FAMILY harm callouts in Southland increased by at least 50% in the first two weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Invercargill Police Senior Sergeant Greg Baird said the “marked increase” not only reflected the severity of the issue it made officers motivated to work even harder to reduce the rates of it.
“Police only get notified of about… 25% of family harm incidents, there’s a significant amount of family harm that goes unreported.
“Attendance at family harm episodes make up to around 20% of police calls for service but absorb up to around 40% of officers’ time.”
However, in more recent months, numbers had stabilised to levels similar to last year, he said.
At the Invercargill station, the Whangaia Nga Pa Harakeke initiative had recently been established with a team of 10 sworn and non-sworn police staff dedicated to reducing family harm in the region being formed.
“Police are working more with iwi, communities and partners and have a real focus on empowering families and providing them with solutions so that they can self-manage.”
The resources Invercargill Police used to deal with family harm had expanded “quite significantly” in recent years, he said.
“We’ve got investigators looking after the high-risk families, we’ve got a stronger focus on youth and we’ve also got a big focus on inter-agency response and information-sharing, where we work collaboratively to find the best solutions for the whanau.
“They are very victim-focused.”
The team were working closely with local iwi to confront the over-representation of Maori in the justice system.
There was no simple fix, Snr Sgt Baird said.
“We’ve seen some big increases in mental health featuring in the incidents that we attend.
“Alcohol, drugs and financial pressures are also big social issues that feature in family harm incidents.”
He acknowledged there were many different levels of abuse, some of which “don’t come to light”.
Repeat victimisation, where families were constantly needing police assistance, was “unfortunately very common”.
“There’s a lot of reasons why, for example, a victim might not leave their partner who assaults them. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s not reported.”
Children were often present at incidents, which meant looking at the “long-term impact” of family harm was a priority for Invercargill Police.
It was important to identify issues with affected families early on, to ensure police could work with them to find the best solution for them.
One of the biggest misconceptions people had about family harm was that it only happened in low socio-economic groups, he said.
“It’s just not true, I think it probably gets reported a lot more in those families but it would certainly happen just as much in higher socio-economic families hear about it as much.”
Public perception of the issue was also skewed regarding gender; males were less likely to report, he said.
While charges were laid in cases with sufficient evidence, police had begun to focus more on intervention, prevention and rehabilitation.
“If you look at it from a charging perspective, what I think we’ve got to realise is that sometimes families need more of a holistic approach, rather than putting them before the courts.”
“There are still times when we must hold offenders accountable for their actions [but] our team focuses on prevention, working with the family and empowering them,’’ Snr Sgt Baird said.
The introduction of new criminal charges, for assault on a person in a family relationship or for impeding breathing, had proven to be increasingly beneficial for police and victims of assault, he said.
The ability for police to video record a victim impact statement had also recently made its way to Southland.
Snr Sgt Baird said nationally, it had resulted in an increase in early guilty pleas for family harm charges in court and had been ‘‘positively received’’.
He hoped it would have the same effect in Southland.
MESSAGE FROM POLICE
Southland Police acknowledge during lockdown periods, people may not be in a position to call police while they are confined to their homes.
Everybody deserves to be safe and feel safe so if you are in immediate danger and cannot phone us, leave your house and get out of harm’s way.
Get to a safe distance and then ask a neighbour or a passer-by to phone 111 for you.
We’d also ask people to contact police, in confidence if necessary, if you have any concerns about a neighbour, friend or family member.