Domestic abuse services were struggling to meet demand before the pandemic, with one in five women being turned away from refuges because of lack of space. During lockdown there have been many reports of large increases in demand for support from both survivors and perpetrators.
Lockdown isn't the cause of domestic abuse, the responsibility remains with perpetrators. But increased time together, financial pressures and a loss of control all have the potential to aggravate pre-existing abusive behaviours.
How is the community and voluntary sector responding?
While anyone can be affected by domestic abuse, it is a crime most commonly experienced by women. The women and girls sector has adapted and responded quickly to the needs of survivors during the crisis. National Lottery funding is supporting grantholders to move to remote working and provide both proactive and crisis support, as well as supporting organisations to meet the high levels of demand expected in the long-term.
Acting early to prevent harm
- Proactively contacting people at risk and working with the statutory sector if action is needed. In Oxfordshire, Reducing the Risk of Domestic Abuse is safely and frequently contacting everyone who has been assessed as being at high risk of abuse, to ensure their ongoing safety and support their mental health. They work closely with the police and children's social care services, who can go to people's home in case of concern.
- Trialling simple ways to ask for help. A live chat function is giving the Pathway Project in Lichfield, a new way of identifying those who need help. They introduced a pop-up chat at the start of lockdown, encouraging anyone who visits their website to chat (in writing) with a member of staff. It’s still early days, but 72 contacts in the first 12 days - compared to approximately six contacts per day to their helpline in 2018/2019 - suggests that this is a valuable addition. Some women are finding it safer to make contact this way than by phone as, “having an online chat may simply make it seem as if they were messing around on their phone." They are also looking into other ways of getting their message of support out, for example by producing small, discreet items with their helpline number printed on, that can be carried without risk.
- Raising awareness to let people know support is available. Charities have been using the national social media campaign #YouAreNotAlone to show how people can ask for help during lockdown. Respect has launched a campaign aimed at perpetrators: #NoExcuseForAbuse. It frames abuse as a choice and encourages anyone struggling during the pandemic to seek help, rather than behave abusively.
Safer access to support
Abusers can control others' movements and access to their phone, computer or tablet, so grantholders are working to find safer ways to support survivors remotely.
- Devices, internet access, and phone credit. Angus Women's Aid in Scotland are loaning out tablets and paying for internet access for young people involved in their Young Experts project. Similarly, Swansea Women’s Aid in Wales is requesting donations of phones and top-up vouchers to distribute among women and young people who are at risk.
- Better tech for staff. The Endeavor project in Bolton upgraded mobiles for staff so that they could make video calls to clients, and organisations like Monklands Women's Aid in Scotland have upgraded their phones and tablets.
- Expanding opening hours. Demand for help from Birmingham and Solihull Women's Aid is 120% higher than before the lockdown, so they've extended their helpline from a weekday-only service to seven days a week.
- Online peer support. New online support groups are helping survivors feel less isolated and more empowered. An ex-service user of VIDA, a charity working with young women in Sheffield, is coordinating their craft group and posting out resources that offer therapeutic activities and self-care to help women feel less isolated.
- Face-to-face appointments. Thrive Women's Aid in Port Talbot is running pre-booked and drop-in appointments for women who need emergency or essential support and cannot access this remotely.
- Creating privacy. Noa Girls works with young women from the Orthodox Jewish community in London. They have provided clients with white noise machines to make it more difficult for others to overhear their conversations.
- Covering costs. The trained counsellors of Accord Northern Ireland listen and respond to callers with couple/family relationship issues. They reimburse phone expenses to make sure no one misses out on support because of money worries.
Tailored support for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women
We know that organisations with a track record in working with minority groups are more likely to have their trust; especially when they are led by people from the communities they support, or work in effective partnership with other grassroots and community groups.
- Listening and adapting to what's needed. In Stockton-on-Tees, The Other Perspective consulted with local community leaders and found there was a lack of knowledge about domestic violence and issues like coercive control amongst refugees and asylum seekers. They also heard that language barriers and fear of being misunderstood or not believed meant that women facing abuse were more likely to approach small refugee organisations and community leaders, rather than national domestic abuse charities or the NHS. In response, a new project worker will link up with local services to create referral routes, and support survivors in practical ways, including completing paperwork and interpreting. The service will be promoted in six community languages.
- New ways to connect. Sistah Space is a volunteer-run community organisation that offers specialist domestic and sexual abuse services to women of African and Caribbean heritage. Their small grant will pay for laptops and phones so they can offer an online service to provide emergency support during evenings and weekends. They also plan to help some of the "Windrush era" over-60s they support to access the "virtual world" for the first time; getting the support they need and connecting with others.
- Tackling cultural taboos. In Derby, the Gift Wellness Foundation will distribute sanitary products to over 800 vulnerable girls and women from Pakistani and refugee communities. Women have told them that money concerns, cultural taboos, and physical restrictions on going out are barriers; especially for women who are homeless, experiencing domestic violence or who rely on food banks.
