Domestic abuse is a constant problem, but has the Coronavirus pandemic made matters worse?

Domestic violence reports during the first coronavirus lockdown increased significantly, with one charity, Refuge, reporting a 25% increase. With a new lockdown in place and the festive season fast approaching, we all need to be aware of the signs of domestic abuse and help those who may be suffering as a result of it.

When we think about domestic abuse, it’s normal for physical abuse to be uppermost in most people’s thoughts. However, in today’s increasingly technological and socially driven world, serious abuse can manifest in surprising ways.

How does domestic abuse affect a person?

Abuse has phases which cycle. First, there is tension building. During this stage, the victim may attempt to change their behaviour in the hope of stopping an abusive incident from occurring. The second stage is an abusive episode. This is then followed by a reconciliation stage. At this point, the abuser may apologise, ignore the event or put blame on the victim. A period of relative normality may follow and give the false impression that the abuse has come to an end until the tensions begin to build again.

Under usual circumstances, there are ‘breathing spaces’. These allow the individual a period of respite during which they can seek support. The abuser will be away from home for activities such as work and seeing friends. The victim will be able to leave the home for permitted activities like food shopping, collecting children from school and other domestic errands. Going to school also provides an opportunity for children to escape the situation at home and ask for help.

The suspension of activities outside the home, such as during lockdown, creates a situation with no breaks and tensions begin to rise. In a survey carried out by Women’s Aid 76.1% of respondents said that their abuser was spending more time at home as a result of lockdown. As a result, the victims are likely to feel increasingly on the edge as they try to ward off an episode by keeping their abuser happy.

This extra time at home under the eye of their abuser also makes it more difficult to seek help or make arrangements to leave without being discovered. Fear of spreading the virus reduces the possibilities of in-person support from friends and family. Meanwhile being at home with your abuser reduces the opportunities for seeking help via phone calls, text messages or online. Necessary lockdown restrictions have contributed to keeping victims in their homes and support at arm’s length.

What defines abuse?

Although domestic abuse is often violent, this definition fails to appreciate the whole picture. Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as ‘an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour’.

Abusers seek to dominate their victims both through physical and psychological methods with exacting standards of behaviour. They will also want to isolate their victim and prevent access to support which could end the abuse. So this will likely include restricting who they can spend time with and inspecting phones, computers and other devices for any activity they have not authorised.

Lockdown has limited access to family and friends for support and made remotely seeking support more challenging. Calling a helpline when your persecutor is just a few feet away is not an option. And every text message or brief phone call is an activity that may subject you to further abuse if discovered. Removing access to technology is both abusive behaviour and a way to further isolate the victim. This may take the form of deleting social media accounts, refusing to top up mobile credit or confiscating devices. Thus access to support of any kind is further reduced.

Other elements of lockdown may be used as part of the abuse. For example, blaming the victim for economic difficulties, refusing to purchase medications or food and insisting that if they leave the house they will be arrested.  Lockdown may also be used as an excuse to follow a constricting regime. At the other extreme restrictions may be disregarded altogether putting the victim at risk of infection and fear that they may trigger an episode if they attempt to take precautions.

Leaving an abusive relationship

Government guidelines made it clear that leaving your home to evade domestic abuse was permitted during lockdown. But for those seeking to leave, the reality was not so simple. The impact of the virus meant many organisations closed their doors temporarily or began working remotely limiting the kinds of support they could offer. 84.8% of services have reported having to reduce the support services they offer. Additionally, government guidelines have impacted on the number of places available at refuges.

Such reductions are unlikely to give victims the confidence they need in order to leave their situation. But it doesn’t mean that they should just continue to suffer. The Police have indicated that they would not look to leave a family homeless as a result of trying to escape domestic abuse. Louisa Rolfe, West Midlands Deputy Chief Constable and the domestic abuse lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council has confirmed that they would seek to remove the perpetrator.

If you’re in immediate danger then calling 999 or texting 18001 101 remains the recommendation. Landline calls are traced and if the operator thinks you are in danger they will put the call through to the police. The issue of ‘pocket dialing’ has resulted in another option for mobile users. Once connected to the emergency operator there will the option, known as the Silent Solution or Make Yourself Heard, to dial 55 for connection to the police.

There is also an option for those who are deaf or cannot communicate verbally. It does require setting up in advance but is easy to do. Gain access to the emergency SMS service by texting REGISTER to 99 so that you can make use of it when you need to.

Online help for domestic abuse

Meanwhile, agencies such as Women’s Aid are looking at technological solutions. They recognise that making a phone call during lock is likely to be difficult. Hence their website features a quick cut-off button and will not appear in browser history.

Along with Refuge they also have safety tips for survival during Coronavirus. These include choosing a code word that you can use with a friend or family member if you urgently need support, talking to children about where they can take refuge and avoiding areas of the home which have items that could be used a weapon.

For those who are able to make a call, there is the National Domestic Abuse Helpline offering free, confidential support on 0808 2000 247.

A list of organisations offering specialist support to victims of domestic abuse is available at Gov.uk. This included services for people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, men and the LGBTQ community. It also flags organisations that can help with different kinds of abuse. For example, Refuge’s TechSafetyTool explains how to secure mobile devices and ensure that location services are not accessible.

What are the symptoms of abuse?

If you are concerned that someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse there are a number of signs that you can look at for. These include marks of physical abuse such as bruises, burns and bites.

There may also be indications that someone is being limited in what they are allowed to do. This can include being prevented from attending work or education, having their finances controlled resulting in a lack of money for food or bills, and their phone and computer use being monitored.

Additionally isolation from friends and family and being withdrawn are also signs to watch out for.

Refuge and Women’s Aid has useful tips on their website for how to proceed if you think abuse is taking place. Don’t expect them to open up immediately and avoid appearing judgemental. Do let them know they are not alone, say that it’s not their fault and offer to go to solicitor or talk to the police if they feel ready. However, they warn against putting yourself or the victim at risk by confronting the perpetrator.

What happens in a domestic abuse case?

Once the victim has had been able to escape from domestic abuse, the support they require will come from a number of different sources to cover areas such as housing, benefits and income, children and legal action. Foys understand the difficulty of the situation and offer confidential domestic abuse advice to help you explore your options in advance.

Domestic abuse is not a specific crime in itself but covers a number of different offenses. A police investigation will pass evidence to the CPS.

The next step then will be to obtain an injunction to prevent your abuser from having access to you. Foys can assist you with the requirements in applying for this including preparing a witness statement.

Where to live may be a concern. Seeking a refuge place may be an option and there is a likely legal requirement for local authorities to house anyone fleeing domestic abuse.

If you are married or in a civil partnership with your abuser then talking to a solicitor is important. Foys can advise and support you with protecting your property rights including anything that is owned jointly.

You may also need to protect your children in which case you will require a specialist. Foys puts the welfare of the child first and can help you to decide what type of court order would be best for your situation.

Other agencies and organisations such as Citizen’s advice, The Links GroupRefuge and Women’s Aid will be able to provide support and direction on accessing housing and benefits.

Leaving domestic abuse is not easy but neither is living with it. But the victims are not alone. Help is on offer to support those planning to escape and to assist them in finding the confidence to do so.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse and want to take legal action to help secure your safety, call and speak to one of our compassionate family legal advisers at a Foys office near you.

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