Partnerships, blended approach & wider digital inclusion: the way forward for domestic abuse organisations
Malin Joneleit, Public Affairs Officer at The National Lottery Community Fund, reports on learning from a recent key conveners’ session, which explored the impact COVID-19 and the lockdown are having on victims of domestic abuse and the difficult work being done by charities and organisations to meet the heightened demand for services. Panellists at the session were from Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance, Stockport Women’s Centre, Women in Prison, Refugee Women of Bristol and Calan DVS.
In the past five years, The National Lottery Community Fund has invested over £173.9 million into 757 projects that tackle domestic abuse, and since 2016, Our Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) has directly invested £48.5 million into women’s and girls’ organisations across England.
Violence against women and girls continues to be a serious issue in the UK. Statistics show (The Guardian, 8 Feb 2018) that almost one in three women has experienced domestic abuse and one in five women has experienced sexual assault since turning 16.
The lockdown has resulted in victims of domestic abuse being confined at home with their abusers, exacerbating the situation and making it more difficult to contact services (Vonne discussion paper: Impact of COVID-19 on Violence against Women & Girls).
There is concern that perpetrators may be using the current circumstances to further control their victims by cutting them off from friends, family, and others who could help. With schools closed, children and young people living in abusive households have less support, respite and opportunities to disclose abuse.
Results from an initial survivor survey carried out by Women’s Aid in April 2020 shows the significant impact of COVID-19 on the experiences of women experiencing domestic abuse: 67.4% of survivors who are currently experiencing abuse stated that the abuse had worsened since the beginning of the pandemic, while 76.1% said that they now have to spend more time with their abuser (Women's Aid, Covid-19: Resource Hub).
Services have reported that, since March, fewer new referrals have been received (Scottish Government, Coronavirus (COVID-19): domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls - 30/3/20-22/05/20). By proactively contacting people they know are at risk and by trialling new, discreet pathways for victims to reach out for help, services are trying to counteract this trend and reduce the risk of harm.
Rapid digitisation of the sector
With physical service locations being closed, many organisations have moved to remote support via telephone and virtual means. Emma Wakeling, our Knowledge & Learning Coordinator, reported that many charities have been using social media to highlight that services are still available and give ways to access them.
To enable victims who have limited access to technology due to increased scrutiny from their abusers and poverty, projects are providing those at risk with phones or tablets, reimbursing calls to helplines, or paying for internet access.
One of our grant holders, Pathway Project in Lichfield introduced a pop-up chat at the beginning of lockdown, encouraging anyone who accesses their website to use the chat function to speak to a member of staff.
To provide guidance to charities about helping those who are unable to call helplines or access computers while being trapped with their abusers during lockdown, Catalyst, who provide free digital services and tools to charities, have launched DigiSafe, a step-by-step digital safeguarding guide for charities designing new services or taking existing ones online. It helps charities to risk assess their projects and design them with safety in mind.
Sarah Cheshire, one of our Evaluation Managers, reported during our key convener’s session that our grant holders found that some women who do not access face-to-face services regularly have engaged better virtually. This may be due to women having more control over when and how they make contact.
Meanwhile, Jane Powell from Calan DVS, Wales, who deliver services primarily in rural areas, highlighted that the digitisation of their services had both been a challenge and an opportunity. While their new remote and virtual services have provided access for people who have not been able to use them before, issues of digital exclusion, due to poverty, and limited and patchy network signals in rural areas have shown that a blended approach of digital and face-to-face support is needed.
Additionally, the panel agreed that it was particularly difficult to provide support to women and girls who are new to services as they are often very ‘stuck’ in their current situation, making it much harder to build the necessary level of trust online to help them. These challenges show that face-to-face appointments are still needed and sometimes the only way for survivors to access support.
Partnerships help meet demand
During COVID-19, partnership working has played an essential role in meeting needs and demand. Across the sector, organisations have teamed up to support women and girls. Organisations are trialling new ways of working in partnership with local authorities and the private sector - whether it is companies providing services and goods or local authorities committing support and implementing trauma-informed services.
