Domestic violence is often described as a “hidden epidemic” within the UK. Even before Coronavirus forced the country into lockdown, support services faced funding and resourcing challenges, and many people fleeing domestic abuse already faced barriers to accessing support, but as social distancing has become the dominant policy response to suppress Covid-19, it is clear there have been unintended consequences for domestic abuse victims which have exacerbated the challenges in providing and accessing support.
An increase in reporting of domestic violence
Figures show that calls to domestic abuse services have increased significantly worldwide during the Coronavirus pandemic. Calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25% after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020. More than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown; in June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual, according to the charity Refuge, who runs the service.
An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama found that three-quarters of victims told them that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received and research by a team at LSE showed that while the overall level of domestic abuse crimes (not calls) have remained stable when compared with the long-term trend, calls to the Metropolitan Police between March and July which related to reports of domestic abuse increased by 11% compared with the same period in 2019.
This same research from LSE also noted some changes in the characteristics of the cases being reported, with calls more likely to be made by “third parties”, such as neighbours, and that while abuse by ex-partners fell by 9.4%, abuse by current partners and family members increased significantly – by 8.5% and 16.4% respectively.
In early May, the government announced a £76m package to support the “most vulnerable in our society”, including victims of domestic violence and modern slavery, rough sleepers and vulnerable children. However, with many charities which support victims of domestic abuse struggling with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and facing a significant rise in demand for their services, concerns are being raised that the availability of specialist support could be reduced, meaning people exposed to domestic abuse may not be able to access the help they need.
Local level support for vulnerable people fleeing violence
Lockdown offered an opportunity for local authorities to think about the support offered to vulnerable people, including those who were homeless due to fleeing violence.
In Greater Manchester GMCA formed partnerships early on to secure accommodation for women fleeing violence to ensure they would have a safe space. The accommodation was intended for women who are homeless or facing homelessness, including rough sleeping or in shared supported accommodation where the service was unable to meet public health guidelines regarding Covid-19. This included women experiencing domestic abuse, trauma, or contact with the justice system as well as other multiple disadvantages. The service delivery model was designed to be a Trauma Responsive Service Model in order to create a safe and secure environment for each resident and to avoid further traumatisation. The process marked a departure from how cases of female homelessness due to domestic abuse would typically have been handled pre lockdown.
Halls of residence at the University of Cambridge were also offered to homeless women and their children after students vacated them early due to the pandemic. St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.
In both instances the partnerships allowed for practical and quick solutions to provide support to vulnerable women, filling the support gap some traditional routes like refuge shelters were unable to fill because Covid 19- restrictions on the mixing of households meant that homeless and refuge centres were operating with a limited capacity.
People fleeing domestic violence already faced significant barriers to finding the safety offered by refuge services, even before the lockdown imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic. But we know now that the pandemic has made it harder for survivors to leave an abuser or to seek help, that their experiences of abuse were made worse by the conditions imposed by lockdown and that the circumstances gave abusers more control than ever. When the pandemic is over the majority of local services expect to see a spike in people looking to access their life-saving support, but at the same time the pandemic has threatened the sustainability of the network of services which makes up this support, many of whom were already experiencing a funding struggle.
The work being done to help support vulnerable people fleeing abuse and people facing barriers to accessing refuge is more important now than it has ever been, and continuing support from government and effective partnership working will be vital to ensuring these services continue in the future.
If you need help or support in the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid online.
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