As we enter week six of lockdown several domestic abuse charities and campaigners have reported a substantial increase in calls to helplines and online services since lockdown conditions were imposed.  The UK charity Refuge reports calls to its helpline have risen 49% to 400 calls a day and hits to its helpline risen by 25% with those numbers increasing daily along with the grim increase of female deaths. The true figure may well be much higher as victims are often trapped behind closed doors and unable to find a safe way to get help without the usual access to outside assistance.

For many families lockdown has brought a time to reconnect as a family, spending more time together than ever before and creating new ways to interact and make the most of these unprecedented times.  For others it has unleashed massive uncertainty about jobs, childcare and finances bringing stress and anxiety.  Being at home in lockdown is in no way a safe place for many women and children.

Countless adults and children forced into lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 are trapped in their homes with their abusers, isolated from the people and the resources that could normally help them.  As Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director of United Nations Women says ‘the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence’

Just to clarify what Women’s Aid defines as domestic abuse:  an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner, or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.  In the vast majority of cases it is experienced by women and is perpetrated by men.

DOMESTIC ABUSE manifests in many ways and incudes:

Coercive Control – consists of patterns of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control using threatening behaviours and physical and sexual violence

Psychological and/or emotional abuse – constant mind games or subtle gaslighting where you are made to think that what you saw, or remember was wrong, making you feel you are going mad

Physical and/or sexual abuse

Financial and/or economic abuse

Spiritual abuse

Stalking and harassment

Online or digital abuse

How do I know if I am being abused?

If you are scared of your partner and feel that you have to continually change your behaviour to avoid making them angry you may well be experiencing abuse.

Here are some of the signs to look out for and what we as counsellors need to be watchful for in our work with couples. 

Do they often criticise you, shout at you and belittle you?

Are they jealous or possessive?

Do they hurt you and cause injury?

Do they threaten to hurt and injure you?

Are you told you are imagining things and you will never be believed?

Do they control your money, where you go and what you wear?

Are you forced to have sex?

Do they stop you seeing friends and family?

Are you blamed for their abusive behaviours?

However Domestic Abuse can show up in aggressive behaviours such as:

Damaging special possessions

Throwing things around the house

Threats to smash up furniture

Threats to harm children

Threats to take the children away

Threats to harm household pets

Behaving in ways which frighten

In homes that are already prone to abuse, lockdown creates a living nightmare, not only because its hard to find any safe space or to run away but as Gillian Tett reports in her recent article for the Financial Times magazine’ it’s the more subtle problem of being trapped in the mental cage. ‘ Everything for most couples feels more intensified as enforced lockdown and continual social distancing from family and friends begins to take its toll but for abuse victims it is often impossible to even get to a phone to call for help let alone leave the home for a safer place. The shame guilt and stigma is often what keeps partners from seeking help. Domestic abuse often thrives in secret behind closed doors.  Research shows that women can suffer up to 11.5 years of abuse before seeking help.

At Coupleworks we are all trained in and strongly adhere to Domestic Violence Policies where the safety of the victim is paramount. Often couples counselling is not recommended usually working with the abused partner.  The victim may not feel safe to speak openly and honestly with their abuser present, or the abuser may find a way of playing a role so the victim starts to feel its safe to say things only to find when they leave the session and return home the abusive partner decides to retaliate with further abuse. The choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner.  Both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and seek help in changing their behaviours.

We are only too aware in working with couples just how devastating lives can be when we hear couples share how domestic violence between their parents or family members had on them as children   They often grew up in fear, feeling anxious and insecure and often fearful for their lives, turning to alcohol and drugs to self soothe.  Unfortunately these scars stay with clients for life and play out in their own future relationships.

WHERE IS THE HELP?  WHAT CAN WE DO?

The UK Government domestic abuse bill had its second reading in parliament last week that will create ‘the first ever legal definition of domestic abuse’.  They announced a £76m package to support the most vulnerable adults and children who are ‘trapped in a nightmare’ at home during the coronavirus lockdown    Money will be spent on helping victims get priority access to local housing and more funds allocated to charities to set up more helplines and chat lines.

We can all take more notice about what we see around us.  How do we watch out for each other? If you notice anything suspicious or hear any abuse or violence in your neighbourhood, contact the Police or available services.  

Plans are being discussed as to how to help victims report abuse without detection. In France a visit to the pharmacy to share the code MASK 19 signals help is required.  From this week domestic abuse victims in the UK can call in at Boots where they will be offered a safe space in an room to contact services for help and advice that they can’t initiate from home.

As the government start to think about easing the lockdown for many parts of the UK, extra special care must be taken to ensure how victims of the lockdown are going to be supported in a way that doesn’t make their situations worse.

HELP LINES

In an emergency dial the Police on 999 followed by 55.  If you cannot speak this will alert the police to a domestic abuse situation

Refuge 24 hour helpline: 0808 2000 247

Womens Aid: helpline@womensaid.org.uk

Men’s Advice Line – for male domestic abuse survivors 0808 801 0327

The Mix- free information and support for under 25’s in the UK 0808 808 4994

National LGBT + Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428

Samaritans (24/7 service) 116 123

Jewish Womens Aid – clientsupport@jwa.org.uk 0808 801 0500 Mon-Thurs 9.30am-9.30pm

My hope is that this six weeks of lockdown has highlighted the nightmare that many couples are suffering behind closed doors and in silence.  By raising awareness and more money allocated to the right areas, more victims will be looked after and more abusers held to account.

Dawn Kaffel