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World Suicide Prevention Day: Natasha’s story

Care warning: suicide, suicide ideation, domestic abuse, sexual violence

On this ‘World Suicide Prevention Day’ I would like to start the conversation about how prevalent suicide and suicidal ideation is among victims of domestic abuse.  Here is my story:

As a child my home life was dominated by domestic violence.  Not only did I witness my father being extremely controlling and abusive towards my mother, but I too was also a direct victim of his abuse.  Sadly, my abuse wasn’t limited to just within the family home and I found myself being sexually abused by multiple men.

The sheer amount of constant and never-ending abuse led me to believe that the only way to end the on-going trauma was simply not to be alive anymore.  Suicide was the only viable option I could see to put a stop to the abuse.  At the age of 17 I took an overdose; I survived, albeit being very physically ill from the effects. I can still clearly remember my father’s angry words echoing in the corridor outside my hospital room as he yelled at the doctors, “my daughter is so useless she can’t even kill herself correctly”.  The medical staff strongly suspected I was being abused and dutifully notified the authorities however, they simply asked my father if he was abusing me, and when he naturally denied any abuse was occurring, I was discharged from hospital and sent right back home where the abuse intensified as punishment for my suicide attempt.

A year later I met the man who would go on to become my husband.  He was quite a few years older than me, and although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, he was fully aware of my vulnerability and took advantage of it.  By age 19 I realised I had simply swapped one abusive situation for another, and once again, the overwhelming desire to end my life to put a stop to the abuse resulted in another suicide attempt.  Sadly, my abuser found me just after taking another overdose.  Knowing I had previously been treated in hospital for a prior overdose, he was wary of a pattern being detected.  He therefore drove me to a different hospital outside of our local area where medical staff would not have access to my medical records.  My abuser convinced medical staff that this suicide attempt was as a result of childhood trauma and that I was not at risk of further harm.  He promised the doctors that he would look after me and make sure I accessed psychiatric help. Once again, I was discharged home into the arms of my abuser.

Some 20 years later the abuse had become unbearable.  By this stage my husband had involved other men in my abuse.  My abusers taunted me, laughing, and saying if I ever tried to seek help or disclose what was happening in our home, no one would believe me because of my previous suicide attempts. “No one will believe a mad woman over us” is what they said whilst carrying out their sexual assaults.  They went as far as goading me to take my own life because it wasn’t worth living.  They even offered to help me kill myself.  I knew I couldn’t take it anymore and finally took the step to reach out for help. 

As soon as the statutory agencies became involved, the first question professionals asked my abuser was: “does she have a history of mental illness”.  He was all too willing to share my previous suicide attempts and my suicidal ideation.  Words such as “unstable; disturbed; difficult; insane; crazy; sick in the head; she’s not quite right upstairs” were either said in multi-agency meetings or written in case notes.  I was less than a human being.  My suicide attempts were used to discredit me and prove that I was lying about the abuse which had occurred.  Not once did any professional involved in my case ask me why I had attempted to end my life or view my attempted suicides as an escape from all the abuse.

Unfortunately, disclosing the abuse did not mean an end to my suicide attempts.  Sadly, the lack of a coordinated and effective response by statutory agencies led to horrific failings within the system, which put our lives at greater risk and became so distressing and overwhelming that I simply couldn’t cope.  Again, I saw only one option to end the repeated and on-going trauma.  This time my suicide was prevented when a member of the public phoned police.  I was removed from the scene and taken for a mental health assessment where I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), severe depression and severe anxiety as a direct result of all the abuse I have endured.  Ironically, I have been unable to access NHS mental health treatment as my NHS Mental Health Trust only offer one specific type of treatment for PTSD and the Psychiatrist determined that this type of treatment was unsuitable for me because my risk of suicide is too severe.  I find it inconceivable that someone who is considered to be at such high risk of suicide is then unable to access treatment to reduce that risk, because their risk of suicide is too severe.  There are alternative treatments available however they are not offered by my local NHS Mental Health Trust, and I do not have the finances to access them privately.  