- Practical and affordable advice. Sahara supports Indian and Pakistani women in Preston and can provide support in Urdu, Gujarati and Punjabi. They are always able call women back so they don't have to pay for call minutes or data.
Meeting basic needs
- Meeting basic needs. Children’s charity KidsOut have just received a small grant to provide supermarket vouchers to families in women’s refuges across Scotland. Belfast and Lisburn Women's Aid have been funded to buy a van so they can deliver supplies to women and families who have escaped domestic abuse and modern slavery in Northern Ireland.
Providing safe accommodation
- Staying open, safely. Most refuges have remained open throughout the lockdown, providing safe housing and support to those who have fled abuse. They’ve revised cleaning and safety measures to protect residents and staff. Calan DVS, one of the largest domestic abuse charities in Wales, has been working with local schools to procure Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) visors for refuge staff.
- Raising awareness of trauma. To increase capacity, many cities have converted hotel and B&B rooms to provide mixed-sex accommodation to homeless people. But this isn’t always suitable for survivors who are vulnerable or traumatised. The Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance (GMWSA) have recruited a support coordinator to implement gender- and trauma-informed support for residents. They’ve also developed training packages around trauma responsive practices and domestic violence awareness for all hotel staff, including security.
- Looking out for children and young people. To respond to an increase in substance misuse and mental health issues, Birmingham and Solihull Women's Aid are employing a children’s work practitioner to deliver a mix of weekly face-to-face and online sessions for children living in refuges. This practitioner will help to reduce isolation, support children to make sense of their experiences and deliver therapeutic care, while giving mums some valuable quiet time.
Working with perpetrators
- Safety planning to manage during lockdown. Respect is continuing to run its helplines as normal and has produced guidance on how charities and groups can continue to work with perpetrators during the crisis. They recommend that remote support focuses on safety planning, stress and de-escalation techniques, rather than long-term attitudinal and behavioural change. This aims to make perpetrators less volatile, lowering the risk of harm to the survivor. They also highlight the need to talk to perpetrators about privacy, especially if they're taking part in telephone or web-based support while living with victims and their children.
To replace face to face support, Calan DVS in Wales have been proactively contacting perpetrators to discuss their situation and to remind them about, or update their safety planning, to help keep them on track.
- Expanding services. We have just funded the Drive project, which works with high-harm and serial perpetrators. Over the past three years Drive has worked with over 1,500 perpetrators in eight areas of England and Wales. With this new funding, they will expand their work to three more areas, working with domestic abuse charities, police, social care, health and housing. So far, their work has reduced physical abuse by 82%, sexual abuse by 88%, harassment and stalking by 72%, and jealous and controlling behaviour by 73%.
Our learning about domestic abuse
Staff need support, now more than ever
Working in this sector is hard and burnout is high. Self-isolation and caring responsibilities have made things harder - SafeLives found that a third of services (31%) have fewer staff. Working remotely has created further challenges, especially for staff with personal experience of abuse. Some are finding it hard to handle traumatic calls from their own home.
- Ongoing peer support. The Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) is organising weekly community calls where staff from domestic abuse charities can share ideas and issues. SafeLives Community is an online space for domestic abuse professionals to connect and support each other. It has seen a 50% increase in participation since the start of the crisis.
- Prioritising self-care in the workplace. The stalking advocacy team at Changing Pathways have found it useful to frame self-care as part of the wider goal of ending violence against women and girls. They say, "We're trying to do our best for women and girls, and if we want to do that, we need to look after ourselves." Organisations can also promote small ways to relieve stress, such as taking a break, meditating, or talking openly to a manager or colleague after a difficult day.
- Maintaining and increasing formal supervision. Ashiana Network in London has been working for several years to increase the amount of supervision for their frontline workers. As part of this, they've held workshops about burnout and vicarious traumatisation (when a person becomes traumatised due to working with traumatised clients), to increase staff awareness and improve their coping strategies.
- Contributing to research on how domestic abuse services have been affected by the crisis, such as the surveys carried out by SafeLives. These are to inform decision-makers about the impact of the crisis on services, staff, volunteers and beneficiaries.
Partnerships can create new routes to safety
The crisis has shown that it's possible to work creatively with new partners from private, third and public sectors and achieve changes that could have taken years to achieve in the past. For example, many routes to safety such as schools, healthcare providers, housing and local businesses have been closed, or aren't running as normal.
- Working with private companies to create new places of safety. Domestic abuse charity Hestia has partnered with Boots, Superdrug and Morrisons to provide survivors with a safe space to get support in their pharmacies. Women's Aid has worked with Southeastern and Great Western Railway to offer free train travel for women seeking refuge far away from the perpetrator. Liverpool Talent Match has organised a local taxi firm to take young people to their local police station if they are in crisis.
