Thinking about child survivors of DVA and COVID-19
Like many people who work in the domestic violence and abuse sector I have been thinking a lot about the way in which victims of DVA will be coping during this strange time of global pandemic. I have been thinking in particular about the children who are living with DVA currently and who are now expected to be in isolating in that environment.
The current situation in the UK (31st March 2020) is that we now have to all stay in our houses, unless we are keyworkers. We are able to go out otherwise for one form of exercise a day and to do essential shopping. Walking down the street it is clear (in my area at least) that the world is on hold. People’s curtains are shut, shops have closed signs on the doors.
Alongside this we are in a situation where there has been a government forced lockdown for 2 weeks and 9 people have so far been murdered in DVA incidents tragically. This is a public health emergency (as it always has been) that is escalating fast. In the face of statistics like that, the UK Government’s publicity outlining ‘stay home… save lives’ is inverted- when home is the least safe place to be for the victims of DVA.
In my research a common thread was that young people look for distractions. They are in a powerless position in relation to the abuse that is happening at home, they are often subordinated to the perpetrator themselves and are unable or unwilling to intervene in the abuse. Children who live with DVA become expert risk assessors and find strategies to cope, protect themselves and their loved ones where they can, and try and carve out a sense of normality against the backdrop of abuse. This is all at risk now. Here are some of my thoughts on things to consider around COVID-19 and protecting children who are experiencing DVA.
Put the Onus on Neighbours to Report DVA
If I was designing a publicity campaign during COVID-19 I would be focusing it on urging neighbours to report DVA to the police where they hear it. The police have already reported a huge increase in people reporting their neighbours for exercising more than the once permitted per day (*), however DVA is notoriously overlooked and ignored by people when it is happening in their own street. This can come from a place of not wanting to interfere (the old adage that what goes on behind closed doors is no-one else’s business … ), as well as fear of the risk to neighbours. I found this myself only last year when I called the police after overhearing DVA amongst neighbours. I intervened and it was both a scary and distressing experience. However, it really is necessary to act.
Children who live with DVA are the last people who will report their parents or carers to the police and so we need to place the responsibility on to the adults, the neighbours and wider community, who otherwise turn a blind eye- these are who we need to explicitly place the onus on to protect children.
Risks of Criminalising Vulnerable Young People
In my recent research with ex-gang involved men who lived with DVA in childhood, a common theme was that they went to the streets to avoid what was occurring at home. This was talked about symbolically (going on-road, with all that entails) as well as physically spending time outside the home to avoid the violence and abuse. This makes sense- as they talked about hearing and seeing various forms of DVA which were distressing and incomprehensible to them at a young age. So what happens to this coping strategy now? Let us assume that some young people are now experiencing more DVA as they are staying home more, however there is also likely to be a proportion who are not following the lock-down policy and are going out anyway, or who are congregating in other people’s properties where they can be away from home. This then raises the risk of them falling prey to other forms of exploitation behind other closed doors.
This is important for the police to consider if they identify young people who are not following the lock-down rules. At the moment UK police have been given powers to enforce social distancing rules (Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52106843), which ban:
- Leaving the place where you live “without reasonable excuse”
- Being in a public gathering of more than two people
If someone refuses to follow the regulations – for instance a request to go home – officers can give them an on-the-spot fine of £60, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days. If they keep breaking the law, more fines can be given – up to a maximum of £960. Police could ultimately charge someone with the more serious criminal offence of breaching coronavirus regulations and a direction to follow them. This could lead to a conviction in a magistrates court and an unlimited fine.
There is a distinct risk that some young people who are penalised in this way by the police are actually living in difficult and/or dangerous circumstances at home where being anywhere (even being at increased risk of the virus) is more preferable than being at home). For many young people the virus is an abstract risk in comparison to the real material risk that lies at home.
Offering a distraction
For many young people who live with DVA school becomes an escape. This was the case for some of the participants in my research, and also in my own case. School, with its rhythms and routines, as well as a focus on (what seems when you are living with DVA) the trivial or immaterial can be a welcome distraction. Now not only schools are shut, but also libraries too. Thousands of young people (who don’t meet the child protection threshold and who never will) will be having to live and endure this period with no end in sight. One thing that could be considered is schools offering the option for extra reading, or recommended fiction books, or documentaries. Keeping the flow of distraction, the opportunity for some children to complete extra projects on interest areas for instance. Consider those who don’t have a personal computer or tablet- could books be dropped off from school to homes where this is known to be the case? If these were offered as an option they may, just may, be taken up by children and young people who would really welcome the chance to escape into a project.
Resources aimed at Children
Women’s Aid already have an existing area of their website which is specifically aimed at children. It is really accessible and has a distinct area for children and young people, so signposting children to this could be helpful. It also has details of how to prevent the web search coming up in browser history: https://thehideout.org.uk/
Like I mentioned earlier, I think the chances of children raising the alarm in general is less than likely. However making young people aware of the service the police is offering which prevents the need to explain or describe the situation whilst still raising the alarm could be very helpful for children who want to take action but can’t find the words. The police are now publicising that if you are in danger and unable to talk on the phone, call 999 and then press 55. This will transfer your call to the relevant police force who will assist you without you having to speak.
There really are no easy answers to the world we are currently in, nor the DVA that has long existed. However, like many others, I just can’t stop thinking about the victims and children who are enduring the double burden of abuse during the pandemic. Compelled to be closer to the enemy within their homes, to protect themselves from the viral enemy outside.
* (see https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/coronavirus-lockdown-uk-police-report-neighbour-exercise-outside-a9430086.html)
If you are in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police – the police will continue to respond to emergency calls
If you are in danger and unable to talk on the phone, call 999 and then press 55. This will transfer your call to the relevant police force who will assist you without you having to speak.
National Domestic Abuse Helpline
The National Domestic Abuse Helpline website provides guidance and support for potential victims, as well as those who are worried about friends and loved ones. They can also be called, for free and in confidence, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247. The website also has a form through which women can book a safe time for a call from the team.
Women’s Aid has provided additional advice specifically designed for the current COVID-19 outbreak, including a live chat service.
Men’s Advice Line
The Men’s Advice Line is a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and those supporting them. It can be contacted on 0808 801 0327.
Galop – for members of the LGBT+ community
If you are a member of the LGBT+ community, Galop runs a specialist helpline on 0800 999 5428 or email email@example.com.
If you are concerned about how COVID-19 may affect your finances and leave you vulnerable to economic abuse, please see the advice provided by HM Treasury on what support is on offer. The charity Surviving Economic Abuse has also provided additional guidance and support.
Hestia provides a free-to-download mobile app, Bright Sky, which provides support and information to anyone who may be in an abusive relationship or those concerned about someone they know.
Chayn provides online help and resources in a number of languages, ranging from identifying manipulative situations and how friends can support those being abused.
Support for professionals
SafeLives is providing guidance and support to professionals and those working in the domestic abuse sector, as well as additional advice for those at risk.
Support if you are worried about hurting someone
If you are worried about hurting the ones you love while staying at home, call the Respect Phoneline for support and help to manage your behaviour, 0808 8024040.