Schools and domestic violence post-lockdown: Rejecting a static view of risk

Today there was a report in the Independent, that domestic violence services are preparing themselves for a surge in reporting as schools reopen. As noted in the article there has been a staggering increase: “at the end of May, it emerged calls to the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline had risen by 66 per cent and visits to its website surged by 950 per cent since the start of the lockdown, while a report released by MPs at the end of April revealed domestic abuse killings in the first 21 days of lockdown were double the total of an average period in the last decade”.

Lucy Hadley, from Women’s Aid, noted;

“We are seriously concerned about the impacts that the pandemic has had on children experiencing domestic abuse. A recent Women’s Aid survey found that half (53 per cent) of women with children who were currently experiencing domestic abuse told us that their children have witnessed more abuse towards them during the pandemic.”

Read the full article here

It has become well documented that domestic violence has risen since the COVID-19 lockdown. It has been a perfect storm of enforced isolation within households, meaning that people have been unable at times to even see family and friends, being permitted only to leave the house for ‘essentials’ and exercise for several weeks. This, added to the stress of workplaces closing, looming redundancies, lack of support and childcare, may have meant that for some families abuse will have increased, and for others it may have newly started. *Of course, this is not to say these circumstances cause domestic abuse, that solely lies with the perpetrator of abuse, but rather, these could present aggravating factors for some.

Lets just take a minute to consider what being in lockdown with an abusive adult could have looked like for children during lockdown. Imagine being isolated as a household group, perhaps even being the only child living with an abuser and the victim, with no respite that school or clubs can bring, with even local parks shut. Thinking back to my own research with men who went on-road, several talked about their homes being places they just couldn’t bear to be, hearing violence and abuse, feeling fear, so they would go out, to the streets, to avoid it. The media reported on police threatening parents of teenagers with fines of they were out without a good reason. I wondered at the time, how many were avoiding an unsafe home life, rather than just sun-seeking? When it comes to teenagers, society often loses compassion and looks for signs of rebellion rather than a young person seeking an escape. I found this in my research with gang-involved men who had experienced childhood domestic violence- they were tarnished with a brush of ‘offender/gang member’ rather than seen as victims of violence themselves.

As a parent of a primary school aged child who has been out of school since April, what has struck me has been the static view of risk that has led the school’s local response. We (as a family with no previous history of safeguarding concerns) have not had one direct contact from the school concerning the wellbeing of our child, who by now has been out of school for over five months. We had one class group zoom call, but no welfare checks at all, just classwork emailed out and unmonitored. I shared my concern with a school governor who noted that the children who had previously been deemed ‘at risk’ or with known safeguarding concerns had been contacted weekly by teachers throughout the lockdown.

But how does this static view of risk sit within the wider knowledge of the increase in domestic violence in lockdown, as well as other COVID related changes, such as experience of bereavement or family illness for children? Also not forgetting the general apprehension that living through a pandemic may have caused.

I am curious whether (and how) schools are planning to make a conscious effort to respond to this wider context with children and families. Will there be domestic violence resources available? Will there be an increase in awareness raising from schools, creating safe spaces for disclosure? Can we anticipate children being offered some 1-1 time with a staff member to check in on how their time during lockdown has been?

I wonder how intimate space for disclosure may be affected by masks and by physical distancing

The concept of ‘asking the question’ is not a new one in domestic abuse adult services- indeed in a previous role I spent lots of time training health workers to ‘ask the DVA question’ based on evidence that some victims just want to be asked outright and are more likely to disclose if approached, rather than waiting for a spontaneous disclosure.

If we, as is now proposed in the domestic violence bill, start to really consider children as direct and independent victims of domestic abuse then we need to consider how they will also be reached directly. And specifically, how we deal with the enduring conflict that disclosure implictaes their parents and carers.

What services are available if and when space is made for a disclosure?

A static concept of risk, and only focusing on those who have been previously considered (labelled) ‘at risk’ is no longer enough if we are serious about recognising children’s independent experience of domestic abuse in light of COVID.

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