COVID-19: MSF keeping 'close watch' on domestic abuse cases as more reach out for help over circuit breaker period

COVID-19: MSF keeping 'close watch' on domestic abuse cases as more reach out for help over circuit breaker period

Child abuse or depression 01 - file photo
Photo illustration of a child in distress. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is keeping a "close watch" over a potential rise in domestic violence cases, as more people come forward to seek help amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Singapore has introduced strict safe distancing measures to fight the spread of the disease as part of a "circuit breaker" period, which started on Apr 7. 

Under the new measures, schools and workplaces offering non-essential services have been closed, and people are encouraged to stay home. However extended periods of time with family members can also lead to an uptick in domestic conflict, as some experts have pointed out.

Since the start of the circuit breaker period, MSF and social service agencies have seen an increase in referrals and enquiries related to domestic conflicts and violence, said an MSF spokesperson in a statement on Thursday (Apr 23).

READ: Commentary: Isolated with your abuser? Why family violence seems to be on the rise during COVID-19 outbreak

The ministry's adult and child protective services saw a 14 per cent increase in enquiries in the first two weeks of the circuit breaker period (from Apr 6), compared with the two weeks prior.

For the Family Violence Specialist Centres and PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection, that figure was 37 per cent. 

This increase could be attributed to "heightened vigilance and reporting", given that more people are aware of the risk of domestic violence during the COVID-19 period, said MSF.

But the ministry pointed out that this did not necessarily mean a corresponding rise in actual acts of violence. 

"Enquiries touched on issues relating to tension within the family, conflicts and disputes, which might not involve an actual incidence of violence," said the ministry.

TASK FORCE WILL STUDY HOW TO BETTER SUPPORT VICTIMS

A new inter-agency task force set up to tackle family violence will be looking into the issue and putting forward its recommendations within a year.

Announced in February, the task force consists of members from Government agencies, the courts and community partners including hospitals, family violence specialist centres and crisis shelters. It held its first (virtual) meeting on Thursday.

Members discussed ways to better combat family violence, including strengthening support for spouses facing abuse to "enhancing collaboration amongst stakeholders", said MSF and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in a joint release.

READ: MSF outlines stepped-up assistance to vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19 outbreak

In the coming months, the task force will look at challenges faced by different groups experiencing violence and identify ways the Government and community partners can tackle the issue.

It will look into holding a series of consultations with relevant social service agencies and non-governmental organisations, to gain a better understanding of the issue, with a view to developing initiatives to support victims.

There will also be a focus on how to better support victims through the criminal justice process.

"As the family violence landscape evolves, MHA and the police will explore how to better support victims of family violence through their journey, from the initial report to its conclusion in the criminal justice system," said the release.

"This could involve strengthening our operational processes, and further enhancing protocols between the courts, social service agencies and other stakeholders to ensure that victims receive seamless and timely support."

The task force's co-chairs both acknowledged the challenges brought about by the novel coronavirus.

"We have to be even more vigilant to address family violence issues given the challenges brought about by COVID-19," said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development Sun Xueling. 

"A whole-of-society effort is needed to tackle family violence and we have built strong community networks over the years," said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Social and Family Development and Ministry of Education Faishal Ibrahim.

"During this circuit breaker period, we can and will continue to collectively help families manage stress so that family conflicts do not escalate into violence."

WHERE TO GET HELP DURING THE CIRCUIT BREAKER PERIOD

MSF's statutory protective services and community-based social services are essential services which are still operating during the circuit breaker period, said the ministry.

Officers and social service professionals are stepping up on check-ins via phone or video call to vulnerable groups, and assessments for new cases will be done via telephone or video call.

"Where there is a need for urgent and critical cases, MSF officers and community social workers will make home visits to engage those who need help, while practising stringent safe distancing measures to safeguard the well-being of all concerned," added the ministry.

READ: COVID-19: Worries about pandemic see more calls to mental health helplines

Crisis shelters are still providing temporary accommodation to family violence survivors who need urgent refuge, it said.

Family violence victims can continue to apply for Personal Protection Orders at the Family Justice Courts or arrange with the Family Violence Specialist Centres to apply via video-link.

The National CARE Hotline launched earlier this month is also operational 24/7, manned by trained professionals.

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, here are some ways to get help:

  • The National CARE hotline: 1800 202 6868
  • PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection: 6555 0390
  • Trans Safe Centre: 6449 9088
  • Project StART: 6476 1482
  • Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6445 0400
  • HEART @ Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6819 9170
  • ComCare hotline: 1800 222 0000
  • AWARE’s Women’s Helpline: 1800 777 5555 (Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm)

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Source: CNA/nc(ac)

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