There has been various excellent articles written about domestic abuse during Covid-19 measures, highlighting the rise of incidents of violence and the unique situation the pandemic has services facing. Rather than just repeat most of the same, I’m going to attempt to give more detail as to the problems we are facing and why simply knowing the statistics and monitoring its rise is not enough.
I’m writing this utterly exhausted and dejected, so forgive me if I’m not as coherent as I would like to be. Myself, like many other domestic abuse workers who aren’t refuge based are working from home right now, watching all of this unfold and trying to deal with it in isolation. We have even less contact from our colleagues who we both give and receive support from and cannot talk about what we are seeing happening before or very eyes in any meaningful way, to keep in line with confidentiality of the people we support. But this isn’t about us, so I’ll stop with the whinging.
We did know this was coming. Domestic abuse tripled in Hubei, the province were the outbreak first started, and 90% of all violence was reported as being domestic related. Other countries which have also implemented quarantine rules such as Brazil, Spain, Greece, France, Germany and Cyprus have also seen steep rises of domestic abuse incidents. Here in the UK, a decades worth of austerity measures from the Conservative party have left domestic and sexual abuse services severely under-resourced as well as other statutory agencies that work with victims of domestic abuse, such as children’s services, drug and alcohol organisations and mental health services.
Here in the UK, 15 organisations and charities have signed a letter to the ministry of housing, communities and local government asking them to give specific funding for domestic abuse survivors to access specialist services, arguing that the general funding allocated to all those in need is simply not sufficient.
Some refuges have had to lockdown and stop taking referrals because of the virus and we are already starting to see the impact here in just two weeks of quarantine measures. Since then, domestic homicides have rocketed here with nine people now dead in four separate incidents (at the last count. It could easily be more now) which is nearly double the domestic murder number average of one a week previously.
It isn’t just homicide we are looking at though. During this last two weeks I have never seen so many call outs for mental health crisises, attempted suicides, both accidental and intentional overdoses from the people I support. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen calls for help increase by 25%.
Frontline mental health services and charities have also seen a massive increase in people struggling to cope with with the pandemic. People are losing their jobs and despite what is being reported, evictions are still taking place, all of which could easily drive a vulnerable person back to their abuser if they have no other resources.
For the ones who are still living with a perpetrator, the chances to disclose are frighteningly scarce. There is never any privacy to tell anyone what is happening. Rooms are always occupied, phones are being checked. Even if you did, where would you go? Elderly or sick relatives are out of the question.
With the media all whipping us up into a frenzy about “covidiots”, victims of domestic abuse could easily find themselves even more isolated as we are all encouraged to turn into effective snitches on each other. That woman you keep calling the police on for keep allowing her boyfriend in and out of the house? Telling him to stay away could be far too dangerous as one referral I dealt with last week demonstrated. People seem eager to call 999 for incidents such as this , yet “don’t want to get involved” when they can hear screaming and smashing coming from the house next door for the third time that week.
The referrals we are getting through are horrifying. But some days, it is disturbingly quiet and that frankly worries me even more. Hardly any children remain in school, so the kids aren’t able to tell their teachers about what is going on at home. Most survivors do not want to call the police at the best of times, but now even less so for fear of stretching resources even further or fear of prosecution for having someone in their home who they shouldn’t have. They aren’t able to go to their GP and won’t attend Accident and Emergency for fear of catching the virus or of being a burden on already overworked staff.
For disabled people experiencing domestic abuse, their family and friend not seeing them for weeks on end, is expected rather than being seen as suspicious. Survivors working in hospitals and care homes face more accusations of infidelity as they work exhausting hours to keep people alive. Perpetrators will use their own ill health or vulnerabilities to persuade their victim to allow them back in their home and there have been incidents of abusers pretending to have Covid-19 in order to enforce the entire household to isolate with them.
What the pandemic has taught us- that many of us working on the frontline of domestic abuse already knew- is that survivors need a community behind them. This means fully resourced and trained professionals, but also their colleagues, their neighbours and the people they interact with on a daily basis. Isolation is the biggest tool that abusers will use. Look at what we can do as friends and neighbours. If you don’t know yours well and it is safe to do so, it won’t seem unusual to let them know you are there if they need to borrow a teabag or bit of milk (you absolutely don’t have to ask them directly about what you suspect). If you are an active part of mutual aid groups and haven’t already done so, now is a good time to discuss how you can support those experiencing domestic violence. If someone you know has openly talked to you about abuse in their relationship, try and set up a safe way they can let you know if they are in danger. This might be a trigger word or if you are using video technology, a gesture, such as holding three fingers to the camera to let someone know they are in danger with an agreed plan of what they wish you to do.
If you yourself are in fear of what is happening in your relationship with your partner, or ex, or a family member remember that although services may be running differently at the moment, we are still there. A lot of websites such as Refuge or Women’s aid have a 24 hour number and a ‘leave now’ function on their website. The Women’s Aid website has an online chat service that is available between. If you can, check ways you can contact your local domestic abuse service during this time. Many of my male or LGBT service users often assume their local service would not support them. Their literature should state clearly that you are welcome there, so do have a look if you can, but if you are in any doubt or have had bad experiences with local services, specialist projects such as the Mankind Initiative (for men) and Galop (for LGBT folk) are still operating.
We are physically keeping our distance to save lives, but we still need to connect by other means to save more.