As Domestic Abuse Rises, U.K. Failings Leave Victims in Peril

At least 26 women and girls have been killed during the coronavirus lockdown, and others were trapped with abusers. But pleas for emergency support have largely gone unanswered.

Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British government, after failing to heed early warnings that domestic abuse would soar during the coronavirus lockdown, is still struggling to adequately respond more than four months later. For victims trapped with their abusers, the consequences have been catastrophic.

During the first month after the lockdown began in late March, sixteen women and girls were killed in suspected domestic homicides — more than triple the number from the same period in 2019. At least 10 more have died in the two months since then. The oldest of them was 82 years old. The youngest, killed alongside her mother and 4-year-old sister, was 2.

Distress calls to abuse hotlines are soaring. Charities are overwhelmed, while some emergency housing providers cannot meet demand. An already overstretched court system is suffering lengthy delays and has allowed some abusers to return home, despite restraining orders.

By contrast, New Zealand included domestic abuse preparations in its broader lockdown planning from the start. Italy, Spain and other countries set up nationwide programs to house abuse victims in hotels if existing shelters were full. Germany made an open-ended pledge to fund shelters and other crucial services.

Britain did none of this. Interviews with more than 50 government and law enforcement officials, academic experts, front-line support workers and abuse survivors show that British leaders never prioritized domestic abuse in lockdown planning and are still failing to quickly provide help. Early in the lockdown, the government promised 37 million pounds, or about $46 million, in emergency funds for domestic abuse charities, but as yet only £1 million has reached front-line organizations.

The National Oversight Group on Domestic Abuse — a cross-party advisory group set up under former Prime Minister Theresa May — has not convened once during the pandemic. The government’s overall pandemic plan, published on March 3, includes no mention of domestic abuse.

The government did not commission its first strategic action plan for addressing domestic abuse until late May — two months after lockdown commenced — and the resulting report found that violence against women and girls was “still not being factored into the highest levels of the pandemic response.”

“There is no defined government strategy at all,” said Jess Phillips, a Labour lawmaker who speaks for the opposition on domestic violence policy. “Some services have got no funding to keep going.”

The government contests that. Victoria Atkins, the minister in charge of the government’s response to domestic violence, said in a statement that the officials had provided financial support, communicated regularly with charities and was “committed to supporting victims and bringing perpetrators to account.”

The list of 26 women and girls believed to have been killed by male partners or relatives during the lockdown was originally compiled by the Counting Dead Women Project, a group of researchers who have testified before Parliament about homicides of women. The New York Times corroborated the number through police and court records, open-source research, press reports and interviews.

Counting Dead Women only tracks killings of women and girls by men. It does not include transgender victims, meaning the true total is very likely higher. The Times also identified eight cases in which a man was suspected to have been killed by a partner or relative during lockdown.

Domestic abuse is usually an ongoing, deliberate campaign of psychological and physical violence designed to satisfy the abuser’s desire for control, experts say. Abusers who experience a sudden increase in stress often compensate by escalating their attacks in order to regain a sense of power and agency.

For many abuse survivors, the lockdown has meant living in terror.

On March 24, the day after lockdown began, one woman, M.V., said she was tiptoeing back into her house after work when her husband became enraged. Her husband had forbidden her from leaving the house, claiming that she would bring the virus back with her.

“He was screaming that I had disobeyed,” she said. (For safety reasons, The Times is not using the full names of any abuse survivors interviewed for this article. Each account was corroborated by the women’s case workers. One victim provided court documents, while another provided photographs of injuries and messages contemporaneous with the abuse.)

She said she locked herself in the bathroom, but her husband crashed through the door, then punched her and spat on her face, until she managed to break free and flee to a bedroom and lock the door.

“I was so scared,” she said, “but I didn’t know what to do.”

Early Warning Signs

By the second week of March, a lockdown seemed inevitable in Britain, but the authorities appeared to discount any risks of rising domestic abuse. The Home Office, which oversees the government’s domestic abuse strategy, said in a statement released on March 13 that “existing sources of advice and support” would be available to those who experienced abuse but mentioned no plans to supplement or reinforce those services.

Behind the scenes, Erika Fraser, a government adviser for the Department of International Development, was worried. On March 16, she presented a report documenting how domestic abuse had risen sharply in countries that had already locked down, while warning that support services would struggle under the increased strain, leaving vulnerable women in danger.

“In China, police reports show domestic violence has tripled during the epidemic,” Dr. Fraser wrote in her report. “Organizations have observed increased household tension and domestic violence due to forced coexistence, economic stress, and fears about the virus.”

The report was circulated within the highest levels of government and landed on the desk of Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner — a new watchdog and advocacy role.

Alarmed, Ms. Jacobs convened a weekly conference call of charity leaders and government and police officials to better understand what was happening on the ground and rally lawmakers to provide urgently needed support.

But empathy in Westminster did not translate into urgent action.

Britain’s lockdown began March 23, but Ms. Jacobs’s calls for immediate and straightforward emergency funding were largely ignored. So was a suggestion of using hotel rooms as temporary abuse shelters — a service that was provided for homeless people.