I hope this small insight into my story of suicide can help start the conversation and be the catalyst to raising awareness among professionals:

  • to have the curiosity and bravery to ask that all important question when they are faced with a victim of domestic abuse who has attempted suicide: why
  • An awareness and understanding that victims of domestic abuse will often see suicide as the only available option or solution to stopping the abuse. 
  • The realisation that abusers will sometimes encourage victims to attempt suicide and use failed or unsuccessful attempts to paint their victims as “mentally unstable or disturbed”.
  • Finally, we need to ensure that no barrier is placed in the way of victims accessing treatment and support from NHS Mental Health Trusts.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog today.

 

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World Elder Abuse Day 2021 – transforming the domestic abuse response for older people.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was launched by the International Network for Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organisation in 2006. On 15th June 2021 people will unite on a global level to raise awareness of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older people. SafeLives, Dewis Choice, Age UK, Galop and Age Cymru are working in collaboration to promote an awareness of domestic abuse in later life. We are calling on practitioners and organisations to improve their responses to older victims. Our work in research, practice and at policy levels tells us we need to be transformative in how we identify domestic abuse, how we understand the unique barriers older people face and how we become age-responsive when tackling domestic abuse experienced at this stage in the life course. 

Impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 has highlighted the discriminatory age-based policies and practices that have undermined older people’s equal enjoyment of human rights. In addition, the pandemic has led to an increased general awareness of domestic abuse. But there’s a crucial piece of the puzzle missing - recognising where domestic abuse intersects with age and the specific challenges that brings.

Older people’s heightened vulnerability to the virus resulted in extended periods of isolation or even shielding for a significant proportion of older people. This isolation provided abusers with opportunities to exercise further coercive and controlling behaviours, and cause physical, sexual, economic, emotional harm and abuse. During the pandemic, older people, especially those with health conditions that made them vulnerable to the virus gave rise to opportunities where they were increasingly dependent on intimate partners or family members for their basic needs, care, and support. For some although not all an unfamiliarity with technology or digital poverty may have shut off remaining avenues to seek support from positive social networks or formal services. In fact, we all have a collective responsibility to those still experiencing domestic abuse, whatever stage of the life course.

We have put together key areas that practitioners and organisations should be focusing on to transform the response to older victims of domestic abuse.

Recognising domestic abuse in later life

When it comes to experiencing domestic abuse, older people are routinely overlooked, described as ‘hidden’ victims. Older people are often invisible in public campaigns relating to domestic abuse, this makes it harder for older people to identify themselves as victims and practitioners to identify victims. When older people are included, they are presented as one homogenous group with shared values, beliefs, and attitudes. The imagery and language fail to capture diversity in later life, particularly older males, LGBTQ+ people, Black, Asian and racially minoritised people and refugees. 

Typically, domestic abuse is understood as a problem that occurs amongst (ex)/intimate partners. This is reflected in awareness-raising campaigns and marketing. Domestic abuse perpetrated by adult family members is often under recognised and overlooked potentially masked as care-giver stress. Data from SafeLives and Dewis Choice, however, found that people aged 61 years and over were more likely to experience abuse by a family member than they were from a current intimate partner. A finding that is also reflected in domestic homicides.1 In practice, this means older victims who experience domestic abuse from adult family members such as siblings, adult children and grandchildren are overlooked and do not get access to specialist domestic abuse support.   

The lack of recognition is deeply troubling, given that older people aged 60 years and over are also more likely to experience abuse from a current intimate partner than their younger counterparts.2 Furthermore, longitudinal research by Dewis Choice3 capturing the lived experiences of older victim-survivors suggests that in many cases the abuse escalated in frequency and severity with an increase in age. Domestic homicide reviews involving older people shows these signs of escalation are missed by practitioners.

Dewis Choice has called on Welsh Government to urge them to make changes to awareness-raising campaigns. To bring about real, positive change this needs to be a collective effort and organisations across England and Wales need to ensure their service marketing materials to reflect people of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities.

