People In Abusive Relationships At Greater Risk During Isolation But Help Is Still At Hand
Even though we may grumble about it, staying at home has its comforting side for many fortunate people.
If you’re lucky, home is where you feel safest, closed off from the concerns of the world. It’s where you’re surrounded by personal belongings and – if you’re particularly blessed – by those who care about you.
Sadly, for far too many people, home can be a truly frightening place; a place defined by tensions and friction and a constant, underlying sense of dread. With self-isolation now well under way, many will right now be trapped in the very place they fear the most.
The UK, along with many countries around the world, is currently very different to how it was a few weeks ago, and even those with happy home lives feel a sense of unease at the boarded up shops, the packed away restaurants and bars. The nation’s high streets left holding their breath.
For those living in abusive households, this increased, enforced isolation brings about greater dangers on top of these shared anxieties; with many remaining trapped in the very same homes as their abusers.
The prevalence of domestic abuse is still gravely underestimated. On average, police officers in England and Wales will receive more than 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every single hour.
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, for the year ending March 2019, an estimated 5.7% of UK adults (2.4 million) had suffered domestic abuse within the last 12 months, with police recording a total of 1,316,800 domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes within this time period.
There is evidence to suggest the outbreak has made the situation worse. According to new figures from national domestic abuse charity Refuge, helpline phone calls have risen by 25% since quarantine measures began.
Furthermore, visits to domestic abuse website National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 150% during the initial stages of lockdown.
It’s believed the current situation has the potential to exacerbate existing abuse, with abusers using isolation as a means of further tightening their control.
UNILAD spoke with Cassandra Wiener, a researcher from the University of Sussex who looks at coercive control. This is a type of abuse defined by controlling behaviour intended to make an individual dependent by removing external support.
I think ‘intensify’ is quite a good way to describe it. Some authors are talking about there being an increase of incidents and I would say that’s kind of the wrong way to frame coercive and controlling behaviour. Because it doesn’t operate in an incident specific way. It’s more about the relationship. And what is important to her – to anyone who is living in that kind of abusive relationship – your safe spaces are really, really life saving.
That’s what’s gone. So whether it’s the library, or whether it’s work, most women operate on a controlled basis in their lives, which is now going to be taken away.
According to Wiener, abusers ‘always’ use child contact arrangements as a means of coercive control, and it’s probable that the outbreak will be used ‘as a way to threaten to not adhere to or to flout contact arrangements’.
The guidance given around isolation can be unclear, so there isn’t any specific guidance on co-parenting. And it could be that abusive co-parenters will use Covid as an excuse not to bring children back.
So it’s tricky. I think the advice is that if co-parents can’t agree then they have to vary the arrangement to the one they think is possible. It’s really, really tricky and there’s no easy answers to that.
According to Wiener, ‘economic abuse’ is also an issue for concern, with many self-employed or part-time workers currently unable to get to work:
In an abusive situation, not having access to funds that you would usually have access to only exacerbates your dependence on the person who is your abuser.
So that’s another big flash point, because it narrows your options if you don’t have access to any money.
With the ongoing exacerbation of so many domestic abuse-related problems, it’s crucial adequate support and funding is being afforded to the life-saving services survivors have long depended on.
According to Wiener, the Scottish government has set a ‘fantastic’ example on this front, going straight to Scottish Women’s Aid to ask what was needed.
However, the English government has yet to follow suit, and the recent emergency corona bill was ‘disappointingly silent’ on the topic of domestic abuse. Much more needs to be done.
Women’s Aid are making heroic strides at providing online spaces, and keeping their helpline going, which is 24/7. That’s going to be really, really important.
I spoke to the chief exec of Women’s Aid Scotland, and what she said – which I think is really, really interesting – is to explore ways to expedite the removal of the perpetrator from a family home.
Because refuges are full, so there’s no space in the refuges – and anyway refuges are facing enormous logistical problems as you can imagine from tiny logistics like how the hell to keep the place clean when none of the cleaners can come in – to big logistics in that how do they operate when they have to create separate spaces for the all the families within the refuge?
It’s completely impossible because they’re communal living spaces, so all these issues are really difficult. The sector is rallying and coming together but there’s a lot of work to do, and there’s a real desperate need for money at the moment.
Despite the current unprecedented situation, there is still plenty of help out there for survivors of domestic abuse, from online chats to resources on the Women’s Aid website.
If a survivor is facing immediate danger, they should call 999. If they are unable to speak, there is a system in place which will automatically transfer them to an operator. They will then need to press 55 to be put through to an immediate police emergency response.
I think it’s important to first of all say that it’s good if victims can keep a mobile phone with them at all times if possible.
And do not be afraid to call 999 in an emergency. It could be that people feel under a lot of pressure not to bother the emergency services at the moment, and actually, as I say, Covid is not the only killer.
UNILAD also spoke with Hannah Martin, a qualified psychotherapist and founder of online magazine and training provider, Talented Ladies Club.
Having endured five years of ‘physical, emotional, financial and verbal abuse’ at the hands of her husband, Martin managed to end the marriage in 2006.
Martin offered the following advice to those who are currently suffering behind closed doors:
Right now, it’s important to keep the peace as much as possible. Unless you are able to escape right now, you need to keep them feeling as calm and secure as possible.
Never express any plans to leave – if they feel they risk losing you (or losing control over you) they may increase the abuse, and will attempt to prevent you from leaving.
If you are planning to leave, ensure there is no evidence of this they can find. Don’t leave your phone lying around with texts or search results.
Martin also advised that this might be a difficult time for those who has previously managed to escape, only to be left feeling vulnerable at this uncertain time:
Any face-to-face meetings and support groups will be cancelled and they’ll possibly feel even more isolated, lonely and vulnerable. This could even give their abuser a way back in, by reaching out to them and ‘hoovering’ them back up (appearing charming and vulnerable to appeal to – and re-ensnare – them). The former abuser will know exactly what buttons to push and what to say to manipulate their ex, and re-assert their control.
In an uncertain, scary time, a newly-escaped survivor of abuse might be more vulnerable to the sense of familiarity offered by their ex, and more willing to overlook the abuse and reminisce about happier, pre-pandemic times.
With so much happening in the world right now, it can be difficult to remember that everyday life – with all its pain and complications – is still very much going on below the quieter surface.
The outbreak has left many of us confined to our own homes; slivers of communication opened up through FaceTime or brief excursions to the shops. And it’s all too easy to pull up the drawbridge, so to speak.
We do not stop to chat at the moment. We don’t sit out in the spring sunshine and share the ins and outs of each other’s lives. But this doesn’t mean we cannot look out for those around us.
Directly addressing those who might be concerned about a loved one, Martin advised:
Look out for signs that they’re more withdrawn or depressed than you may otherwise expect. Are they free to talk to you, or do they avoid contact? Do they seem more jumpy than usual?
Can they only talk freely when their partner is out of earshot? Do they worry excessively about their partner or what they may think or do? Or do they blame themselves a lot? And there are the more obvious signs such as physical injuries.
Keep an eye out for those you can’t see in person right now. Continue phoning your sister or your best friend and let them know that you are there for them, that you love them.
If you are concerned about a loved one, or about isolating with a perpetrator, call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or contact the Helpline via Refuge’s contact form at www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk. To ensure your safety, let them know how to contact you and what time to contact you. In an emergency, always be ready to call 999 if you are in danger.
It’s okay to not panic about everything going on in the world right now. LADbible and UNILAD’s aim with our campaign, Cutting Through, is to provide our community with facts and stories from the people who are either qualified to comment or have experienced first-hand the situation we’re facing. For more information from the World Health Organization, click here.