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When staying home is unsafe: domestic abuse in lockdown

Image credit: Laura Dodsworth

When staying home is unsafe: domestic abuse in lockdown

“Home for most is a safe and comfortable environment, but it’s not for women who are in abusive situations. It’s not safe, it’s not comfortable, now more so than ever,” Scottish Women’s Rights Centre solicitor Lyndsay Monaghan says.

In the first few weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, Scottish police received fewer reports of domestic abuse and support services recorded a dip in calls to their helplines.

While English organisation Refuge reported a 25 per cent increase in calls to its hotline, the situation was different in Scotland – calls to domestic abuse helplines fell by 20 per cent.

However, one month into the “stay at home” orders, as lockdown becomes the new normal, a clearer picture of life for women and children living with abusive partners is beginning to emerge.

“Just as things settle down, we’ve found more so than ever that women are phoning with their abuser being in the house, we are having to do safety checks, and if women are at home with their abuser we are trying to get them to email rather than call because it’s obviously not safe to speak on the phone in that situation,” Monaghan tells Holyrood.

“We found our helplines actually weren’t as busy over the last couple of weeks and I think that is because women have obviously now got their children in the house, they’re not at school, people are probably working from home, which makes things more difficult.

“I think that caused a decrease in our helpline calls, but we’ve actually found that those have been increasing again.

“I am hearing from our outreach work, through helplines and legal surgeries, that women are in lockdown with their abusive partners and it’s clear that the pandemic is heightening the risk to women. They’ve not got the same freedom that they perhaps once would have had. We’re finding that it might be the safest option in these circumstances for them to leave the family home.”

Police Scotland head of the Domestic Abuse Task Force, DSU Debbie Forrester, confirmed to Holyrood that there had been a “slight decrease in reported domestic abuse incidents” in comparison to the same time last year.

But she also warned: “It is too soon to say why this might be the case and we are very aware that this decrease does not necessarily reflect what may be happening behind closed doors.

“We know people don’t always report abuse immediately. It could be months or years before we have a clear picture of the effect enforced isolation because of COVID-19 has had on the incidence of domestic abuse in Scotland.”

It’s a similar story for Scottish Women’s Aid.

“We all predicted - and indeed saw - a fall in calls to our helplines,” Scottish Women’s Aid chief executive Marsha Scott tells Holyrood.

“You can’t assume when calls go down that there’s less need, just like you can’t assume when police calls go down that there’s less domestic abuse. There’s so much domestic abuse out there, just a reminder: one in four women experience it, one in four men perpetrate it.

“In the context of lockdown and pandemic, absolutely we worry about increases in domestic abuse, but we also know that for the first few weeks what women are doing is trying to make sure they have enough toilet paper, trying to put food on the table. The same kinds of challenges only under more difficult circumstances.

“And so, we would have been really surprised, actually, if we hadn’t seen a dip in calls because women don’t tend to call for help as an emergency, domestic abuse is only rarely about a sudden physical assault.”

Over the Easter weekend Scott says contact with helplines began to return to “normal levels”.

“We had 45 contacts over the weekend. I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but my sense is that women are adjusting to the new normal,” she says, “what I can’t predict is whether those numbers will continue to rise.”

Both domestic abuse support services have transitioned their staff to work from home, but this does not mean they have reduced their outreach.

In fact, the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre – which provides free legal information, advice and representation to women affected by violence and abuse – is expanding and will soon offer an online contact form to provide quick, accessible advice when required.

“We’ve been moving towards doing all our helplines and surgeries remotely, so nothing has reduced, we’ve actually increased the services that we’re doing just now,” Monaghan says.

“We’ve started an urgent legal advice service where women can come through our helplines or through our service to get appointments on a Tuesday. We’ll be launching an online service for women who can’t phone or can’t have the video appointments, because they’re in the house with their abusive partner.”

Scott says the past few weeks have been an “extraordinary challenge” for Scottish Women’s Aid.

Due to the outbreak, she says women’s refuges are now operating at a reduced capacity, but she stresses that support is available for those who need it.

“I have to say, never in the 40 years I’ve been working have I ever had to do a radical redesign of services in two weeks,” Scott says.

“We have been really embracing our web chat function and our email function, and we’re moving to providing a text function service, but that’s the direction we’ve always been going in because it’s always difficult for women who live with their abuser to contact outside help.

“We’ve had some significant changes in some of our refuge provision, that will be managed differently depending on the service and the region, so for instance many of our services have a multi-family refuge provision, and now they’re going to single-family in order to manage exposure to the virus.

“That has indeed shrunk the available refuge spaces. But as I said, every single service is still open, still running, it just looks different.”

Scott says:

“All of the things that make it difficult to manage domestic abuse have been pretty much exacerbated by the epidemic.

“The single biggest reason women are homeless is because of domestic abuse, they are more likely to be in precarious employment, so less likely to be getting paid in this environment, and may be doing most of the unpaid caring work, which has now gone up an enormous amount because children are at home.

“The other biggest problem at the local level is child contact, usually court ordered child visitation or contact in the context of domestic abuse, which is probably the single most dangerous sort of intersection when partners are no longer living together.

She adds: “We had concerns at the beginning of the epidemic that we would be seeing and hearing about reports where abusive, non-resident parents have refused to return children saying that they’ve been exposed and now they have to go into quarantine. And in fact, we have started to hear those stories.”

Scott is calling on social landlords, housing associations and local authorities to “rapidly develop pathways” to house perpetrators of domestic abuse, so that woman and children will not be forced to move in order to be safe.

She is also asking local authorities to provide safe spaces for young people, including ensuring that children experiencing domestic abuse are prioritised for school and childcare.

Shelter Scotland is calling for special powers to be given to local councils “including the ability for them to gain access to Airbnb and other holiday lets to provide more suitable temporary accommodation for a long-term lockdown”, director Graeme Brown tells Holyrood.

“We have suggested this goes as far as compulsory letting orders. These would be exceptional measures in exceptional times to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Domestic abuse is a significant cause of homelessness at the best of times and we have concerns that people may not be offered suitable accommodation to help them escape.”

Scottish Women’s Aid will receive a boost of £1.35m in funding from the Scottish Government over six months and Scott says the “lion’s share of the funding” will go to the 36 women’s aid groups, as well as an investment in technology, hardware and training to ensure services can reach more people.

An additional £226,309 has been announced for Rape Crisis Scotland. Chief executive Sandy Brindley tells Holyrood the funding will allow the service to continue to provide support for those experiencing gender-based violence, including switching from face to face support to via phone, email or Skype.

“The funding from the government gives us the technology to enable us to do that, so that’s been really welcome,” Brindley says, adding: “But there is a more fundamental issue about how these services are funded, and the level of support that’s available.”

She says the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre recently closed its waiting list to new referrals, “because there were just over 270 people waiting on it, for 12 months”.

“I think that’s an unacceptable situation,” she says, “and I think that there’s also a worry we have about what’s going to happen once these restrictions are finally lifted.

“I think there’ll be a huge demand then on already very stretched services for those survivors who don’t feel able to access the support, for example through phone or email.

“We need to start thinking now about how we can resource that, and I think that’s really acute with the courts as well.

“When the courts finally open up there’ll be such a backlog of cases, there’ll be a real demand for advocacy services. Then, we will definitely need more resources to meet that demand.”

Brindley adds: “If there was ever a time when people needed support through the justice process, it’s now, this could go on for months.”

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