Unique barriers to accessing help and support in later life

Older people are less likely than any other age group to seek help from statutory or specialist domestic abuse services.4 Of the older adults that are visible to services, a quarter report having lived with abuse for more than 20 years and the data shows they are more likely than younger victims to be living with the perpetrator after accessing support.5 This means leaving a home, business or community can be an extremely challenging barrier.

There are multiple obstacles older people face when accessing help and support, which are often compounded by a generational norm of keeping abuse ‘private’.6 Some older people believe that domestic abuse is best ‘kept behind closed doors and that marriages are ‘till death do us part.’ These deeply ingrained notions make self-referrals even more challenging. Furthermore, some older victims report feeling they were not worthy of support and that resources should be directed at younger women with children. These sentiments underscore a generally dismissive attitude to older people in society which can sadly be internalised.

For Black, Asian and racially minoritised groups there may be additional pressures of cultural or religious expectations as well. SafeLives research found LGBT+ victims are twice as likely to have experienced historic abuse by a family member.7 Dewis Choice research with older LGBTQ+ victims identified several barriers to accessing formal help and support. Older LGBT people are more likely to be isolated from informal and formal networks when compared to cisgender and heterosexual people (Stonewall, 2011), which limits opportunities for disclosure. In addition, they are more likely to hide their gender or sexuality due to fear of discriminatory treatment, which means for older LGBT+ people to disclose the abuse also means they must disclose their gender or sexuality. A lack of professional curiosity and heteronormative assumptions by practitioners further hinders this problem.

Although there are individual-level barriers older people face such as low self-esteem, shame, self-blame and lack of confidence, research from Dewis Choice found that older people’s help-seeking was hindered more by inadequate service responses and policy provision. Often practitioners act on behalf of older people, limit older people’s decision-making and their access to justice which affected their human rights and entitlements.8 Services need to adopt a person-centred, strength-based and trauma-informed response to victims that is responsive to the diverse needs of older people.

Recording and monitoring older victims of domestic abuse

The ‘invisibility’ - or our failure to see – older victims of domestic abuse takes different forms. In many cases, older victims have been excluded from important data sets.  For example, until 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales only recorded domestic abuse victimisation up to the age of 59. Similarly, data recorded by MARACs (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences), the nationally adopted response to victims assessed as high-risk of serious harm and domestic homicide, does not include people aged 65 years or over.  The exclusion of older victims of domestic abuse in research often results in underdeveloped policy and service provision.

Successful campaigning by Age UK “no age limit” means that Office of National Statistics data will now be collected on all victims of domestic abuse whatever their age. This is the first step in the right direction to ensure accurate data is collected and older voices are heard. This now needs to be echoed in organisational practices that too often fail to appropriately record domestic abuse in later life, particularly when abuse was perpetrated by a family member.9 The failure to record and monitor the experience of older victims has serious ramifications. If people aged 60 years and over are invisible in data sets, they can become invisible to professionals and services. After all, you can’t look for or respond to something you don’t know is there.

Organisations need to be monitoring demographic information that truly reflects their service users. For example, organisations should be asking themselves: are we asking the right questions? Are we considering situations where there are multiple victims and/or perpetrators? Are we asking for pronouns? Are we making sure we capture people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status? This information is crucial to providing a wraparound support service that is service user led.

Inadequate service provision

The invisibility of older victims has led to a lack of domestic abuse service provision specific to meet older people’s needs.  Additionally, refuges report a lack of accommodation with accessibility for those with physical disabilities and care and support needs. The limited services available are often unsuitable to meet older people’s specific needs and professionals are missing opportunities to offer support.

In 2016, SafeLives carried out research into the experiences of older victims as part of our Spotlights series, which attempted to better understand some of society's most hidden victims. An IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advocate) with specialist experience in working with older victims reported, “sometimes professionals [social workers and doctors] only see medical conditions with older people and they’re […] not trained to see domestic abuse”. The IDVA suggested that medical issues that were directly linked to the physical and traumatic effects of domestic abuse, such as arthritis, diabetes, hearing loss and mental health concerns, routinely went undetected by medical staff as signs of abuse.  This is particularly concerning given that older people are significantly more likely to have a disability and research has evidenced that the likelihood of being a victim of domestic abuse is twice as high for people with a disability.       

