Christmas disruption and Covid pressure ‘heightening risk of domestic abuse’

A shadow of a man looming over a woman cowering on a sofa Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Families should check in with loved ones they fear may be victims of domestic abuse over Christmas ahead of an anticipated rise in reports, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is urging.

Nicole Jacobs told the PA news agency the added pressures around Christmas this year could lead to an escalation in abusive behaviour and increased risk for victims.

It follows nine months of the coronavirus pandemic which have seen domestic abuse reports soar and a record number of cases dealt with by the family courts.

One in five offences – more than a quarter of a million – recorded by police during and immediately after the first national lockdown in England and Wales involved domestic abuse, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Families who do come together for Christmas Day should stay alert for signs that something is not right and check in with adults or children they suspect may be affected, Ms Jacobs said.

And people concerned about loved ones living under the new Tier 4 restrictions could agree code words to be used if they are in danger, or make plans to contact them at the same time each day.

The Commissioner for England and Wales emphasised that, despite the stringent restrictions affecting 18 million people, help will remain available to victims throughout and beyond the Christmas period.

Asked if she fears the increased pressures of Covid-19 and disruption to Christmas plans could help fuel a rise, she said: “I think everyone is feeling a level of disappointment, palpably, and frustration and stress, and so, of course, none of those things will cause domestic abuse necessarily, it will have always been there, that pattern, but I think it does heighten the risk.

“Abusive people find lots of excuses to be more abusive, to really take out their anger and their stress, so they’ll find those excuses in some of these things, and I think we have to also be aware that, at the same time, all of the kinds of ways that people reach out for help and advice will be so curtailed and people will be much more isolated.

“That’s why we’ve seen throughout the whole of this year during Covid, people using quieter ways to reach out for support and help – the web chat functions on the helplines, emails, things that are quiet so you can sit, maybe just in the next room, and reach out and feel connected and get some support and advice – and so we will see that undoubtedly over this period, a real spike in all of those things because we’ve seen the patterns over these months during Covid.”

Typically previous years have seen a spike in victims seeking help in early January as the holiday period ends, routines restart and people get a breathing space to come forward.

Nicole Jacobs Credit: Home Office/PA

Ms Jacobs believes this year, with coronavirus posing such uncertainty to when life can resume as normal, victims may seek help on a more ad-hoc basis whenever they get a safe moment.

But she said that, for those living under lockdown restrictions, the windows of opportunity will be smaller and some may not get this chance.

With Christmas plans disrupted, it is doubly important to make sure people know they do not have to stay at home if it is not safe, and for friends and family to stay in touch, she added.

It comes as research by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) suggests that a record number of children in the UK could be exposed to domestic abuse this Christmas.

The charity estimates that at least 15,000 children will be living in a household where domestic violence takes place during two weeks over Christmas.

The figure is based on an NSPCC estimate of 3.2% of under-11s and 2.5% of 11 to 17-year-olds reporting exposure to domestic violence in the past year.

This estimate was then applied to the latest UK population statistics from the ONS.

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne said: “This year we’ve seen a rise in domestic abuse during lockdown and, if we couple this with the seasonal spike at Christmas time, we fear thousands of children are at risk this festive season.

“We urgently need to put more investment into what is needed for victims, especially children, to overcome the trauma and rebuild their lives.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Home should be a place of safety, but we know that sadly for some children this is not the case.

“That’s why we have invested millions in support for vulnerable children and survivors of domestic abuse during the pandemic, including £3 million for specialist services to help children who have been affected by this move towards a more positive future.

“We have also made £4.6 billion available to councils to tackle pressures they face at this time, with a further £1.55 billion for next year, and we’re bringing back thousands of social workers on to a temporary register to help where needed.

“This, alongside our bold, independently-led Care Review, will support improvements in the children’s social care system.”