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Lockdown Ending Could Lead To A Spike In Domestic Abuse, Researchers Warn

6 min read

Easing of lockdown restrictions could prompt a surge in demand for domestic violence services as attempts to leave abusive relationships often trigger an escalation of abuse, new research has warned.

Organisations working with survivors are calling on the government for renewed support in anticipation of a spike in abuse. 

Several domestic abuse organisations have warned that issues around domestic abuse have been  exacerbated by lockdown, but concern has also been raised that in cases where abuse has lain dormant in the already restrictive conditions of lockdown, it could flare up again once it is eased. 

New research by the Drive Partnership, which works with high-risk, high-harm perpetrators of domestic abuse, found that lockdown restrictions have made it easier for those who had previously used domestic abuse in their relationship to maintain control over their victims without, in their view, being actively abusive. 

Drive’s survey asked people who use or had used abuse in their relationships about their experience of lockdown. Almost all of those surveyed said they had not experienced more relationship problems, and more than half reported a reduction in name calling, shouting and aggression. 

Additional research by academics at City, University of London, and Durham University into how lockdown rules affect domestic abuse has highlighted that while the effects of lockdowns are complex, impacting different types of abusive relationships in different ways, the restrictions have in many cases caused victims to remain in abusive relationships and delay separations until restrictions ease when it might be easier to seek help without alerting their perpetrator. 

The same research identified a surge in first-time domestic abuse incidents reported to the police after the first national lockdown. 

‘We know the voluntary sector has been reporting far higher increases in demand for domestic abuse related services than the police over lockdown,” Kyla Kirkpatrick, Director of Drive, said.

“We fear the relatively low level increases in police callouts may reflect the daily efforts of victims to tread on eggshells, and we worry about what’s ahead when lockdown lifts.”

During the first national lockdown, calls to the domestic abuse charity Refuge’s helpline increased by 65%, and the number of visits to their helpline website increased by 700% in the same period. 

Solace, a charity supporting women experiencing domestic and sexual violence, recorded a 62% increase in women calling their advice hubs in May, at the height of the first national lockdown. This was followed by another spike in September, as schools returned, which Solace attributes to women having greater freedom to move and more time to access support. 

The acting chief executive of Women’s Aid Nicki Norman told PoliticsHome that the results of Drive’s survey were “disturbing” and “likely to be because the pandemic increased their [perpetrators] control over all aspects of their partners’ lives.”

She continued: “Our research has shown clearly that the lockdown shut down routes to support and safety for women and children experiencing abuse.”

A Women’s Aid survey in June found that 78% of those living with an abuser said that lockdown restrictions had made it harder for them to leave their perpetrator. Nearly three quarters of domestic abuse support services surveyed by Women’s Aid expected to see an increase in demand in the next six months as lockdown restrictions are eased. 

“We share the concerns highlighted by this [Drive’s] survey that when restrictions are finally eased, separations will increase, and perpetrators will start to feel that they are losing control. This will put survivors at risk of further harm,” Norman continued.  

“We need the government to deliver a sustainable and multi-year funding settlement for specialist support services, which ensures they are resilient for when the next lockdown lifts and more survivors are able to reach out for help. 

“Short-term, piecemeal and emergency funding pots must end.”

Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who sat on the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee in the Commons, echoed Norman’s calls for increased support. 

“Funding for the sector has always been ad-hoc, so it’s difficult for organisations to plan,” Coyle told PoliticsHome. “They want to be able to meet demand but they’re nervous about what is out there and what they can offer.”

The Home Office has allocated £27 million in emergency funding to domestic abuse support services since the start of the pandemic, £25.5 million of which has already been paid out. A further £40 million is to be provided by the Ministry of Justice. However, Women’s Aid estimate that, as things stand, there is a £393 million shortfall across the sector. 

Baroness Bertin, who has recently tabled several amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, told PoliticsHome that what is needed is “a long term-funding strategy, which isn’t just year on year.”

Bertin is supporting an amendment to the Bill that would see the duty on accommodation-based services be extended to community based services, such as supporting women through the criminal justice system, counselling, or providing them with accommodation after they have left refuge.  

There is concern that the duty in the Bill for local authorities to fund refuge beds is lacking clarity on what councils need to implement and how it will be funded. Women’s Aid’s funding estimate found that £173 million would be needed to ensure the duty is funded appropriately. However, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who provide this funding, estimated costs of £125 million for 2021-2022. 

Fiona Dwyer, CEO of Solace, told PoliticsHome: “The Government must ensure that local authorities are clear on their specific responsibilities under the Domestic Abuse Bill and they are provided with adequate funding to support the need identified in their local area. 

“Without this we will be heading towards a cliff edge in funding of vital service, just as more women are reaching out for support.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government disputed the shortfall in funding of domestic abuse services. "Tackling domestic abuse is a top priority for this Government and we’re supporting councils to prepare for the new duty in the Domestic Abuse Bill which will be backed by £125 million in funding,” they said.  

“We worked closely with councils and service providers to understand the costs of the new duty and will set out individual funding allocations in due course.” 

“We will assess the delivery of the new duty, including funding levels, once it is in place.” 

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