Video report from ITV News reporter Rachel Younger
Since the pandemic hit the UK last March there has been mounting evidence of a spike in domestic abuse.
ITV News has seen figures showing the shocking rise in the number of children being affected in one of England’s most deprived areas.
Over the past 12 months Oldham Council has recorded a 92% rise in serious domestic violence incidents affecting women and children. These are the most severe cases, where life is potentially at risk.
But it's not just the number of families involved that has worsened, so too has the severity of injuries being suffered.
Gerard Jones, who heads up Children’s Services at the council, has worked with vulnerable families for three decades. He puts it to me in simple terms: “I have never seen so much evidence of physical abuse and harm.”
In the first week of February alone Oldham Council recorded 58 serious incidents of domestic abuse, compared to 43 in the whole month of February last year.
Among the injuries were a number affecting children. They are difficult for Jones to recount: “About three weeks ago we had three children in with fractured skulls, a child with a broken leg and a child who had a bruise who had been punished in a domestic incident."
Jones explained that while some children are being deliberately injured, others are coming to harm because of parental neglect, describing one case where a baby was dropped in a fight between siblings.
He is careful to point out the enormous pressure many families in Oldham were under even prior to Covid; pressure that's been exacerbated by the restrictions.
Thirty-eight percent of children in Oldham live in poverty, often in poor quality and overcrowded housing, and there were high rates of joblessness even before the pandemic began.
Although his staff are now dealing with domestic abuse cases from every section of society, including families they’ve never had contact with before, it's clear deprivation is a strong contributory factor.
Oldham, he says, isn’t unique: “I‘ve been shocked at the level of domestic abuse we are seeing. But Oldham is just one of 10 Greater Manchester authorities and the picture across Greater Manchester is very similar. Ours is just one of those stories.”
One of his domestic abuse specialists, Juliana, who would prefer not to share her full name, explains how her case load has multiplied.
She works in a team of 200 social workers and describes how the boundaries between work and home life have blurred, as calls are fielded around the clock.
But without the safety net of school, she worries most about the children they don’t hear about. Juliana explains how some children are being physically abused and others are suffering enormous emotional damage from what they are seeing and hearing at home. Some simply go missing.
“It devastating,” she said. “If they’re not just witnessing (violence) and they’ve been directly abused then they’re trapped in that situation. They are going to feel out of control, not knowing what is going on and who they can turn to."
We meet Ashley, whose identity we are disguising, who witnessed abuse at home from the age of seven and is now in her early 20s.
With the help of the NSPCC, who provided her with a specialist social worker in her teens, she is now rebuilding her life. But she can’t recover her childhood.
“There were so many instances when the police were called,” she recalls. “I can’t even count have many times as a child I had to call the police because my mums boyfriend had his hands around her throat.”
Ashley is calm, and completely matter of fact, as she describes the horrors she lived through. But school was her sanctuary and the thought of having to experience what she did under the current restrictions unexpectedly reduce her to tears.
“It's really upsetting. It's a really, really tough situation because your home is meant to be the place where you feel most safe. To be somewhere 24/7 where you feel unsafe with people who are meant to love you is not a good feeling.”
The NSPCC is one of a number of charities now calling for the Domestic Abuse Bill, currently passing through Parliament, to include more support for children witnessing or experiencing violence at home.
Last month, the NSPCC revealed contacts to their helpline about children suffering domestic abuse surged by over 50% compared to before the pandemic – an average of 30 contacts a day.
Anna Edmundson, the charity’s Head of Policy, said: “The Government has taken the crucial step of recognising the profound impact domestic abuse has on children’s wellbeing but now they need to go further.
“We are calling for the Domestic Abuse Bill to include a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure there is adequate provision of specialist, therapeutic services in the community”
A Government spokesperson told ITV News: “Supporting and protecting vulnerable families has been at the heart of our response throughout this pandemic, which is why we have kept schools, nurseries and colleges open to vulnerable children including those with social workers. We are also placing social workers in schools to help spot the signs of abuse and neglect more quickly and work with teachers to support children at risk.
“We have given councils £4.6 billion to help them meet additional demands, invested millions in frontline charities that are directly supporting these children and our independent review of children’s social care will look at ways to improve existing support for the most vulnerable.”
In Oldham the pressure on services is so intense that there is now a waiting list for help. Faced with refuges that are struggling for space and a shortage of suitable family accommodation, some victims are opting to return to homes that are far from safe.
The message from Domestic Abuse support services is that you can still get out, even in lockdown and there will be help available.
Jones sees the long-term damage being done to children in his town every day and chooses his words carefully. “I’m indignant that in 2021 we see so much child poverty and harm coming to children as a result of the pandemic."
He wants the government to plan beyond the summer holidays and “raise their eyes to the horizon”.
“I believe there is some understanding of how dangerous some children’s lives are,” he said.
“What we’ve not yet seen is the resolute action and the vision to address those problems for the long term.”