Chief Executive of WillisPalmer: “Never has there been a greater need to eradicate domestic abuse”
Writing for The Parliamentary Review, Mark Willis, chief executive of WillisPalmer, comments on the Domestic Abuse Bill’s return to Parliament this week and why the Covid-19 lockdown has only brought about a greater need to tackle the scourge of domestic violence.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is set to return to Parliament this week and never has there been a greater need to eradicate this horrendous crime which shatters lives and damages children - and has only been exacerbated during lockdown measures.
As I stressed last week, the issue of violence in the home is only going to explode further as lockdown measures introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus continue.
For example, an estimated 2.4 million adults – 5.7 per cent – of all adults experienced domestic abuse in the last year, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales year ending March 2019.
Yet, a mere two weeks into lockdown, the national domestic abuse charity Refuge reported a 25 per cent rise in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Later that same week, calls had increased by 120 per cent and traffic to the charity’s website which has advice for victims of domestic abuse had shot up by 700 per cent.
Furthermore, a recent report by the home affairs select committee revealed that Chayn, a project helping women experiencing abuse through resources on online safety, mental well being, law and finance reported that visits to its website had trebled in March 2020 compared to the same month the previous year.
That very report also revealed that the Men’s Advice Line for male victims of domestic abuse saw an increase of 16.6 per cent in its call volumes, while research conducted by Counting Dead Women calculated that at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children had taken place between March 23 and April 12, double that of an average 21-day period in the last decade.
The home affairs committee has since called for tackling domestic abuse to be a central pillar of the broader strategy to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.
We at WillisPalmer have raised concerns over the last few weeks about the impact of lockdown measures on vulnerable families. Families being cooped up at home are lacking routine and social interaction and harbouring concerns about job stability, finances and potentially juggling home-working with home-educating children, on top of huge concerns around coronavirus itself.
All of these factors are exacerbating mental health problems and can result in people self-medicating with increased consumption of alcohol or drugs. While families are living in cramped or claustrophobic conditions where domestic abuse may or may not already be on the radar, the two factors combined can lead to abuse as tempers fray.
There are a number of issues that are heightened during lockdown. Social workers have told us that women are too embarrassed or fearful of the perpetrator to tell their friends that they are being abused. The fact that abuse is occurring therefore tends to only come to light if children at school opt to tell a friend or confide in a teacher, which then leads to a referral to children’s services and social work intervention.
However, since schools are only open for vulnerable families already known to children’s services and the children of key workers, other children do not have an outlet to disclose what is happening at home. What is concerning is that a mere 5 per cent of vulnerable children known to children’s services are attending school despite being eligible for a place, meaning that very few have access to the refuge of school and their friends.
Also, because many social work departments are running on skeletal staff as social workers with underlying health conditions are self-isolating, the thresholds for intervention within children’s services are being raised and social workers are only seeing children where there is evidence of neglect or abuse, rather than merely a ‘hunch’ or suspicion as before, and so problems are not coming to light that way either.
Furthermore, since families do not have the usual routine and many are not working or working at home, which can cause further tension, there is very little opportunity for a woman to leave her abuser.
Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, has also said the following: “Ordinarily, the window for women to seek help is extremely limited. During periods of isolation with their perpetrators, this window narrows further. It is critical that women have alternative, digital ways of accessing help.”
We have been issuing warnings for many weeks now that if we are not careful, the impact of lockdown measures – and the child poverty that may ensue - on vulnerable families has the potential to cause more misery than the virus itself.
We are storing up a plethora of deep-rooted social problems for when lockdown measures are relaxed or lifted and, without a doubt, children’s services departments are going to be inundated with referrals where women have spent months locked inside with their abuser while children have witnessed violence.
And if these people affected do make it safely out of lockdown, there will be a range of ingrained issues that will need addressing within the whole family.
It is, therefore, of massive concern that only five per cent of children allocated a social worker are actually attending school, meaning most have no outlet or break from the situations they are encountering.
WillisPalmer welcomes the return of the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament but the government has to get it right. Legislation alone will not solve the issue and put a stop to this heinous crime.
We need properly funded and resourced children’s services departments with capacity to respond to the influx of referrals that will undoubtedly emerge after lockdown measures are relaxed, and access to expert guidance for the more complicated cases which will come to light.
In the meantime, we need to ensure that school staff and social workers have the protective measures in place to enable them to carry out visits to children, in circumstances where domestic abuse has been a feature previously. This will ensure that this complex issue can be tackled head on.