Imagine being trapped in an abusive relationship. Now, imagine being trapped in an abusive relationship during lockdown.
Last week, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day.
Even before the coronavirus lockdown began, experts predicted the UK would see a surge in domestic abuse cases, following the pattern emerging from other countries. In China’s Hubei province, the heart of the outbreak, local police stations saw a tripling in cases reported in February compared with the previous year.
Despite these warnings, the UK government did little to prepare, and are now being criticised for their inadequate response. On 11 April, three weeks into the lockdown, Home Secretary, Priti Patel, launched #YouAreNotAlone, a public awareness campaign which will highlight domestic abuse helplines and online support.
Patel wants the public to show solidarity with abuse victims by drawing a heart on their palm and sharing a photo on social media. There will also be £2m to bolster the online support and helplines. However, the announcement has been criticised for falling short of filling the gaping financial black hole many organisations are facing.
Rachel Williams was in an abusive relationship for 18 years, and is now a domestic abuse campaigner. She says the Home Secretary’s announcement is an “insult” and says that the £2m is “not even going to scratch the surface” in dealing with the issue.
‘It’s an epidemic.’
In the year ending March 2019, 2.4 million adults in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse (1.6m were women). Government figures show that domestic abuse costs the economy £66bn per year.
“It’s an epidemic; that’s without the pandemic on top,” says Williams. Her main concern is what victims of domestic abuse will do once they ring the helpline number and decide they want to flee. “We’ve only got 4,000 refuge spaces in the whole of the UK, yet last year alone there were 19,000 referrals. So where are these people going to flee to?”
Even before the pandemic, domestic abuse services were buckling under the pressure caused by austerity cuts, with councils reducing their funding by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2017.
Charlotte Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor and CEO of a refuge in Surrey, has been lobbying the government for increased long-term funding, and says that it is needed now more than ever. “On any given day prior to Covid-19, six out of ten women couldn’t get a refuge space,” she explains, “So now put that in the picture of this huge surge that we know will happen after lockdown – and is even starting to happen now.”
Kneer warns that although raising awareness is a good thing, there must be a second part to the government’s strategy.
“My biggest worry is that [victims] are going to call this number expecting there to be an existing infrastructure and package of support available to help them flee, or help them in the long-term to get court orders, and that is where it’s all going to fall down. That is what Priti Patel didn’t talk about and that is what nobody is talking about.”
She says she is frustrated by the government’s lack of leadership: “We are way behind other countries. We’re just not offering a coherent response.”
When asked about the criticism of the #YouAreNotAlone campaign, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The £2m has been welcomed by [domestic abuse] charities, and it is a start. We are looking at this carefully and the Home Secretary has said that if extra measures are needed then those will be put in place.”
‘These are serious and frightening times for victims of abuse.’
Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has pledged £750m to the charity sector, some of which should go to domestic abuse services. However, concerns have been raised about how the money will be allocated and whether it will reach small local charities – and if it does, how long it will take.
Coventry Haven Women’s Aid refuge ran out of funding for their support workers on 31st March, and have had to cancel five of their fundraising events, which is one of their main sources of income. They’ve also seen a drop in donations.
Elaine Yates, the CEO of the refuge, says Covid-19 will have a “huge financial impact” on their services. “If we do not get funding soon it may lead to our refuges closing, which would be heartbreaking,” she says, “we’ve been in the city for 49 years and have always offered refuge.”
At the moment Coventry Haven Women’s Aid have around 400 active cases that are being supported by their team, and all of their refuges are full. 17 women plus their children are being looked after in refuge – including some who fall under the ‘Extremely Vulnerable’ group.
Yates says that for every woman they take into refuge, they have to turn another five away – “the need is that great”. She is also concerned about how school closures will mean children and young people are no longer visible to professionals and safeguarding leads. “These are serious and frightening times for victims of abuse,” she says.
Kneer says we will see refuges close down as a result of Covid-19. “We’re dependent on charitable income, which is all going to go out of the window as a result of the pandemic.”
She explains that most refuges start every year with a salary deficit that they have to fundraise to fill, just so they can pay their staff, “so this is going to hit really hard.” Although the money announced by Sunak could address this, it still doesn’t tackle the capacity issue.
‘Space at the moment is very limited.’
The latest Women’s Aid annual audit found that 64% of refuge referrals were declined last year. Many are forced to return to their abuser, stay with family, or end up living on the streets.
Williams tells me that in Wales alone, from March 2018 to March 2019, 512 families were turned away from refuges. “This is massive and I don’t think the government has really grasped the enormity of what we are going to be dealing with,” she says.
Williams has started a petition, which has garnered over 150,000 signatures, calling on Boris Johnson to get local authorities to open up empty properties to accommodate people fleeing domestic abuse. “We’ve got to have somewhere for the overspill, because space at the moment is very limited,” she explains, “Hotels would be the last resort, as you need to make sure that there is access to 24-hour support.”
Kneer has come up with a plan to increase capacity. She has suggested that each local authority that has a refuge within its area provide five units of self-contained accommodation, pay for them for three months and then house those five families afterwards.
The refuge that’s in the local authority area would provide the infrastructure, take the referrals, and do all of the practical support. According to Kneer, “There’s nearly 300 refuges in England and Wales, so it would provide 1500 extra refuge spaces for a three-month period after the pandemic”.
Surrey council has already said it will provide 15 units of self-contained accommodation, which Kneer describes as “amazing”. She hopes that other councils will follow suit – or even better, that someone in government will step up and roll it out across the country: “We know it is possible to create extra capacity – look at the Nightingale hospital. It could happen if there was an appetite for it to happen. Where is the appetite for it to happen?”
At least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings have taken place since the lockdown restrictions were imposed, according to the Counting Dead Women campaign. And it will only get worse as perpetrators use the lockdown as an excuse to increase control and abuse.
Living with a domestic abuser is often described as being like ‘walking on eggshells’. Williams says that if she was in the same position she was in ten years ago, “I wouldn’t be walking on eggshells, I’d be walking on broken glass because everything is going to be heightened and magnified [during the lockdown]”.
A hashtag may make victims feel less alone, but what is desperately needed is funding. And while the government continues to bury its head in the sand, more lives will be lost.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid.
Jessie Williams is a freelance journalist with work published in The Independent, the FT, The Economist, the Guardian and Dazed.