(COR065)

Written evidence submitted by Kim McGuiness, Northumbria PCC (COR0065)

 

As Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner, it is important to me that the Home Affairs Committee are aware of the impacts of Covid-19 in Northumbria and the local responses to it. The evidence I am sharing will raise awareness of the key issues facing Northumbria, particularly in relation to domestic abuse, hopefully to assist in scrutinising the Home Office’s approach and help to inform future activity.

 

We are pleased to respond to the further call for evidence on domestic abuse during Covid-19 and measures to support victims:

 

  1. The prevalence of these issues since the Government issued ‘stay at home’ guidance on 23 March

The Covid-19 pandemic has multiple ways of increasing the prevalence of domestic abuse and creates difficulties for victims accessing support and those supporting victims. It has been reported in the media recently that domestic abuse charity Refuge has seen an unprecedented increase in calls to their helpline, with calls increasing by 700% in one of the days following lockdown restrictions[1]. Domestic abuse homicides have reportedly doubled since lockdown commenced. For victims of domestic abuse, the home is not likely to be a safe place at the best of times and the added stresses of forced coexistence, worries about the virus and potential economic difficulty may result in an increased occurrence of domestic abuse. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are expected to use the current situation as a tool for coercive control.

2. Northumbria Police have seen, on average, a 4% increase in crimes with domestic abuse markers reported in the force area in the first two weeks of lockdown restrictions when compared with the two weeks prior. When analysing the three area commands in Northumbria separately, there has been an increase of 11% for Northern Command, a 9% increase for Southern Command and a 3% decrease for Central Command. This data suggests there has been an increase in domestic abuse-related crimes in Northumbria during the first two weeks of the lockdown period. This however does not give a definitive picture of the impact of Covid-19 on the prevalence of domestic abuse in Northumbria – many domestic abuse incidents go unreported and with victims being potentially trapped with their perpetrator 24/7, many will feel even more reluctant to report incidents and some will not be able to get a safe opportunity to report.

3. In the first week following the stay at home instructions, Victims First Northumbria (VFN), our victim referral service, initially saw a spike in domestic abuse referrals. Since then, there has been a decrease in domestic abuse referrals, which as mentioned above, concerns us that domestic abuse victims may not feel safe enough to report or seek help. The bank holiday weekend saw another noticeable rise of approximately 23%, which may be due to media coverage confirming that domestic abuse victims are priority for the police and they will receive support. What is clear from the statistics is that, despite lockdown there are more reported cases at a weekend.

4. One IDVA service has linked this to alcohol consumption and asked for restrictions to be considered on the sale of alcohol. Statistically, there is no rise in referrals for children and young people because of domestic abuse within the household and this is an issue of concern. Children suffering are normally picked up through schools, social workers, health practitioners etc. As schools are closed and there is limited contact with health professionals and the concern is that that these children will be suffering without the offer of support or safeguarding concerns raised. Nationally, referrals into child social care have dramatically fallen by up to 50% in some parts of the country which is causing real concern about the welfare of children during this pandemic[2].

5. OPCC-commissioned specialist domestic abuse victim services in Northumbria have been keeping us informed of any changes to their service provision and any unusual changes in referral numbers. All our commissioned services are currently offering support remotely to victims, for example, through the telephone or through video calls, however a few domestic abuse support groups are not able to run due to social distancing measures. As for referrals, some organisations are reporting an increase, some have had a decrease and some have had no change in their referral numbers at all. Some services have informed us that clients that usually engage well are now no longer engaging. Those services with a decrease in referral numbers and engagement are attributing this to the possibility that many domestic abuse victims are unable to make contact due to not feeling safe enough to do so if they are living in the same house as their perpetrator. Services with an increase in referrals noted that there has been a considerable increase in self-referrals due to the reduced capacity of some agencies and that calls to their national helpline had spiked with women in desperate need of support. The increase was approximately 30% and although there is no clear evidence to directly link this to the stay at home instruction, the increase was noticeable.

6. We have been informed by VFN and two of our commissioned domestic abuse services of the increase in demand for refuge/emergency accommodation spaces. One major concern is not being able to move victims and their families from refuges to new homes because repairs, cleaning and clearance can’t take place.

7. At VFN, there is a clear emerging trend that child contact is causing major problems, whether a court order is in place, or not. This is because of one party refusing to allow it because of risks and also concerns about the return of a child/children. This has led to incidents of domestic abuse. This also appears to be an issue in other force areas and further guidance is needed for professionals in terms of advising victims of the right approach. This may lead to an increase in child contact order requests through the family courts or breaches of court orders.

