Domestic violence and abuse: Safeguarding during the COVID-19 crisis
Updated: 17 December 2021
Last reviewed: 17 December 2021
This quick guide is aimed at professionals and organisations who are involved in supporting and safeguarding adults and children. The importance of safeguarding adults who are experiencing domestic abuse has not diminished during the COVID-19 crisis. Evidence from statutory and voluntary agencies across the UK emphasises the increased risks of domestic abuse, with Refuge reporting a 60 per cent increase in calls and online requests since the first lockdown began in March 2020. The risks were not unique to the UK and were reported to be affecting society worldwide, including China, Italy and Spain.
Domestic abuse organisations observed increased household tension and domestic violence due to forced coexistence, economic stress, and fears about the virus. Increased isolation could create an escalation in abuse, where those who are living with an abusive partner or family member, may be less likely to ask for help. Fewer visitors to the household mean that evidence of physical abuse could have gone unnoticed.
The COVID-19 outbreak also curtailed access to support services for survivors, particularly in the health, social care, police and justice sectors. Emergency services experienced an overstretched workforce concentrated on tackling the pandemic.
Evidence from past epidemics such as Ebola (in West Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo), Cholera (in Yemen and Haiti) and Zika (in the Americas) suggest the importance of a ‘twin-track’ approach that combines support to organisations so they can continue their work to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, and integrating Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) risk mitigation measures into sectoral responses (e.g. health, education, child protection, security and justice, social protection and job creation, and humanitarian responses).
As some legal restrictions have been re-introduced in response to a new variant and rising infection rates, the impact of COVID-19 continues and it remains vital to be aware of the possibility of domestic abuse and to continue to safeguard those experiencing it.
If you or someone else is in immediate danger, please call 999 and ask for the police. If you are unable to speak you can use the Silent Solution system from a mobile phone: call 999 and then press 55. The operator will then put you through to the police.
The police will try to communicate with you by asking simple yes or no questions. If you are not able to speak, listen carefully to the questions and instructions from the call handler so they can assess your call and arrange help if needed.
Types of abuse
The cross-government definition of domestic abuse is any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, damage to property, violence or abuse, between those aged 16 or over, who are or have been intimate partners, or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. Adolescent to parent violence and abuse (APVA) is included.
There are numerous types and indicators of abuse to look out for:
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- psychological or emotional abuse
- financial or material abuse.
In some families, domestic violence and abuse could be perpetrated by extended family members living in the same home. It may include honour-based violence, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. Some of these victims also experience racism and prejudice so may not be forthcoming to services and fear rejection from their whole community if they ask for help. Some people may not be fluent in English and could find it hard to communicate their circumstances.
It is important to recognise that abuse also occurs in same-sex relationships and the above advice applies to these groups. Stonewall’s domestic violence page contains resources and information for people in the LGBTQ+ community, including housing support.
Men can also be hidden victims as many male victims fail to tell anyone:
Recognising types of abuse
NICE/SCIE has produced Recognising and responding to domestic violence and abuse: a quick guide.
This quick guide offers social workers and other professionals a summary of NICE guidance on how to identify and help stop domestic violence and abuse.
SCIE's Adult safeguarding practice questions identify a number of challenging safeguarding dilemmas to help people support adults with care and support needs who are experiencing or at risk of abuse or neglect.
We know that agencies need to work together to gain a picture of the life of a person living with domestic abuse which includes older adult abuse. Although it is now possible to meet in person again, it is likely that agencies will continue to make use of technology to meet virtually too.
- Agencies need to share plans about how they will manage the increase in domestic violence and abuse.
- Each agency should clarify how it intends to engage with families, taking into account the removal of most restrictions and the ongoing risk of transmitting COVID.
- Although many agencies may continue with remote working, it is important that information sharing and engaging with families and victims continues regularly and in creative ways, safely and securely.
- Multi-agency forums should be led by their agency online protocols and agree a joint approach to determine which virtual platforms are appropriate to continue to use.
- Chairs of multi-agency forums should be skilled in managing virtual meetings. SafeLives recommends using the case structure and sending it to all agency representatives beforehand.
- If virtual meetings become a challenge, agencies could consider report submission to be discussed within a smaller group of key professionals but should only be used as a last resort and non-attendees should provide the same level of commitment and creative solution.
The President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice has released Coronavirus crisis: Guidance on compliance with family court child arrangement orders.
The guidance acknowledges that advice is general as each individual circumstance will be unique. The key message is where COVID-19 restrictions mean what is actually written in the court order needs to be varied, its aim and purpose order should still be obeyed. Any alternative arrangements should be confirmed via letter or email.
Perpetrator programmes and support
While there is a justifiable amount of support and focus on victim/survivors of DVA, it is important we have a national focus on perpetrators to address the emotional and cognitive harmful behaviour that is often deep rooted. It is important that perpetrators have the tools to take responsibility for their abusive behaviour and not blame victims/survivors for their actions.
There have been many perpetrator programmes over the years with varied evidence base and impact. It can be a challenge for commissioners to navigate what works.
The Drive programme is well evidenced through randomised control trials. It is a tailor-made programme adopting a multi-agency, coordinated approach. The programme is aimed at high-risk, high-harm perpetrators who are usually repeat offenders, sometimes creating up to six different victims/survivors. The scaling of such programmes is welcomed. A coordinated national and local perpetrator strategy that includes systemic prevention and harm-reduction approaches across the ages of perpetrators will further support prevention and reduction of abuse.
For perpetrators who want support, there are helplines such as Respect who can signpost to further vital services.
Respect has guidance for those commissioning or delivering perpetrator support and programmes.
The Government has produced guidance and advice for those who are experiencing or feel at risk of domestic abuse during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
For details of helplines, go to Report domestic abuse.
SCIE's COVID-19 hub contains more relevant information including safeguarding, supporting people who are isolated and vulnerable, and infection control. It can be used when supporting and safeguarding adults and children during COVID-19, and can also be shared with community groups.