Concluding remarks

Currently, the system only works to keep older victims hidden. Research points to the fact that older people are at increased risk but they are less likely to seek help. Their vulnerability is compounded by a lack of suitable imagery, agencies and professionals' unable to recognise signs, monitor data and offer appropriate support. And because they are not ‘seen’, services are not designed to support their needs. Therefore, even if they do seek help, they can’t find the right support.

Dewis Choice are offering free online training to equip practitioners with the necessary knowledge to respond to older victims of domestic abuse.

SafeLives also offer a four day accredited course, ‘Domestic abuse – responding to older people’, which was developed with input from Dewis Choice.

Helplines

National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans+ Domestic Abuse Helpline
www.galop.org.uk
Monday to Friday 10:00am - 5:00pm
Thursday 10:00am - 8:00pm
0800 999 5428
help@galop.org.uk

Age UK Information and Advice line is 0800 1696565.
https://www.ageuk.org.uk/

Age Cymru Advocacy Services who offer advocacy support to people who have experienced abuse
www.agecymru.org.uk/advocacyservicesinwales

See here for a full list of helplines.

Acknowledgments

SafeLives would like to thank Dewis Choice, Age UK, Galop and Age Cymru for their contributions to this blog.

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Sources

  1. London Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) Case Analysis and Review of Local Authorities DHR Process (Montique, 2019)
  2. Safe Later Lives: Older people and domestic abuse (SafeLives, 2016)
  3. Transforming the response to domestic abuse in later life: Dewis Choice Practitioner Guidance. Wydall, S., Freeman, E., & Zerk, R. (2020), Gomer Press
  4. Crimes against, and abuse of, older people in Wales. Access to support and justice – working together, Older People’s Commissioner for Wales. Wydall, S., Zerk, R. and Newman. J. (2015)
  5. Safe Later Lives: Older people and domestic abuse (SafeLives, 2016)
  6. Domestic Abuse and Older People – factors influencing help seeking.  Wydall, S., Zerk, R. (2017) of Adult Protection. 19.5. p 247-260
  7. Free To Be Safe: LGBT+ people experiencing domestic abuse (SafeLives, 2018)
  8. Intimate partner violence - Transforming the response to older victim-survivors in later life (Wydall, 2021)
  9. All Wales Adult Protection Domestic Abuse and Hate Crime Study (Wydall et al., 2015)    

Further reading:

  • Dewis Choice research accessible online here.
  • SafeLives Spotlight: Safe Later Lives: Older people and domestic abuse. Available online here.
  • Magic, J. and Kelley, P. (2018). LGBT+ people’s experiences of domestic abuse: A report on Galop’s domestic abuse advocacy service. London: Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity. Available online here.
  • Magić, J. & Kelley, P. (October 2019). Recognise & Respond: Strengthening advocacy for LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse. Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity. London, UK. Available online here.
  • Wydall (2021) Intimate Partner Violence - Transforming the response to older victim-survivors in later life   in The Routledge International Handbook of Domestic Violence and Abuse Edited Book. Devaney, J., Bradbury Jones, C., Holt, S., Macy, R. J. & Øverlien, C. (eds.). 1 ed. Taylor & Francis, Vol. 1. 27 p. 14 (March 2021) Available here.
  • Wydall, S., Freeman, E., & Zerk, R. (2020) Transforming the response to domestic abuse in later life: Dewis Choice Practitioner Guidance. Gomer Press.
  • Wydall et al (2019) Dewis Choice: A Welsh Initiative Promoting Justice for Older Victim-Survivors of Domestic Abuse" Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology, Violence Against Older Women, Volume II. Available here.
  • Wydall, S. Clarke, A. Williams, J. Zerk, Z. (2018): Domestic Abuse and Elder Abuse in Wales: A Tale of Two Initiatives, The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 48, Issue 4, 1 June 2018, Pages 962–981. Available here.
  • Wydall, S., Zerk, R. (2017) ‘‘Domestic Abuse and Older People Factors influencing Help Seeking’   Journal of Adult Protection. 19.5. p 247-260. Available here.
  • Clarke, A., Williams, J, Wydall, S. (2016) ‘Access to justice for victims of elder abuse’ Social Policy & Society Vol 15:2 pp 207-220. Available here.

