Plan to help women seek family violence support through supermarkets

Article by Wendy Tuohy
Published in The Age, Sunday 24 May 2020

Women experiencing family violence would be able to get help through supermarkets under a plan by Victoria’s key crisis response service for women and children, Safe Steps.

Secure spaces and phone access to call police or other services would be provided by trained supermarket staff under the proposal by Safe Steps chief executive officer, Rita Butera, and supported by senior police.

Under the proposal, signs would inform women of certain words or phrases to alert staff they need help accessing safety support. A similar strategy is being used successfully in pharmacies in some European countries in lockdown.

Ms Butera said Safe Steps data showed perpetrators are exercising greater control over women and children during lockdown which means some women are struggling to make contact. Some were “using the virus as a weapon” to control women.

Greater monitoring by perpetrators is suspected to be behind a 30 per cent drop in calls to the crisis line in March. This was followed by a 20 per cent increase of family violence victim referrals by hospitals to the crisis service in April.

“Because of lockdown, women can’t use their phones; we were having examples where women were having difficulties and frightened to call,” Ms Butera said.

In recent weeks more women were also contacting Safe Steps by email, and in May phone call volume had risen to above pre- COVID-19 levels.

“A lot of women and families might have had good safety plans in place before [via being able to talk to people at work, or school drop-off or in public places such as libraries], but suddenly we took away everything that could have been a protective factor and they have nowhere to go but the supermarket or the pharmacy.”

Ms Butera is in discussions with supermarket chains and hopes to have a pilot program rolled out.

Another element could be the introduction a similar plan at large suppliers of office materials and stationery where children and young people buy educational materials, to make seeking support easier for them.

Suddenly we took away everything that could have been a protective factor and they have nowhere to go.”
Rita Butera, Safe Steps

Countries using such protections include Spain and France, where women suffering abuse can go to pharmacies and mention the code word “mask 19” to alert staff they need help calling police.

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dean McWhirter, who heads up the police campaign against family violence, endorsed the proposal.

“Anything that provides information to people at risk is worth considering; as a system response we may have missed an opportunity to provide information to vulnerable people and people at risk by not having … a source of reporting.

“Supermarkets and pharmacies were two of the key things people were able to do.”

He said he had particular concerns for children in households experiencing family violence who may not have witnessed it until lockdown, and was worried about the implications for their future mental health.

Mr McWhirter and Ms Butera both said their organisations’ data showed more people were experiencing family violence for the first time during isolation.

“There is an increase of first-time reporting and that would lend itself to the fact people are confined and exhibiting frustration over whole range of things impacting on relationships [including] concerns around employment, education and ability to pay bills.”

Police and Safe Steps have also noted an increase in third-party referrals of family violence, including by neighbours, friends or family members.

Mr McWhirter said people worried about others’ safety were strongly encouraged to call Safe Steps or police, saying “It’s OK to report on somebody else’s behalf”.

A spokeswoman for Coles said the chain was had been working with the federal government to provide information about crisis and front-line support services to vulnerable people.

If you or someone you know needs help call safe steps on 1800 015 188 or email