During the lockdowns across Australia as governments responded to the spread of Covid-19, rates of domestic violence have spiked, as many victims are forced to stay home with their abusers.
The United Nations has urged national governments to take action to work to protect victims. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” Secretary-General António Guterres wrote on Twitter.
In states where lockdown orders are still enforced, it often means that victims are unable to leave the home that they share with their abuser, often leading to increases in incidents and rising levels of distress. Throughout the first month of Melbourne’s lockdown, 14 per cent of domestic violence-related calls for assistance to police were related to the lockdown.
The Andrews Government announced more than $40 million in support for family violence victims, including $20 million for short term accommodation to assist victims who do not feel safe isolating or recovering at home, with a further $20.2 million for family violence services who are expecting an uptick in demand.
Minister for Prevention of Family Violence Gabrielle Williams explained that “at this point, the data we have on family violence is up and down. We are still tracking it, but there hasn’t been a sharp spike across the board yet. But we are bracing ourselves for that. The international experience shows us we should get a spike and we are equipping our organisations for when that happens.”
That spike may already be beginning, with St Vincent’s Hospital chief social worker, Lisa Braddy, explaining that presentations related to family violence had more than doubled in the first three months of 2020, compared to 2019.
Community Housing Federation of Victoria has built out a range of tools for victims, support networks and families, but in particular those working in real estate, to support victims and their dependents.
In New South Wales, breaking a tenancy is now easier for tenants who are victims of domestic violence, and they can do so without penalty. In addition, all tenants have the right to break their lease if it is signed after 23 March 2020, and the fees for tenants are as follows:
- 4 weeks rent if less than 25% of the fixed term has expired
- 3 weeks rent if 25% or more but less than 50% of the fixed term has expired
- 2 weeks rent if 50% or more but less than 75% of the fixed term has expired
- 1 week’s rent if 75% or more of the fixed term has expired
The changes may impact landlords differently, and the Real Estate Institute of New South Wales has recommended that all landlords review their insurance, as the new changes may leave landlords out of pocket. “Significant changes are coming which will affect property managers, landlords and tenants,” said Leanne Pilkington, REINSW President, in March.
For Real Estate Agents & PMs
Building staff awareness and creating policies for workers to be able to identify, assist and protect victims of family violence, including training workers to recognise risk factors, particularly workers like property managers. Key risk factors can include maintenance and repair calls outside of normal expectations, broken locks and windows, holes in walls or doors, or repeated complaints from neighbours.
Another critical element to support domestic violence workers is to ensure that all staff involved in tenancy or property management are well versed in vital confidentiality, privacy policies and practises, to ensure the safety of victims at all times.
A significant element of working to assist and protect victims of domestic violence is preventing risks to tenants from move-in date, which offers PMs and other workers the opportunity to ensure that the tenancy is safe. This includes providing the lease agreement contains the names of all the adults living in the home, which works to protect anyone affected by family violence in the future.
It can also serve as an opportunity to discuss with the tenant your agency’s policy regarding family violence, how that may affect their lease, and how you can ensure the victim’s privacy. Regular check-ins with the tenant and bi-annual lease reviews can also assist in identifying the presence of any early warning signs.
Assisting victims in the event of a domestic violence situation can be stressful, and agencies should ensure their staff are well versed in how to respond.
PMs or agencies may need to:
- Call 000 in an emergency or if violence is suspected
- Refer the tenant to support services or liaise with the tenant’s existing supports (if consent is in place or if the tenant’s safety has been threatened)
- Work with a support agency that is developing a safety plan with the tenant;
- Help the victim retain the tenancy (or to relocate if desired);
- Actively find solutions to rent arrears and repayment of damage
- Install extra security or locks (and be aware that there are financial support services in place to allow for assistance for victims)
- Remove perpetrator from the lease (where an Intervention Order is in place);
- Support the victim to leave (access to collect belongings) or transfer
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, and frequently police are involved as a starting point. Each state will have a list of support networks and financial resources for people affected by family violence.