As COVID-19 spreads, the virus is bringing with it another potentially devastating impact. Physical distancing and self-isolation are effectively pasting a large target on women and children in domestic and family violence situations.
For women who are living in an abusive relationship or have recently separated, being forced to remain in one place for an extended period is frightening and dangerous.
During this challenging time, most of us are relying on technology to keep plugged in to life outside our front doors. That is particularly important for women needing to access essential support services, because in many cases online delivery is replacing face-to-face help.
However, the technology that we use to stay connected is also a tool that perpetrators use to maintain control over their victims in domestic and family violence.
As the pressure of living day-to day-increases, we know that abusive behaviours will also escalate, including some forms of technology-facilitated abuse. The additional risk needs to be addressed so those at the frontline can support vulnerable women and children effectively.
Key advice for frontline agencies supporting vulnerable women and children
Ensure the platforms you use to communicate with your clients are secure
If you are adapting your systems to communicate with clients, make sure they are encrypted and provide the highest levels of protection possible. Sensitive data and records of confidential discussions may be hacked and increase the risk to your client. Check web conferencing security advice.
Look after the safety and welfare needs of your staff
Review your outreach policies, including the use of technology (like tracking devices) to keep workers on the road safe.
Be wary of inadvertently sharing your own location or being recorded
Develop policies within your agency about how technology is to be used. For example, whether it’s allowed in interview rooms and whether or not you have encrypted technology to keep your workers and data safe when on the road.
Be aware that your client’s devices may be compromised
When contacting a client through technology be mindful that the perpetrator may have got past their privacy and security settings, so they could have remote access to the client’s devices and accounts. It’s now even more critical to check for red flags. Could spyware have been installed, for example? Also, what information are clients sharing online — and how?
Important tech issues for at-risk women and children
There are many steps you can take to help your client manage the safety of internet-connected technology:
Check for red flags
If you think the client’s privacy might not be secure, go through an online safety checklist with them.
Remember, your client’s access to safe devices may be limited if they can no longer use a computer at work or if libraries and internet cafes remain closed. But they may be able to self-check for red flags if they can access a safe desktop, phone or other device – for example, one belonging to a friend or neighbour.
Help your client update privacy and security settings
eSafety Women’s video library has step-by-steps guides to help your client improve the security of her devices and online activities.
Tech help may still be available
Retailers such as Apple and Samsung have closed their doors to protect staff, which may cause women additional stress if they think their devices have been compromised by spyware and there is nowhere to have them checked.
Online support could still be available and is worth investigating.
As long as your client can access a safe device they might be able to check their own device with a technician through live chat or messaging functions.
The security industry may offer technology support for clients
Does your agency have a trusted security provider that can help test devices and identify technology risks? Check with them to see what arrangements they have in place over this time and whether or not they can still provide advice.
Have that important conversation with your client about how much to share online
Talking about online safety with your clients has never been more important. If they post about being ‘stuck at home’, for example, it lets a perpetrator know where they are at all times. Similarly, posting images of a working from home set up might give clues about the woman’s whereabouts, available technology or new patterns of movement.
Discussions should also happen within families
Families should be encouraged to think about what, when and how they share information about their activities. Also, how they are dealing with the changed daily rhythm of life — particularly as most kids are now also at home full-time.
Take this chance to learn from kids
Now that children are not at school they will also use technology more to stay in touch with friends and family, including grandparents. This can be a chance for your client to spend fun and productive time with her children. For example, she could ask them to teach her about the social media apps and games they are using and use it as an opportunity to talk about how they can better protect themselves online.
Build your client’s confidence in safely using technology
Regardless of where your client is in her journey -- whether she is still living with the perpetrator, raw from a recent escape or moving into recovery -- it’s important to raise her awareness of the potential risks in using technology. It’s also important to empower her to improve the online safety of herself and her family.
eSafety Women has a range of resources that can help:
- Interactive tools such as our Technology Checkup and Take the Tour can help engage clients (and your co-workers) in the safer use of technology.
- Clients who have low technology skills can also visit Be Connected, another website run by eSafety which provides an excellent grounding in the basics, including self-guided online learning.
Acknowledge that a lot is being expected
Being a victim-survivors of violence is complicated enough, without having to look after the online safety of your family. The COVID-19 disruptions have made life even tougher. So, while it’s important to raise your client’s awareness of the risks of technology-facilitated abuse, she also needs to be reassured that she’s doing a great job in extremely difficult circumstances.
Encourage your client to maintain contact with her support network
We know women gain enormous strength from the trusted people in their lives. While this may be more difficult if your client has less opportunity to make unobserved contact, there are still supportive steps that friends and family can take.
It’s vital to collect evidence of technology-facilitated abuse
Continuing to collect evidence (when it can be safely done) is critical in ensuring police and the courts can hold the perpetrator accountable for his behaviour. This can include documenting events and saving screenshots, emails, text messages and other material — tips and issues to consider are available at eSafety Women.
More help for frontline workers
During COVID-19 pandemic, eSafety Women has temporarily suspended its face-to-face training for frontline workers. However, comprehensive training is still available through our online learning program.
In addition, eSafety will shortly launch training webinars so that frontline workers continue to have access to support. Please register your interest in hosting a webinar.
Tips and advice
Online safety advice for women at risk of domestic and family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic is now available.
We know that across the domestic and family violence sector frontline services are rapidly adapting and innovating so they can continue to help clients while providing safe working conditions for staff.
At eSafety, we are proud to support this incredibly valuable work.