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“It’s your own little prison”: Domestic abuse victims were trapped long before lockdown

For people stuck in dangerous households under coronavirus restrictions, austerity and systemic flaws created a perfect storm.

This article reports descriptions of physical and psychological abuse.

“He knows where I live, he knows my routine, he knows where the children go to school, what I do, where I go, at any given moment.”

It has been five years since her abuser was arrested and left her home, but Jo* fears his return under the coronavirus lockdown measures.

The 52-year-old still lives with her three children in the same house in Manchester she shared with her former partner, who subjected her to a psychologically controlling and sexually violent relationship for nearly two decades. This involved tracking her car, secretly filming her at home, gaslighting, turning her family against her, convincing her she was “thick” and “talentless”, neglecting their children, and nightly sexual abuse.

“I really feel for the women out there who are still with their partners, locked down. If he was still here, it would have been utterly unbearable. At least I had some respite during the day when he was at work,” she recalls. “But to have him there all day, and be unable to go out, to talk to anybody… The women and children affected by these men, they are in their own little prison.

“If he comes back into the house and does something to me, I don’t know what I would do,” she tells the New Statesman over the phone, unsure whether she would call the police.

People across the country face the same nightmare, as coronavirus forces families to spend the majority of their time indoors. The number of calls to domestic abuse charities, and indeed perpetrator rehabilitation services, has risen – and survey data suggests the intensity of abuse has worsened.

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Just over two million people in the UK are estimated to suffer some form of domestic abuse each year: 1.4 million women and 700,000 men. While social distancing led to a significant fall in most types of crime, data from London’s Metropolitan Police suggests that wasn’t true of domestic abuse.

In the six weeks up to 19 April, officers across London had made 4,093 arrests for domestic abuse offences – nearly 100 a day, on average – and domestic abuse calls to the police rose by around a third.

The number of recorded domestic abuse incidents have also shown a year-on-year rise: there were 17,275 between 9 March and 19 April: a 9 per cent increase on the same period in 2019.

Domestic abuse charity Refuge runs the national domestic abuse helpline, as well as a website through which victims can access support. It has seen a steep rise in calls and contacts over the lockdown period, and visits to its website have risen by 500 per cent.

This period has also confronted abusers with the consequences of their own damaging behaviour. Services providing help for perpetrators have seen an increase in referrals.

There was a 34 per cent increase in the number of calls received by the domestic abuse perpetrator charity Respect’s phoneline, from February to April this year, and a spokesperson tells the New Statesman that “call numbers for the month of May are looking higher than April”. Emails over the same period increased by 103 per cent, and website visits by 375 per cent.

Services are struggling to cope: a survey at the end of March by the domestic abuse charity SafeLives found 76 per cent of providers had reduced services, including face-to-face appointments, group work and court work. Just over a fifth (22 per cent) said they were not able to effectively support adult victims of abuse, and 42 per cent said they couldn’t support child victims.

The abuse figures recorded by police in the UK could also be the tip of a much larger iceberg. Italy, for example, has recorded a 44 per cent drop in domestic violence – but authorities warn that may be because victims have less freedom to call for help.

“Obviously with the lockdown, most clients can only call when it’s safe to do so, so if they’re still with their perpetrators it’s very difficult to get help,” says Ahlam Laabori, who runs a local community organisation for domestic abuse survivors called Bede House in Southwark, south London.

She and other agencies are anticipating a big rise in referrals after lockdown is completely lifted, as people are able to reach out for help, and seek to avoid being shut away again in a dangerous household during a second wave.

“When they open, schools are probably going to start finding a lot of the parents reaching out and saying: ‘I need help now,’” she says.

Sophie Linden, deputy mayor for Policing and Crime, says: “My message to those who feel unsafe and are suffering silently in their own homes, is that the Met Police is there for you If you are in danger and you need to phone 999, you should do so, and if you need help you can also call the national domestic abuse helpline who will be there to speak to you.”

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Lockdown makes it harder for victims to reach out for help, in a system that already puts the onus on them to take action.

“What I have seen happen recently, in practice and policy, is a lot of pressure placed on victims of domestic abuse,” says Emily Alison, who has worked with domestic abuse for over two decades as a counsellor and behavioural consultant for charities, social workers and police forces.

