How to help a loved one if you suspect they are suffering family violence

For many people, the end of the year is a time of joy, a chance to gather with loved ones and celebrate the holidays.

However, it’s also one of the most high-risk times for people experiencing family violence.

Family violence rates in Victoria soar during the holidays, particularly between Christmas and New Year.Credit:iStock

Year after year, rates of family violence spike in December. According to Victoria Police figures, more than two-thirds of all assaults reported between Christmas 2020 and New Year’s Day 2021 were related to family violence. Police attended a family violence incident every five minutes.

This amounted to more than twice as many family violence assaults as on other days in the year. Last year’s data is even more concerning. December 2021 showed the highest number of family violence incidents for any month in at least the past five years. Looking at these rates, it’s clear that family violence in Victoria has reached a crisis point.

These staggering figures come on top of the already alarming rates of family violence seen throughout the pandemic. While stress and heightened tensions around the holidays may exacerbate family violence, this is not the underlying cause. Violence is always a choice.

We know family violence is preventable, and it requires addressing the elements of gender inequality that underpin it. Primary prevention, or working to stop violence before it starts, is key. We must shift the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that allow violence against women to thrive. Initiatives such as teaching children and young people about respectful relationships, in places like schools, universities and sporting clubs, are part of the process.

Victims of family violence often do not speak up, so people close to them may need to make the first move.Credit:Gabriele Charotte

In addition to primary prevention efforts, we can each play a significant role responding to family violence in our communities.

Many people experiencing family violence will not contact police. It’s often the people closest to a victim-survivor – family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues – who will be the first to know. It’s critical we know how to respond if something isn’t right.

Someone experiencing family violence might not tell you they’re being abused, but there are signs you can look out for.

It may be hard to get in touch with them, and they may seem depressed or withdrawn when you do. They might have unexplained injuries such as cuts or bruises. They might not have access to money, or may need to get permission before buying small or essential items.

Family violence is preventable, and it requires addressing the elements of gender inequality that underpin it.

You might notice that their partner or ex is controlling and jealous. Maybe the partner constantly calls, texts or monitors their movements. Perhaps that person openly criticises and humiliates them in public. Your loved one may seem nervous or walk on eggshells when the other person is around.

The signs can be subtle or difficult to recognise, which means they often go ignored. Trust your instincts. If something seems wrong, chances are you’re right.

If you’ve noticed red flags and want to have the conversation, the first step is to find a way to speak with them alone, without the perpetrator around. One way to start is by asking: “Are you safe at home?” Or: “Are you afraid of what this person might do?”

It’s important to be open and approach them with kindness and compassion while gently sharing some of the things that are worrying you. It’s a small act, but it can make all the difference this holiday season.

Being judgmental, critical, or telling someone to ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship is not helpful.

Talking about abuse is incredibly hard, and many victim-survivors will blame themselves. Help build their confidence by reminding them the violence is not their fault. Don’t pressure them to talk if they’re uncomfortable. You can always let them know you’ll be there whenever they’re ready.

Being judgmental, critical, or telling someone to “just leave” is not helpful. There are many reasons why someone might be unable or unwilling to leave an abusive relationship. Focus on what the person is saying they need from you.

Practical help you might offer includes agreeing on a code word or signal they can use if they need immediate help, getting copies of their important documents and items in case they need to leave home quickly, or providing practical support such as childcare or assistance with errands.

Let them know about specialist family violence services available in their area and offer to help them make contact. If you’re unsure what help is available, a good place to start is the list of Victorian services on the Are You Safe At Home? website.

Ultimately, consider asking the question and starting the conversation these holidays. We all have the right to feel safe at home.

And remember: if someone is in immediate danger, call the police on triple zero. Do not attempt to resolve things yourself, as this may put you in harm’s way or could create greater risk to others.

Tania Farha is the chief executive of Safe and Equal. She has an extensive background as a policy specialist.

For 24/7 family violence crisis support and accommodation in Victoria, contact Safe Steps on 1800 015 188. For support and information in other states and territories, contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.If you or someone you know may be at risk of using family violence, contact the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

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