is so much uncertainty when you're trying to navigate leaving a relationship," she said.

"You don't need the added anxiety of not knowing how a service provider is going to react."

Lily Fetter spoke this week at a forum in Bendigo about improving hospital responses. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

Mr Faulkner said education was crucial to enabling health services to support victims of violence.

"Family violence remains a significant health issue and is responsible for more preventable ill health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than other risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking," he said. 

"We want people to know that health services are a safe place to come and speak to trained professionals that can help you."

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