Solutions to lockdown entrapment like “hotel rooms or increased refuge spots” and “encouraging them to report” put “pressure on the victim” that can be counterproductive, she warns, lamenting the media “run and rescue” narrative. This puts the burden on victims rather than perpetrators, for whom the message is simply, “‘kick the door in, and lock the bastard up’, and I just find that utterly prosaic and completely unhelpful”.

The domestic abuse charity SafeLives is running a campaign encouraging friends, family and neighbours to “reach in” if they suspect a loved one or someone close by is being abused.

“It’s hard to reach out for help from behind closed doors, so we need somebody outside to reach in,” says Naomi Donald, who is helping with the campaign after being abused in a ten-year relationship from the age of 13 to 23.

She cites an intervention from a stranger as “crucial in saving my life” during her ordeal. Her perpetrator kidnapped her from her mother’s doorstep one night, and began dragging her through alleyways to a canal, threatening to kill her and dump her body in the water.

Naomi shouted for help when a woman walked past. “Although she couldn’t do anything at the time because she was probably scared herself, she went to my mum’s house and let my family know what was happening to me,” she says. “My sister rang his phone and told him she knew what was happening, and he brought me back.

“If you’re a neighbour and you can constantly hear an abusive relationship happening next door, you can reach in by being that person who calls the police,” she says. “You can reach in by being that friend or family member by sending a text asking if they’re ok or letting them know they can talk to you.” 

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Perpetrators are also exploiting coronavirus restrictions to abuse their families.

“Whilst demand for the helpline has surged during lockdown, it is important to recognise that lockdown itself is not a cause of domestic abuse,” says Refuge chief executive Sandra Horley.

“Domestic abuse is all about power and control and happens all year round. During Covid-19, abuse may be exacerbated with perpetrators using isolation as a tool to abuse further.”

Indeed, Bede House in Southwark received a flurry of calls in the first three weeks of lockdown, as ex-partners began threatening to break child contact arrangements and restraining orders during the mayhem of lockdown.

“Perpetrators were saying: ‘I have to come to your home to see my children because the contact centre’s closed,' or breaking non-molestation orders because they thought the police weren’t going to be able to respond accordingly,” says Laabori.

With a temporary pause in the official supervised contact required for her ex to see their children, Jo notes that this could be an excuse for him to return. “There are no restrictions on him at the moment; he could come over whenever he wanted and probably argue that I’m the supervising adult, and just turn up.”

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Not only does lockdown potentially mean more abuse, it can also mean worse abuse for those already suffering.

A Women’s Aid survey at the end of April found that, of survivors currently experiencing abuse, 67 per cent said it had become worse since the pandemic began, while 72 per cent said their abuser had more control over their life.

This rings true for public speaker and former magazine editor Natasha Saunders, 31, whose abusive ex-husband would often quit his job to keep an eye on her.

“That’s when the abuse would escalate,” she says. “Everything would get worse, the accusations would get worse, and the sexual abuse would get worse… It's so much more than physical violence: he had control over things like going into the lounge of the house, or the garden.”


Photo: Refuge / Natasha Saunders

As well as stopping her from having a job and seeing friends and family, her abuser threatened, choked and raped her over a period of eight years. “He raped me the very night after my son was born, and ripped my stitches,” she recalls. “I couldn’t go to anybody to help, it was dehumanising.

“We've all got this Jack the Ripper, dragged-down-an-alleyway idea of rape. Actually it's quite difficult to be raped in your home, go downstairs in the morning, and for your attacker not to even acknowledge what they’ve done to you. You’re just a piece of meat.”

Natasha describes her life during that time as a “literal lockdown”.

“If people’s abusive partners are furloughed and at home with them, it’s going to make a huge difference – you’ve got somebody watching you all the time,” she says. “People need to understand there are organisations which can support them: Refuge saved my life and its helpline number should be in everyone’s consciousness.”

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Domestic abuse services – like a lot of elements of the UK’s pandemic response – did not start from a strong place after ten years of austerity.

Provision was stretched before the pandemic: 64 per cent of people referred to refuge services were turned away last year, according to Women’s Aid, and the number of refuge bed spaces in England was 30 per cent below the number recommended by the Council of Europe.

