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As the UK lockdown continues, those living with a domestic abuser may be facing heightened risks. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has received a 25% increase in calls since the UK lockdown began, according to the charity Refuge, which runs the service. In the same period, the country has had 10 cases of domestic homicide, according to Claire Waxman, the Victim’s Commissioner for London.
Aware of the growing figures, Victoria Derbyshire wrote the helpline’s number –0808 2000 247 – on her hand while hosting BBC News earlier this week, to highlight it to vulnerable viewers.
Heather*, a survivor who was able to escape her abusive ex-partner last year, points out that while lockdown has the potential to exacerbate abuse, it is not the reason for it.
“Coronavirus doesn’t trigger abuse. An abuser triggers abuse. They find a reason even on a sunny day with no financial or health problems,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Blaming coronavirus or blaming financial worries for abuse or murder suggests anyone could become an abuser or do the same given the circumstances and this is simply not true. The responsibility for domestic abuse starts and ends with the abuser. The abuse belongs to them.”
Ordinarily, the window for a victim of abuse to seek help is “extremely limited”, says Refuge, but during periods of isolation with perpetrators, “this window narrows further”.
So, how can you tell if a neighbour, friend or family member may need help?
It’s important to remember that domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Abuse can be emotional, economic, psychological or sexual, Refuge points out.
“Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim,” adds Lisa Johnson, manager of direct services for Women’s Aid.
“This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.”
During this period of isolation, Johnson says signs of abuse to out look for include:
Your loved one being deprived of basic needs such as food or medication.
They are not allowed out to go out, not even once a day to the shops.
They are not allowed to call any support services, including medical services.
What can you do if you suspect someone is experiencing abuse?
If you are concerned about someone’s welfare, do not approach the perpetrator, says Refuge. “This could escalate the abuse and put you and the victim at risk of harm,” a spokesperson explains.
Instead, Refuge advises calling the Freephone 24h National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visiting www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk to use the contact form for a call back from one of the helpline staff.
“When a call to the helpline is made by a third party, our expert staff will explore the situation with the caller and discuss their options. Every woman’s situation is different, and the support and information offered will depend on what the survivor in question wants to do,” Jane Keeper, Refuge’s director of operations tells HuffPost.
Some people call the helpline because their friend or family member is unable or unwilling to leave their perpetrator. “These callers may wish to know how best they can support their loved one, so we will discuss with them the dynamics of abuse and what they can do to help,” explains Keeper.
In other cases, survivors will be ready and willing to flee, and the caller may be contacting the helpline on their behalf to ask for information.
“Helpline staff can discuss a survivor’s rights and options with a third party and are able to signpost useful services that they can pass on, such as community-based outreach services. However, we will never give the contact details for refuges to a third party, and we will always encourage the survivor to call the helpline directly,” Keeper says.
If you are worried about a person’s immediate safety, should call 999.
If someone experiencing abuse reaches out to you, it’s important to listen to them, try to understand their situation and take care not to blame the victim, says Johnson.
“Tell her that no one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her – nothing she can do or say can justify the abuser’s behaviour,” she says. “Acknowledge that it takes strength to trust someone enough to talk to them about experiencing abuse. Give her time to talk or write, but don’t push her to go into too much detail if she doesn’t want to.”
Are women’s support services still running in lockdown?
Women’s Aid’s usual support services are still running during lockdown and Lisa Johnson recommends highlighting this to anyone who needs reassurance. The majority of UK shelters are still open, but there have also been calls for empty hotels to provide space for a potential increase in people fleeing their homes amid the pandemic.
“Survivors often find accessing online help is safer than making a phone call where they could be overheard,” Johnson adds. “Tell your friend or neighbour to contact Women’s Aid for expert support through our Live Chat helpline 10am - noon Monday to Friday, and email helpline Monday to Friday (firstname.lastname@example.org). Women’s Aid Survivors’ Forum will enable her to speak with other survivors in a supportive community.”
You should also encourage the person you’re trying to help to keep a mobile phone with them at all times if possible.
“The police are a key service when in immediate danger. Tell her not to be afraid to call 999 in an emergency,” says Johnson. ”If she can’t speak after calling 999, there is a system called Silent Solution – tell her press 55 on her phone and the police will know it is an emergency and she can’t speak. ”
The ’55′ Silent Solution function does not work on a landline. Those who rely on landlines, but can’t speak aloud, should “stay on the line and the operator will connect you to a police call handler,” says Refuge.
“If you need to put the phone down, the line will stay open for 45 seconds. If you pick it up again during this time and the operator is concerned for your safety, they will put you through to a police call handler. Calling 999 from a landline means the police may be able to retrieve information on your location to send help,” the spokesperson adds.
While it’s natural to want to help if you think someone is in trouble, both Refuge and Women’s Aid highlight the importance of taking a moment to consider the best course of action, instead of storming in. Try not to pressurise the victim into taking immediate action, adds Johnson.
“Let her create her own boundaries of what she thinks is safe and what is not safe,” she says. “Don’t urge her to follow any strategies that she expresses doubt about.”
Remember, to report a domestic abuse emergency, you can always call 999.
Other useful numbers:
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run by Refuge): 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321