- Working with local authorities and mainstream advice services. Survivors who have been raped or sexually assaulted by someone from outside their household have feared repercussions and Women’s Centre Cornwall have raised issues around sexual violence and exploitation going unreported during lockdown. As a result, Devon and Cornwall police have made a public statement that they will only pursue the crime and not any breach of lockdown rules, to encourage victims to come forward.
- Working with new grassroots groups and volunteers. Sisters Uncut, a collective that campaigns for better domestic violence services, have created and shared resources on how newly-formed mutual aid groups can help. They've given groups a list of local domestic abuse services that they can signpost survivors to, as well as advice on how to respond if someone discloses abuse. The Pathway Project will appoint a community engagement worker to manage the new influx of volunteers who have come forward in recent weeks.
The wider community has a role to play
The wider community's help is a necessary part of eradicating domestic abuse.
- Training people and organisations as domestic abuse champions is one way to do this. Champions can understand the signs, consequences and causes of abuse; raise awareness; identify people who are being abused, and signpost them to specialist help. Reducing the Risk of Abuse takes this whole-community approach by supporting professionals and community members to tackle abuse together. They've established and trained a large network of champions who act as a source of expertise within their service, school or community group. They started in 2005 with 19 champions in Oxfordshire and now have over 2,000 active champions across Buckinghamshire, West Berkshire, Milton Keynes, Slough, the London Borough of Havering, Oxfordshire and Torbay. In recent years this network has expanded to the wider community, with programmes in place to train hairdressers, landlords and students.
- Working with the wider community. Domestic abuse charity Onus are rolling out their Safe Community initiative across Mid and East Antrim in Northern Ireland. They train and empower communities to recognise and respond to anyone affected by domestic abuse. They work with businesses, churches, community groups and schools to help survivors access support, quickly, discreetly and safely. Their online training will help people develop a basic understanding of domestic abuse, understand the different pathways to support, and how to effectively signpost people to them.
- Working with homeless people. Four charities: St Mungo’s, Standing Together, Single Homeless Project and Fulfilling Lives in Islington and Camden have created guidance for those who work with homeless people on how to spot and help someone being abused. This includes how to undertake a phone or face-to-face welfare check safely (both in terms of keeping a safe distance and ensuring that the survivor can talk about the abuse safely).
Going digital can offer survivors more control
The switch to remote support has often been necessary during lockdown. Despite the challenges, it's brought benefits too. Women and Girls Initiative projects have found that women who don't easily access their face-to-face services, have engaged better virtually because it gives them more control over when and how they make contact. We need to apply this learning in future, by continuing, or expanding virtual provision for those women who find it easier to use. But don't think it can replace face-to-face provision – both options are needed.
Plan now for future need
Grantholders know that domestic abuse has increased during this time and are expecting a wave of survivors seeking support as restrictions are eased. By increasing provision now and over the next six months, we have an opportunity to prepare for and meet this need. Action for Children's counselling service in Newcastle-upon-Tyne already has a waiting list. It is likely that many children who have witnessed or been affected by domestic abuse will not be identified as needing support until they return to school, when their wellbeing may have deteriorated significantly. The project has hired an additional counsellor for six months to address this backlog so children can be supported when they most need it.
Things to consider when applying for funding
If you're applying for funding, here are some questions worth considering:
Because this sector has historically been underfunded, there can be competition for grants. It's important to think about the strengths of your organisation's approach and ensure it doesn't duplicate what others are already doing. Research has found that small, specialist organisations are often best-placed to understand what women need, but larger charities add value with their reach and resources.
How will you build a strong partnership?
Partnerships are important, but we know there can be barriers to making them work. Think about the blend of approaches as well as how you'll tackle any power imbalances between smaller, specialist organisations and larger charities.
Survivors are often not just dealing with abuse, but may require legal, health, financial, immigration and housing support too. And their needs change over time and can be complex. How will you make your support adaptable, and avoid setting any time limits that may hinder recovery?
Having people with lived experience of the issues survivors face is important to building accessible and people-led services. How will you make sure that the experiences and needs of people of different age, gender, sex and ethnicity will be heard and addressed?
Giving survivors a say in crisis services can be challenging but is worth it. Start by empowering people to decide on their support plan and decide on or lead activities they participate in.
Domestic abuse ruins confidence and identity. Peer support, wellbeing and group activities such as yoga or crafts are a low-cost service, but have a role to play and can complement one-to-one support. How will you empower survivors to choose or lead on these activities?
Burnout in this sector is high, leading to high staff sickness or turnover. Think about how you review caseloads and be sure to budget for regular supervision, peer support and/or training. SafeLives recommends that a domestic violence advisor shouldn't have a caseload higher than 65-85 cases a year.
We're making sense of what we're seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there'll be things we've missed, haven't noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.
We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.
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This page was last updated: 23 June 2020.