There also weren’t enough professionally qualified, specialist domestic abuse workers who support high-risk victims of domestic abuse. Statistics from charity SafeLives show that the number of full-time equivalent independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs) stood at 833 in 2019 – only three quarters of the number required to support all victims and survivors at high risk of serious harm or murder across England and Wales.

On the one hand, reported incidents were rising: the number of domestic abuse crimes recorded by police reached 746,219 in March 2019, up from 599,549 the year before. On the other, cuts to funds from central government over the last decade meant local authorities had to reassess how they paid for services.

Figures from 178 local councils show that 65 per cent of them cut funding in real terms for refuges between 2010 and 2018, while a separate study by the Bureau Local (of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) found council funding for refuges across England had dropped from £31.2m in 2010/11 to just £23.9m in 2016/17.

Between 2010 and 2018, the number of domestic abuse refuges fell by almost 10 per cent – from 294 to 269, according to data from Women’s Aid.

 

Domestic abuse services for children and young people fell even more dramatically, by 18 per cent over the same period.

Natasha, who now lives with her new husband Ben and her three children, eventually secured a conviction against her abuser. That in itself is becoming less common: the number of people being prosecuted for domestic violence has fallen, even while recorded crimes rise.

Police have been sending fewer and fewer cases to the CPS, who have been prosecuting a smaller number and winning fewer convictions.

“The system is so bad, it’s eye-opening,” says Jo, whose case against her ex did not even make it to trial. “It’s a national disgrace – they keep sweeping it under the carpet, you only need to see how many cases last year were dropped.

“Then you get a lockdown like this and the cases rocket – actual murders, and assault of children.”

In the three weeks following lockdown, there were 16 domestic abuse murders in England and Wales – higher than the usual rate of two women murdered by their partners a week in the UK.

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There are a few glimmers of hope for victims amid the crisis, however. The lockdown has led to additional funding from central government to help victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

On May 2, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a £76m package of support to help the “most vulnerable”, including survivors of domestic abuse (£28m), vulnerable children (£34.15m), survivors of sexual violence (£10m) and survivors of modern slavery (£1.73m).

Domestic abuse accommodation charities can bid for £10m of that to ensure existing services remain open, as well as to create additional capacity and support.

Boris Johnson has also hosted a summit on "hidden harms" – including domestic abuse – yesterday (Thursday 21 May), with representatives from domestic abuse and children’s charities, including the NSPCC, Refuge and Women’s Aid.

The crisis may have led to raised awareness, too. The Home Office has started a hashtag campaign #YouAreNotAlone, and Respect – a charity that helps perpetrators change their behaviour – has launched the #NoExcuseForAbuse campaign.

“Coming out the other side of this, I hope if only one good thing can come from lockdown, it’s that the awareness of domestic abuse is blown up into people’s consciousness,” says Natasha.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is also making its way through parliament, aiming to tighten up the law around domestic abuse and make it easier to convict perpetrators after years of falling convictions.

In an interview with the New Statesman, chair of the Labour party’s group of women MPs and a survivor of domestic abuse herself, Rosie Duffield MP commented on how the new legislation would help make financial abuse and coercive control better-understood.

“We imagine [that domestic violence] is just a drunk guy coming home from the pub and smacking his wife,” she said. “Actually there’s so much more to it. It’s these little bits of behaviour that can build up and build up, and there may not be any physical abuse. It’s saying that we recognise it’s much more complex than that.”

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Government action on domestic abuse was urgent long before Covid-19 hit. While welcomed as a temporary measure, the emergency money will only go some way towards solving the ongoing funding crisis domestic abuse services have experienced.

The hope for survivors like Jo, Natasha and Naomi is that funding continues after the pandemic passes. Another round of austerity could risk stretching services to breaking point.

“When lockdown lifts we still need to think about how we are going to help these women and children,” says Natasha.

“My lockdown lasted for eight years.”

*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity

For support call the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247. You can also contact Refuge at nationaldahelpline.org.uk and chat online. If you think you are in immediate danger, please phone 999.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Michael Goodier is a data journalist at New Statesman media group