Working with survivors of domestic abuse: A Cafcass Family Court Adviser’s perspective

Cafcass independently advises the family courts in England about what is safe for children and in their best interests. Its vision is for every child whose future is decided by the family courts, to provide a service that prioritises their safety, their voices and their needs, taking full account of their families and those connected to them.

In this blog, a Cafcass Family Court Adviser shares her experience and thoughts on domestic abuse as it affects proceedings concerning children in the family courts.  

The aim of the family court and Cafcass is to support and protect victims of domestic abuse in family proceedings and as a family court adviser, it’s essential to remain open minded and respectfully critical of the processes involved in those proceedings, including our own work.  My experience derives from the families I have met over the years and being mindful that things are not always what they seem.  With each unique family that I work with, there is learning to take forward to the next.

A typical day would include reading court papers and reports so that I can start planning my assessments before meeting with children and parents. I usually have several interviews a week with parents in addition to meeting or speaking with children, attending court hearings, and writing reports.  

Many of the families I work with are encountering the family court for the first time, so the language and general environment is unfamiliar and can feel intimidating. For survivors of domestic abuse, this power dynamic can feel absolutely overwhelming as their account of events is scrutinised by professionals that they have had no prior relationship with. Perpetrators of abuse sometimes use the threat of removal of children through court proceedings as a form of emotional abuse and control.

One of the challenges of building a relationship with a survivor of abuse is that you cannot guarantee what will happen or what the court will do. You can be transparent about the process and honest as far as possible about your assessment, but this does not necessarily provide the level of reassurance that a survivor needs to feel safe.  During an assessment, survivors are asked to relive their experiences which is traumatic and a difficult part of the process.

The language used by the courts and Cafcass can be challenging. For example, when a survivor has discussed their experiences, these will often later be referred to in assessments as ‘allegations’. Although Cafcass provides an assessment about the potential risk or actual harm to a child, only the court can determine an incident as ‘fact’. The language used in these reports needs to be explained at the outset, otherwise survivors may feel that their experiences have been minimised.

Another challenge is in striking the balance of being supportive and inclusive of all those involved in proceedings, whilst ensuring impartiality as an independent voice for the child. When I attend final hearings, I am there as a witness, and I cannot support survivors at court in the same way that a specialist domestic abuse service can. Reading court papers and being asked direct questions about the abuse you have experienced is extraordinarily difficult to articulate in a formal environment. Domestic abuse support services, such as Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) in court, would go some way to address this and help survivors make sense of what is happening and feel prepared. The court is also obliged to ensure that special measures are in place to increase safety for survivors when attending hearings.

I have worked with survivors who don’t initially disclose the extent of abuse they have experienced, and it is only later that this comes to light. Risk assessments about potential child contact need careful consideration, especially when there has been coercive control and survivors are only just starting to make sense of their experiences. With consent, Cafcass can refer survivors to domestic abuse services for support but we are prevented from sharing our assessments with other professionals without a direct order of the court.

From my own experience of giving evidence in court, one example that stands out was when, after hearing verbal evidence from a parent that I had assessed as being a perpetrator of abuse, the court allowed me to readdress the bench. As the parents were not represented, they had not asked me the questions as a witness that they perhaps would have if there had been an advocate doing this on their behalf. My aim was to clearly set out my concerns about coercive control and how the evidence from the perpetrator had demonstrated this. This would not be appropriate in all cases and the flexibility for me to do this meant that the risk analysis could be fully explored by the court and the impact of the harm and risk to children is then more likely to be fully understood.

