Domestic violence services ‘overwhelmed’ with calls over Christmas

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A woman looks out from her umbrella as she walks pass a huge Christmas tree on a rainy afternoon in Washington, December 17, 2015. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Australian domestic violence services are expecting a large influx of reports of both domestic abuse and sexual assault over the Christmas period. 

Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVS), says this increase in reports is a pattern that recurs every holiday season.

“After years and years, what we know is that throughout December, we’ll get a considerable increase in calls about sexual harassment or assault at work Christmas parties and things like that,” she said in an interview. 

“Then from Christmas Eve to New Years, it’s just wall-to-wall domestic violence.”

Willis says that Christmas is a significant cause for this rise in reporting because the presence of extended family in a household can cause a domestic abuse offender to feel threatened and to respond violently.

“What we need to do is to understand the causes of domestic violence … if we think about the individual, one of the key things is a sense of entitlement,” she said. 

"Suddenly they’ve gone from the closed family where they’re ‘king’ to just being part of a bigger crowd where there’s attention on [a female partner]." 

Willis also pointed to the increased consumption of alcohol in the Christmas period as a potential cause of higher reporting levels from victims.

“When people drink, their inhibitions are reduced. Where someone might be used to verbal or psychological abuse, maybe they’ll move into physical abuse. Or where they used to push and shove, now they might start hitting,” she said. 

“So we get an escalation of the violence … and that’s when people start to fear for their lives and decide to call.”

However, Willis also attributed the increased reporting to the higher level of public debate currently surrounding the issue of domestic violence in Australia. 

“Over the last 12 months our community has been talking a lot more about domestic violence, and that’s terrific. What that’s saying to [victims] is that this is a time when you can come forward and seek assistance to achieve safety.”

This year, November 25th marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and since then RDVS has reported a 44 per cent increase in calls from victims. 

However, Willis says that despite this positive statistic, domestic violence services are still too underfunded and understaffed to assist everyone immediately.

“All of us are being absolutely overwhelmed at the moment. We’ll put on an additional 20 shifts a week in an attempt to meet the Christmas and New Years demand, but we know that we’re not going to be able to answer every call.”

In September this year, the Turnbull government announced a $100 million package to combat family violence, including increased funding for victims’ support services. 

While this package has been recognised as a significant “step forward” in the fight against domestic abuse in Australia, Willis says it is still not enough.

“I understand it’s not a bottomless pit, but what we do know is that if we don’t do anything, we’re talking about the cost of this violence being in the billions of dollars by the time we get into the 20s.”

Despite these concerns, Willis remains confident that positive change can be achieved with consistent increases in funding and continued support for victims from the Australian community. 

“We’re not going to change it overnight, but we’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to get to a place where children can grow up in homes that are safe, and where adults can treat each other with dignity and respect.”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence or sexual assault, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). Due to overwhelming demand over the Christmas period, if you reach the answering service, please leave your name and contact details and someone will return your call as soon as possible. 

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