Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
The country’s police forces have come under attack for over-zealous monitoring of the lockdown. Countless jokes and jibes featuring flatfooted coppers stamping on our precious civil liberties circulated on social media when police broke up picnics in the park.
The imaginative and innovative schemes that police are rolling out across the country to combat domestic abuse may come as a surprise, then. Yet a brief survey of responses from statutory and voluntary bodies to this crime during the pandemic reveals an unappreciated creative streak in our police.
Lockdown is an essential public health measure — but it risks trapping victim with perpetrator, at a time when fear of infection is compounded by financial worries, limited movement, and the attendant increase in alcohol abuse and addictions such as online gambling.
Victims are predominantly women, but also children and elderly relatives; and while the crime is often violent, abuse can also be in the guise of coercion and controlling behaviour. The drug addict who, desperate for cash to feed his habit, emotionally blackmails his elderly mother until she hands over cash is as guilty of criminal behaviour as the partner who thumps his wife.
Simultaneously, the lockdown is compromising traditional safeguarding. The Home Secretary has been clear that support to victims of domestic abuse (and justice for their tormentors) would continue despite the crisis – and Louise Rolfe, Deputy Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police and one of the country’s top officers, confirmed the police’s commitment to combating the crime.
But victims’ refuges – a lifeline to abused women and children – are multiple occupancy, and social distancing measures threaten their ability to stay open. Covid19-induced staff shortages affect both refuges and other front-line work; as do school closures: most schools do not regard domestic abuse workers as ‘key workers’, and will not allow their children to continue to attend school.
Victim support – counselling, referral services, etc – is now provided only on-line, which can prove difficult to access for victims living in close proximity to their abuser. GP surgeries and schools, as well as churches, hair-dressers, mikvahs (baths used by Orthodox Jewish women), where usually victims can be identified, and where they can seek help, have become more difficult or impossible to access.
Charities dealing with domestic abuse are reporting a dramatic spike in the number of calls to their helplines ever since the lock-down: calls to the National Abuse Hotline in the UK soared by 65 per cent last month and by 25 per cent in a five day period last week; AgeUk reports 88 per cent increase in calls to its adviceline, while the Refuge helpline for victims has seen a 120 per cent increase in one day. Police forces, meanwhile, are recording a different scenario: while police in Avon and Somerset have seen a 20.9 per cent increase in recorded incidents since lockdown began, in Derbyshire the number of recorded incidents is down, year on year.
While trends across the 43 forces may vary, police are as one in recognising that the present emergency calls for a fresh and bold approach. Many forces have stepped up to the challenge.
In Cumbria, they are tasking delivery drivers and postal workers to keep a look-out for signs of abuse in the households where they deliver. Other constabularies are also encouraging alternative ‘extra eyes and ears’ to help them spot victims and perpetrators: supermarket staff, GPs and surgery staff, pharmacists and school staff – in those schools still open to deliver FSM and food parcels — are being tasked with being on the look-out for signs of abuse.
In Hampshire, police, have distributed posters with local helpline and local refuge numbers through supermarket chains and pharmacies. (This is being copied by other police forces in their areas.) The Met has produced a poster for national use with the numbers of national front-line services. In North Yorkshire, even before Jess Phillips called for hotels to volunteer their empty rooms as refuges for abuse victims, police have adapted empty hotels to do precisely this.
The highly successful Operation Encompass, pioneered by police and schools in Devon and Cornwall, allows police who have been called in to inspect an incident of domestic abuse where children are victims or witnesses to pass on confidential information to the children’s teachers. During Covid-19, police collaborate with Heads and key adults within school to offer these children a place in school under the ‘vulnerable groups’ allocation.
Innovative, creative and compassionate: attributes that could come to define police in the lockdown. Better than raining on someone’s picnic.