8. There are also reports of increased incidents of domestic abuse within the households with young people abusing parents or grandparents although VFN are yet to obtain any statistical data to support this, however it has been raised by other force areas.

 

9. Measures or proposals to help support victims of domestic abuse and child abuse at this time

Northumbria Police are dedicated to protecting and supporting victims of domestic abuse and below provides a snapshot of some of the measures they have put in place:

 

 

10. Measures or proposals to reduce or avert domestic abuse and child abuse at this time

Northumbria Police have in place a significant number of measures and procedures in place which have been adapted in response to Covid 19.

11. Measures or proposals to help support victims of domestic abuse

12. Measures or proposals to help reduce / avert domestic abuse

13. Child abuse

 

Since self-isolation, we are concerned that children and YP may not have the opportunity or have a safe place to tell someone that they are suffering from abuse at home. This may be that they are being physically, sexually, emotionally abused and neglected, or are living in a house where domestic abuse is happening.

 

We know that children and young people will be spending a greater amount of time on line and may be at an increased risk of CSE, indecent images, grooming and on line abuse.

 

We are also concerned about older people such as grandparents who are self-isolating and may be at risk of cyber-crime including phishing, scams and frauds.

 

We all need to work together to make sure that everyone in our communities are safe and therefore we have a simple message:

 

If you see something or are worried about anyone, then tell someone, this could be a parent, carer, relative or alternatively contact your cadet leader”

 

In an emergency always call 999, if you dial 999 and are unable to speak, the emergency operator will ask you to dial 55 and to follow their instructions to quickly put you in touch with the Police.

 

NSPCC 0808 800 5000”

14. Multi agency activity             

 

15. Preparedness of responders and service providers to address the needs of victims during the pandemic

Most of our commissioned domestic abuse services in Northumbria have been able to adapt to this unprecedented situation by delivering the support they usually offer remotely. Support for victims of domestic abuse is now accessed via telephone or through web-based contact (e.g. video calls, live chats, messaging etc.). Victims that are in a very high risk situation, or where it is deemed essential that they receive face to face support, were initially still being seen face to face (following detailed risk assessments before staff can see the victim) until stricter measures came into place. Domestic abuse services are ensuring they are in regular contact and offering support to their most vulnerable clients.

16. There have been some difficulties making the shift to remote working as most services are not used to operating this way and some did not have the facility to. One of these difficulties has been the availability of IT equipment and getting IT systems in place to allow home working. There have been instances where organisations have had to buy extra IT equipment with funds they don’t have, and there have been some issues regarding GDPR, secure networks and also confidentiality when receiving referrals and supporting victims from home. One of our services that provides counselling to children and young people that have experienced domestic abuse had to enrol most staff in a telephone/online counselling course to ensure staff were sufficiently trained, particularly around GDPR and confidentiality issues. The new ways of delivering support can mean that some victims can no longer access support, in particularly, children. Support for child victims of domestic abuse is often delivered in schools, and due to social distancing and school closures, this safe space is not available. Support services’ presence in schools is no more due to school closures and this can sometimes mean services loose ties with children they are supporting through the school. Children are also more difficult to support through telephone or internet support as they don’t have as much access to these support routes as adults may do, and adults may have control over their access. Difficulties have also presented where initial assessments need to be carried out on new referrals to children’s domestic abuse services as this cannot be done over the phone or through video call in some cases. We were successful in securing CADA funding from the Home Office and we will be working with key services over the coming weeks to ensure this well needed additional funding reaches those who can make the most impact locally. 

17. As domestic abuse has expectedly increased during this period of lockdown, our commissioned services are adapting to the challenges this brings and the changing needs of victims as best they can. As mentioned above, a major increase in referrals to domestic abuse services has been expected during this time, and where that has been the case with some of our services, it hasn’t with others. Where this hasn’t been the case, services are attributing this to victims being so trapped by their abuser that they cannot get in contact with support agencies or the police. Some services have experienced that clients who have previously been engaging well are no longer doing so and this is causing much concern. Services have made attempts to get the word out that they can be contacted via social media with hopes that this is more of a discreet way for victims to reach out to services. Our commissioned domestic abuse services in Northumbria have made us aware of the increase in demand for refuge/emergency accommodation spaces as a result of Covid-19 and one of our services has informed us they’ve had to open more refuge spaces without having the funds to do so. This particular service recently had to put one of their refuges on total lockdown due to one of their residents showing symptoms of Covid-19, meaning no one could leave the refuge and therefore no new refuge spaces could become available to victims that desperately needed it. This really shows the difficulties refuge services may have to meet demand during this pandemic. Another need of victims that has emerged that services providers are experiencing is with regards to the added impact to victims’ mental health that this pandemic causes. With victims of all crimes, including domestic abuse, the crime they have been victim of will have most likely had a significant impact on their mental health and Covid-19 is a further stress upon victims in which some are struggling to cope with. Services have reported that much of the support given to victims at the moment includes discussing Covid-19 and as a result of this, more time is spent providing support to the client. Those services experiencing this have been sharing techniques with service users to manage anxiety during this time.

