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There has been a spike in the number of family harm investigations in the Waitaki district, but do the statistics reveal an increase in offending, or have people become more willing to come forward and speak about it? Gus Patterson investigates.

For some people, the Covid-19 lockdown offered a break from work and a chance to catch up on odd jobs around the home.

But for others, it meant being trapped in an abusive situation.

Data released to the Oamaru Mail under the Official Information Act showed police investigated 58 instances of family harm in Waitaki in March – the highest single-month number in the past 18 months.

Family harm investigations in the district have increased over the past five years, from 284 in 2015 to 496 in 2019. There were 336 investigations between January and July this year.

However, police and social workers say a higher number of investigations points to family harm becoming increasingly less tolerated by society.

Sergeant Blair Wilkinson, of Oamaru, said many of the reports during lockdown were due to frustration born out of people being “cooped up”.

Despite the higher number of investigations in Alert Level 4, most required low-level interventions by police, Sgt Wilkinson said.

Eleven people were arrested in March, above the recent average of seven, but not the highest, which was 12, recorded in April and June last year.

People were more willing to come forward with information or reports of family harm, he said.

“Statistically, this appears as a worsening problem, but actually reflects a better, connected community, an increasing community understanding of the problem and enhanced trust and confidence in the police.

“One of the concerning aspects during [lockdown] restrictions was that potentially victims who may have sought help were contained with their abusers and the opportunity for them to reach out for help was reduced.”

Police now looked at the wider impact of the issue, he said.

“Traditionally we have focused our attention on holding perpetrators to account.

“Over recent years, as the been implemented, the value has been recognised of identifying the causative factors which lead to family violence.

“At an individual level, it can be as simple as asking if somebody is OK if you sense something is wrong or being available to support a friend to seek help.

“Often a small act of kindness will be the turning point for somebody to make really positive change for their family.”

Family Works social worker Jodi Ryan said the problem would “appear to get worse before it gets better”.

While family harm was once a taboo topic, people were now more willing to come forward and speak about it, Ms Ryan said.

“[People] are becoming aware of the damage it causes to the future generations.

“The power of the bystander is of huge importance in stopping family harm. People seem more willing to pick up the phone and call the police if they are concerned.”

However, there were still systemic issues which meant the justice process could take a toll on the victim.

“The perpetrator needs to take ownership of what is taking place and as a society we must have readily available resources for them to access in order to break the cycle of violence in the home.

“The court process can often take a long time to unfold, also making it very hard for victims of violence to move on from what has taken place and gain their own independence back.”

If a female victim needed to be removed from a situation, she could go to the nearest Women’s Refuge shelter in Timaru.

“This can be very hard on the family unit as they often have to leave their support network and the children are displaced from school and social activities.

“They are also in a difficult position to be dealing with lawyers and are displaced from much of the local support in town.

“For these reasons there is an emphasis . . . to remove the perpetrator rather than the victim, if possible.”

Family harm investigations in the Waitaki district:

2015: 284

2016: 341

2017: 277

2018: 341

2019: 496

2020 (Jan to July): 336

Source: New Zealand Police

Where to get help

Women’s Refuge crisis
0800 733-843
Family violence information
0800 456-450
Shine National Helpline
0508 744-633
Shakti (for migrant and refugee women)
0800 742-584
National network of stopping violence
03 391-0048
Elder Abuse Helpline
0800 32 668 65
Gandhi Nivas (supporting men to be free from violence)
0800 426-344
Hey Bro helpline (supporting men to be free from violence)
0800 HeyBro