During my time as a practitioner, I’ve seen a marked reduction in support services for families who have experienced domestic abuse. Although there has been progress with the introduction of legislation and a growing understanding of types of abuse such as coercive control, statistics show that the prevalence of domestic abuse continues to rise. There needs to be more education about domestic abuse including for young people in schools. Domestic abuse is a human rights issue that has far-reaching consequences for the individual and society and should always be viewed in this context. To protect the victims of domestic abuse and the children involved, we must continue to listen, be compassionate, educate ourselves and ensure that domestic abuse survivors are given access to the support they need.

Let’s Start With Full Disclosure

By Jo Gordon

Chief Operating Officer, SafeLives

 

Let’s start with full disclosure. I am a white, middle aged, middle class, heterosexual, woman. I was brought up by liberal socialist parents in the 80’s. I was given free rein to interpret my gender and my sexuality in whatever way I wanted, especially by my dad. My grandad fought at the battle of Cable St, I still have my Anti-Nazi League student card, I campaigned for Greenpeace and I trained as a community worker. I raised my sons to know their rights if they got stopped by the police. My life oozes liberal privilege from every pore.  

I’ve worked in the domestic abuse sector all my adult life. I have been comfortable in certain knowledge that I was challenging male violence and that this was a good thing to be doing. Then last year, a man called George Floyd was murdered. It wasn’t the first time I had been aware of racism and it wasn’t the first time I had seen police brutality but something happened in that moment and everything started to change. My colleagues challenged me – I am Chief Operating Officer; What was I doing to stop racism? I felt much less comfortable about what I had achieved. When I grew up it was all about being politically ‘correct’. Being called racist is one of the worst things I can think of and I felt exposed. 

So I started to read and talk. I talked to a colleague who I respect and she didn’t pull her punches. My anger came. I started to realise that what I had done so far doesn’t amount to a hill of beans because what I thought I had achieved has been through my lens of privilege. I realised that I have been saying for a long time that violence against women is men’s problem and that men should sort it so then racism is my problem and I need to sort it. How can I have lived my life in a society so racist and been so comfortable? Well Joe Strummer would say - The money feels good and my life I like it well. 

The notion of ‘nothing about us without us’ is key to my ideas of community work and I know that those who have experienced racism are the experts but that can’t be an excuse for me to feel good about doing nothing. So I listen when people want to talk and generously share their experiences but I'm not going to abdicate my responsibility. If I'm not part of the solution with all my power and privilege; then who? 

So I started to take baby steps. I’ve done everything from having conversations I didn’t used to have and reading books I hadn’t read to spending my money in black owned businesses. At work, we have an action plan to address equity, equality, diversity and inclusion (cos we quickly realised that our shortcomings weren’t just about race) and we are overhauling how we think about each of these things. We are changing how we recruit, how we work internally, how we communicate, how we measure what we achieve, who we work with.  

So how do I feel a year on? If I'm not careful I feel frustrated and disheartened that change is slow. I’m old enough to remember the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the officers who beat him. I understand why people were surprised that Chauvin was convicted. I know that this moment is part of progress not the end of the road. I remind myself of the white supremacy culture characteristics in an article which has been creating debate at SafeLives recently. This highlights the notion that the desire for quick fixes mixed with frustration is part of the process of dismantling racism. I am fighting my resistance to this. My narrative -  ‘that’s just an excuse for why I haven’t fixed things yet’ - shows me that I am still part of the problem.

Change won’t come from sharing social media posts or good intentions. This is going to be a lifelong battle, but I am here for the long haul.   

One Year On

 

A lot can happen in a year, or so the saying goes.

When COVID-19 arrived in the UK in early 2020, domestic abuse services were well aware of the impact a government-sanctioned lockdown would have on victims. Our worst fears were quickly realised.