Meanwhile, 296 beds in domestic abuse shelters have remained closed for weeks because of coronavirus concerns, awaiting emergency government funding to enable them to reopen, the Home Office acknowledged.

“Why could the government not provide accommodation in the way they have for rough sleepers?” Pragna Patel, chief executive of the London charity Southall Black Sisters, asked, referring to the program for homeless people. “Why have they taken two months or more to make money available for abused women?”

Buckling Services

When the pandemic hit, front-line services were already under pressure from years of austerity. Private charities, which play a leading role in providing help, had lost funding. Shelters had been forced to close. Budget cuts left police departments struggling. By 2019, domestic homicides had reached a five-year high, the BBC found.

“We’re shouldering the responsibility of protecting vulnerable people,” Ms. Patel said, “while the government has washed their hands.”

Once in lockdown, service providers raced to meet rising demands for help, even as victims could no longer visit in person.

“We had to restructure everything,” said Gabriela Quevedo of Latin American Women’s Aid. “The phone lines, the rota of caseworkers, making sure that they spoke Spanish and Portuguese on every shift.”

Even Britain’s national domestic abuse hotline was imperiled. The Home Office provides some funding for the hotline, but it is operated by the staff of Refuge, a charity. During lockdown, Refuge’s finance director drove to electronics stores across London to buy laptops and phones, then rushed to distribute them to staff members’ homes.

In Yorkshire, in northern England, the Anah Project, a small charity, had only two laptops and cellphones available for 10 employees to use at home — and no cash on hand to buy new equipment. A local donor paid for phones, but the organization still needs eight laptops.

Nearly three weeks into lockdown, the government announced that domestic abuse services would be able to bid for additional funding. But ministers did not finalize critical details, including the complex system to bid for grants, for almost a month after that.

The pot allocated was £37 million, or barely half the £65 million that domestic abuse services calculated was needed to keep services running during the pandemic. And even today, only £1 million of that emergency funding is known to have reached front-line services, the government admitted.

Disorder in the Courts

For many people who experience domestic abuse, protection has often come from the courts. Lockdown made that more difficult.

Lynn said her alcoholic partner had bullied and controlled her for years, but that “during lockdown he just spiraled out of control.” She said she began sleeping with a chest of drawers against her bedroom door after he threatened to kill her.

In late May, a court order against her partner offered hope of a reprieve, except it does not bar him from having contact with her. Lynn described it as “useless.”

Domestic Violence Protection Orders go further by immediately removing perpetrators from the home for up to 28 days. They are critical emergency legal protections for abuse victims, but The Times uncovered multiple instances in which courts were reluctant to enforce protection orders because of coronavirus-related concerns.

One judge granted the orders but allowed abusers to return home because he did not want to leave the men homeless during lockdown. The police eventually intervened and created a system for housing perpetrators who had nowhere else to go.

One woman was hospitalized after a judge allowed her abuser to return home after he said he had coronavirus symptoms, despite parole conditions barring him from the premises, according to two charities.

Lockdown has also created a backlog of hearings on issues like extending restraining orders or filing criminal charges against abusers still at home.

“In every area, there’s a difficulty for people coming into courts,” said Ms. Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner. “Criminal cases, arrests, charges are what’s being delayed.”

Nowhere to Go

In late April, Hajrah said, she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of painkillers after enduring severe emotional and physical abuse from her father during lockdown. When her father and brother found her unconscious, she said, they did nothing. She got help only because a friend alerted the police.

After recovering, she said, she faced a new dilemma: The lockdown meant that no landlords were accepting new tenants. She could not go home. Her only option was to find a spot in a women’s shelter. But by then, shelters in most parts of the country were full.

But Hajrah had help that many others did not. Her area was served by Independent Domestic Abuse Services, a well-funded charity that used Airbnb properties, vacant apartments and empty hotel rooms to provide emergency shelter for abuse victims during lockdown.

Nationally, by contrast, the British government has offered no such assistance. Figures from Women’s Aid federations nationwide show that the number of available places dropped by nearly half during the first seven weeks of lockdown.

Even in normal times, the system can be disruptive; survivors are often asked to move hundreds of miles from family and support networks — impossible for many to manage — to secure an available bed. Because of travel restrictions, the system has been almost unworkable under lockdown.

Experts believe that many people who were unable to leave abusive partners will try to escape once lockdown is lifted. This will create a surge in demand for services, including more pressure on overwhelmed courts and shelters. Britain’s looming coronavirus-related recession will bring additional strain.

“Domestic violence increases during times of economic stress and unemployment,” Dr. Fraser said in an email.

Many charity directors are now imploring the government to finally address the issue in a comprehensive way.

“The government knew that there was a problem, knew that it had to do something,” said Yasmin Rehman, the chief executive of Juno Women’s Aid, a charity based in Nottingham, England. “It can’t just be short-term, quick fixes.”

Publish : 2020-07-03 14:15:38

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