Women’s Centre Cornwall work in partnership with the police to make it clear that if an assault is reported, they will only pursue that and not the survivor breaking lockdown rules. Meanwhile, the domestic abuse charity Hestia has partnered with Boots, Superdrug and Morrisons to provide survivors with a safe space to access support in their pharmacies.
Nikki Guy from Stockport Women’s Centre explained at the session how the Centre, in association with the Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance (GMWSA), has worked closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to provide emergency temporary housing to support local authorities in providing women with safe accommodation.
In seven days, through strong partnership work and unrestricted funding, they were able to create safe and secure gender-specific housing with 27 rooms for women who are homeless or facing homelessness. This included women experiencing domestic abuse, trauma, or contact with the justice system as well as other multiple disadvantages.
Trauma retriggered by lockdown
Layla Ismail from Refugee Women of Bristol spoke to our key convenors about their work to reach and support refugee women and the triggering impact lockdown could have.
She said that re-triggered trauma and long-term consequences of having been in lockdown will need to be carefully considered now that lockdown restrictions are slowly being eased. By training staff on trauma awareness, the organisation is hoping to heighten understanding and sensitivity around the topic.
An issue further aggravating the current situation for refugee women is the absence of translated information regarding COVID-19, which often leaves them helpless in abusive relationships. Refugee Woman Bristol helps to translate up-to-date government information to help those at risk stay informed.
Emma Wakeling explained that grant holders are finding that women with a history of trauma (e.g. domestic violence or sexual abuse) have often been re-triggered by lockdown. Women, who were doing OK prior to COVID-19, are returning to projects as a trusted resource for support. Behind Closed Doors in Leeds is supporting and reassuring ex-clients who have re-contacted them through telephone and video calls.
Training to equip staff
Another important discussion point centred around staff well-being during this pandemic.
We know that working in this sector is difficult and the risk of burnout is high. Working remotely is creating further challenges for staff, especially for those with lived experienced of abuse. Some are finding it hard to take traumatic phone calls in their own home, which is their safe space. The absence of casual chats and peer support from colleagues, and a lack of training to deal with that in the current situation can further aggravate the issue.
Services are working to support their staff and are looking after their well-being as they adapt to providing services from home. To help their staff, projects are providing casual, ongoing support for staff over the phone, are increasing opportunities for peer support and are ensuring caseloads are manageable.
Some organisations are running daily virtual coffees. The Women and Girls Initiative is organising weekly ‘community calls’ so that staff from domestic abuse charities can share ideas and challenges across their different projects.
To ensure their staff are well equipped to deal with the crisis, GMWSA developed bespoke training packages around trauma responsive practices and domestic violence awareness.
Initially, the training was delivered in 1-2-1 sessions, but was subsequently developed into a virtual online training package so that it could be easily accessible to all staff working across different shift patterns. This training has also now been shared online with staff working at other emergency accommodation venues across Greater Manchester and will continue for all new staff.
It has become clear that prioritising well-being in the workplace through a reflective practice culture, increased supervision and conscious workloads are essential to support employees.
Blended approach, wider digital inclusion
The women and girls sector have adapted and responded quickly to the needs of survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the current focus on providing emergency support is essential, it will be important to consider longer term consequences and impact on women and girls and ways to adapt services to be able to deal with future similar crises.
The rapid digitisation of women’s and girls’ services has brought forward challenges and opportunities. New pathways to reaching victims of domestic abuse have been created and early feedback indicates that a blended approach towards service provision will enable services to support more people. Face-to-face meetings are an essential service, but virtual meetings have extended the reach of and access to services.
Going forward, it will be vital to build on this learning by widening digital inclusion and providing a range of options for accessing support.
You can find practical lessons for remote service delivery during COVID-19 at www.tnlcommunityfund.org.uk/insights/covid-19-resources/responding-to-covid-19
For further training on psychological first aid and helping people to cope with the emotional impact of COVID-19, visit www.futurelearn.com/courses/psychological-first-aid-covid-19/1.