Concerns that domestic abuse may be going unreported during lockdown

Domestic abuse reports have not gone up in Staffordshire during lockdown a council has heard – but there are fears that families may be suffering behind closed doors.

Phone. Photo by Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown
Phone. Photo by Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown

Elsewhere in the country there have been reports of an increase in calls to services that support victims of domestic abuse during recent weeks.

But while this has not been the case in Staffordshire, a county council meeting has been told, members are concerned that the end of lockdown will bring an increase in reports that victims have endured abuse.

Staffordshire County Council member Ian Parry, who represents the Stone Rural area, said: “There are some conflicting reports about whether activity and contact through helplines has gone up or down. I hear in Staffordshire there seems to be no significant increase or spike, but that cannot be correct, in a sense it must be masking something.

“What is the knowledge in terms of domestic violence incidents? What’s the police response and what is the county’s response? And crucially, what is happening to the additional resource from Government – how will that be distributed and how will we ensure that reaches the people that really need it and the people that can take action to do something about it?

“What are we doing to ensure we have extra eyes and ears in terms of being able to detect or look out for people who may well be vulnerable at this time in those households where during lockdown the risk is higher and the ability to receive help is more difficult? The Government response seemed to be quite logical and quite sensible, but I’m wondering how that is going to translate from national policy to local action.”

Helen Riley, director for families and communities at Staffordshire County Council, said that a task group had been continually monitoring domestic abuse incidents recorded by police and was comparing information to previous cases and time periods, as well as monitoring regional and national statistics and experiences of domestic abuse reporting across Europe.

She added: “Whilst the media report an increase in domestic abuse and cite that is related to Covid-19 lockdown, both providers and commissioners would say that that’s not because of the lockdown it’s always been there – just lockdown is heightening the risk.

“Reporting of domestic abuse incidents across Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent to Staffordshire Police has not increased when compared to the same period last year. Referrals to all pan-Staffordshire domestic abuse providers is also down on previous years and trends over time continue to be monitored.

“However this is proving more challenging with the lack of an automated system and much of the data is anecdotal rather than definitive. Increased calls to national helplines may well relate to enquiries relating to child contact arrangements, legal and financial support with individuals seeking information prior to considering departure from domestic arrangements once the lockdown is lifted.

“We are doing local analysis with the DA task group monitoring activity locally regularly and the domestic abuse task group risk register identifying contingency arrangements in readiness for the lifting of lockdown and its impact on those affected by domestic abuse. This includes additional funds already provided to New Era to secure additional agency staff in readiness to support high risk victims and their children.

“It also includes funding by the Commissioner’s Office to Staffordshire Police to secure an increase in the availability of personal safety devices. We have made an application to the Ministry of Justice with the aim of securing additional funds to support those affected.”

Ms Riley also spoke of a “communications plan” which aimed to ensure victims and their families were aware of services available to support them whenever and wherever they needed them, as well as alternative ways of reporting incidents such as at pharmacies.

But Councillor Parry responded: “I’m not sure if I’m more concerned by the answer or reassured. Much of what Ms Riley was saying was to do with monitoring and seeking to understand trends, talking to other people about experiences and the national picture.

“My concern is that this is about the boots on the ground response that is required. I’m fairly concerned that when we come out of lockdown we will discover all sorts of terrible things that have happened behind closed doors.

“My worry is have those organisations that can respond adequately got the support that they need and are police increasing their contact with vulnerable households to ensure they are safe? My concern is we stare at spreadsheets and don’t do enough in terms of the frontline responses required.

“The Government made a really strong commitment of providing additional resources and recognising full well that the issue really is here – that during lockdown things are disguised and things could be overlooked. We have got to make sure that vulnerable children and people, particularly women, in these situations are not forgotten and left behind, or that we don’t just put money into helplines and desks but actual physical response and monitoring to an extent that we ensure this doesn’t leave us with a wave of terrible catastrophes after the lockdown ends.”

The meeting was told that police had carried out reviews of victims they were aware of. Officers paying welfare visits to known victims, where immediate safeguarding concerns were being considered, as well as providing advice and signposting to services – and personal safety devices if needed.

The county council had provided almost extra £81,000 towards services, while the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners’ Office had contributed a further £41,000 during the pandemic.

Ms Riley said: “We were told by providers they feel they have sufficient capacity to meet current demand and the multiagency group continues to monitor this on a weekly basis. Support is being provided normally through remote contact because of social isolation restrictions and in addition a local campaign has been developed and rolled out via social media – we’re endeavouring to use this to raise awareness for potential victims.”

Council leader Philip Atkins added: “I agree with Ian – I think there is an issue. We are on top of keeping in touch with those where there have been issues and police are making visits.

“The lockdown has meant some of the perpetrators, if they’re not in the home, haven’t been able to it – that may be one reason why the reports are down. But on the other hand I do agree that if there’s lockdown and they can’t get out of the home that is a different matter and there could well be a spike as lockdown comes out.”

Speaking at Stafford Borough Council’s cabinet meeting this month Councillor Jeremy Pert, cabinet member for community and health, said the authority had been supporting Staffordshire Women’s Aid with their helpline.

“We anticipate an increase in domestic abuse”, he said. “Anyone who is affected by domestic violence, anyone who feels they are at risk of abuse, it is important to remember there is help, support and people out there, including police response, online support, helplines, refuges and other services.

“Those people who feel affected by this – you are not alone.”

Support numbers for anyone experiencing domestic abuse in Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire:

New Era (covers Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire): 0300 303 3778

Staffordshire Women’s Aid: 0300 330 5959

National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247

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