18. Social distancing measures and this lockdown came just before the start of the new financial year, when services that have been commissioned for the new 2020-21 financial year are due to start. This has caused significant problems for new services and projects set to start that need to recruit. Due to the rapidly changing nature of this situation and the initial uncertainty of Government measures to tackle the pandemic, some domestic abuse services could not recruit before social distancing measures were put in place and therefore cannot carry out their service for the time being, leaving gaps in service provision. New group-based domestic abuse services that were set to start are now not able to during this social distancing period, whereas already established support groups have been able to support victims, through group videos calls and group chats, as well as offering one to one support where needed. This highlights further gaps in provision as a result of services not being able to prepare in time for social distancing measures.

19. Domestic abuse victim services, and victim services as a whole, are likely to be experiencing the consequences for a long time post-pandemic, capacity-wise, financially and in terms of demand. Services expect to see an influx in referrals one social distancing restrictions are released due to victims being able to finally access support and the increased occurrence of domestic abuse during the lockdown period. In addition to an influx in referrals, services may not have been able to provide the full support their current clients needed during the lockdown period, resulting in these clients staying within the service for longer. An example of where this is likely to occur is when a service is supporting a client through the criminal justice system, as trials could’ve been postponed during the pandemic, prolonging the length of time the victim will receive support from the service. Many domestic abuse charities, that are already strained and under economic difficultly due to austerity, will be in a difficult position as a result of this pandemic and will struggle to prepare for possible further increases in demand that is expected post lockdown.

 

20. The effectiveness of Government advice, co-ordination and support for responders and service providers

There has been very little government advice in relation to co-ordinating and providing support to domestic abuse victims.

 

21. Service providers have business continuity plans in place which were reviewed as the situation worsened which included home working. Locally services have been supporting each other and this has also been co-ordinated through the OPCC and Local Criminal Justice Board groups. Nationally, each week the Victims’ Commissioner has a meeting to consult and discuss issues with PCCs and victim support services. There is also a forum to raise issues of concern and there has been a lot of focus on domestic abuse and children involved in abusive situations.

 

22. The recent announcements of the £750m to support charities from the Chancellor and is greatly welcomed but with the third sector estimating a £4bn loss as a result of this pandemic[3], this will not come close to what charities need to continue to support vulnerable people. The grant-based system will result in many vital charities not receiving any of this funding. Some of these charities are likely to be small, specialist domestic abuse charities that provide essential support to those most in need.

 

23. The further announcements from the Home Secretary regarding the Home Office publishing adverts to raise awareness on where domestic abuse victims can seek help on social media and also the additional £2m to help domestic abuse helplines and online support is a step that was much needed. Victims are not receiving the help they need in the crisis and hopefully this will enable victims who are unable leave their house or make a phone call to get support.

 

24. As Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner, it was really important to me that my office helped our service providers as much as possible in this period, especially those providing support to the most vulnerable people, such as domestic abuse victims. I used the £200,000 that would usually be a community fund to support organisations that tackle hate crime, reduce anti-social behaviour and build community confidence to create the Coronavirus Response Fund. This fund is designed to help local charity organisations continue their vital work. The fund will prioritise applications from organisations supporting the most vulnerable within our communities, including those at risk of domestic abuse. The fund will also look at ways to support young people at risk of abuse, neglect or the impacts of poverty now the stability and support of schools has been taken away. It is hoped that this will provide some help to local support services in Northumbria afloat during this time.

 

April 2020

 

 


[1] The Guardian (15.04.2020) ‘Domestic abuse killings more than double amid Covid-19 lockdown’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/15/domestic-abuse-killings-more-than-double-amid-covid-19-lockdown

[2] The Guardian (08.04.2020) ‘Fears for child welfare as protection referrals plummet in England’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/08/fears-for-child-welfare-as-protection-referrals-plummet-in-england

[3] The Independent (31.03.2020) ‘Coronavirus: Charities in England ‘on brink’ of collapse as sector faces £4bn funding blackhole’. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-charity-support-help-government-funding-cancelled-events-a9439321.html