The frightening acceleration of domestic abuse spread as fast as the virus. Reports to charities and police forces rocketed from Birmingham to Buenos Aires. Between April and June 2020, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline in the UK saw a 65% increase. SafeLives’ own research showed a 90% increase in demand for specialist services. It is never an easy time to be living with someone who controls or frightens you, but national lockdowns, social distancing measures and increased financial insecurity have made an extremely difficult situation even harder. And more dangerous.

Yet in this midst of these trying times, one good thing has surfaced. The world has woken up to domestic abuse.

Since March 2020, the government has offered extra funding, the media has repeatedly engaged with the topic, employers started to consider their duty of care to staff working from home, and in January this year, the Prime Minister directly referenced the needs of victims in a televised press conference. Our collective awareness of domestic abuse has never been greater. 

Yet we cannot take our foot off the gas; we cannot go back to sleep. Over the last few weeks girls and women of all ages, identities and backgrounds have poured out their experiences of abusive and violent experiences in a way they haven’t in many years. We must ensure that this new level of engagement grows. We must make the most of this moment.

Our first priority has to be the essential shift of focus onto the people causing the harm. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t she just leave?”, we have to start asking “Why doesn’t he stop?”- applying the same principle to harm outside the home, too. This shift in approach is long overdue and will completely change the response to domestic abuse and other forms of inter-personal violence for the future. We must increase understanding of effective prevention and continue to improve our responses to individuals’ harmful behaviour. 

Investment is also key. The government has offered short term relief but we need long term investment to ensure sustainable support for all victims, including victims who want to stay safely in their own homes, and those who don’t have settled immigration status.

Many children have ‘disappeared’ behind closed doors for the last 12 months, unable to access the safety and respite of school. The NSPCC has reported calls from concerned neighbors have increased by 50% since the pandemic began. When the Domestic Abuse Bill becomes law in the spring, children will be recognised as victims for the first time, not just witnesses. This is progress but like all victims, we must ensure they receive all the support they need. 

The mental health toll of experiencing abuse and violence cannot be understated. New investment in mental health must recognise the prevalence of abusive experiences amongst those who have a need.

We will all know someone for whom domestic abuse is a reality – either now or in their past. We can all find ways to reach in; ask a friend how they are, offer to do a shop, or simply be there to listen. We are pleased to see schemes such as the Government’s Ask for ANI. The idea was conceived by survivors - a code word that can be used in pharmacies to ask for emergency help. Ask for ANI underscores how all of us can play a role in supporting victims. 

We also need to ensure that all police forces, not just over half as it currently stands, are fully trained to understand and respond to coercive and controlling behaviour. Five years on since coercive control became a criminal offence, we need all police officers to enforce the law. And we need to see the courts responding quickly, taking criminal cases forward to prosecution in a timely way and making sure the family courts are a safe place for those experiencing abuse. Training is key too for prosecutors, court officials and judges. 

During the pandemic, the boundary between home and work has blurred immeasurably and more than ever, employers have a responsibility for staff wellbeing. We’re glad many employers have joined this conversation and this should be just the beginning. We will continue to call for the government to provide statutory paid leave for domestic abuse victims.

While all of this work is underway, restrictions have begun to ease and vaccines promise an end in sight, victims of domestic abuse are a long way from being out of this storm. In fact, we have little doubt that things will get worse before they get better. Those who make calls for help are a tiny fraction of this picture. We also know that separation is an incredibly dangerous time for victims. If victims decide to make a change now lockdown has lifted and measures start to ease, the stakes are terrifyingly high, as abusers will fight to retain the additional control they’ve enjoyed now for a year.

The world has changed over the last 12 months, and there’s been a particular frenzy in the last few weeks. Many things will not return to how they were. Let’s make sure the raised public awareness of domestic abuse is one of them, not letting victims and survivors be collateral damage around Coronavirus.

We can take advantage of this extraordinary and difficult moment and move forward with the same level of vigour and determination that the pandemic awoke in us a year ago. Our country isn't safe and healthy until we do.

 

  • Suzanne Jacob, Chief Executive, SafeLives, April 2021      

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