Each year there is a reported spike in domestic violence with fears that this will be further impacted by the pandemic, leading to an estimated 15,000 children exposed to domestic abuse over the 2 week festive season. This post examines the reasons for this seasonal spike and what this can mean for families with guidance for safety planning.
The Christmas period often brings with it a reported increase in police call-outs for incidents of domestic abuse. Financial pressures, alcohol on tap, trying to create the 'perfect' Christmas and being cooped up together for long periods all contribute to a regular rise in domestic abuse. However, organisations that support victims have warned that pressures brought about by pandemic restrictions are expected to exacerbate the impact on those who are already at risk.
In March 2020 the United Nations issued a statement warning that rates of widespread domestic abuse will increase owing to COVID-19 restrictions, including an increase in femicides and child abuse. Early research findings seem to be bearing this out with the UK seeing a 20% rise in police reports regarding domestic abuse incidents and calls to the national domestic violence helpline rising by 66%. Christmas 2020 saw the number of domestic violence incidents nearly doubling nationally, from 200,000 reports in 2019 to 369,000 in 2020.
“Christmas is meant to be the most wonderful time of the year, but we know that for women and children experiencing domestic abuse it is far from this and can be a frightening and isolating time. We know that for women experiencing economic abuse, the run-up to Christmas with its expectations and additional expenses can be particularly hard, and after a challenging financial year, with lockdowns, furlough and the impact of the pandemic on personal and family finances, this year does come with additional pressures". - Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge,
A survey by the UK’s largest family law firm Stowe Family Law found that:
one in six respondents believed they were more likely to suffer emotional or physical abuse from their partner over the Christmas period
four in ten were scared that the Christmas period would lead to the end of their marriage
around a third said that money was the chief cause of strain on their relationship,
and two in ten said that “spending time with the wider family” was likely to trigger tension with their partner.
What causes the rise in incidents?
It is important to note that while a rise in incidents can be seen over Christmas, during Covid restrictions and even after football tournaments, it is not the events themselves that cause abuse rather they provide an excuse for perpetrators to exert more power and control over an intimate partner. Perpetrators of abuse choose to act abusively and should always be held responsible for their own behaviour.
Many perpetrators will use Christmas and other factors, such as alcohol, finances or mental ill-health, to excuse their abusive behaviours or, more often than not, blame their victim for the abuse. The Christmas period causes further difficulties for victims with fewer opportunities to report abuse and routes to safety shut down. School closures for the holidays also mean that opportunities for children to report abuse and access support are restricted.
What are the risks to children?
Children's charities are equally concerned this Christmas with a report by the NSPCC estimating that 3.2% of the under 11s and 2.5 per cent of 11–17s have been exposed to domestic violence in the past year. This means that, potentially, at least 15,000 children will be exposed to domestic violence over the two week Christmas period.
Direct abuse of children at this time is also a concern with official data, now available on the first year of the pandemic, showing a significant rise in the number of serious incidents involving children in England. Child harm cases reported by local authorities were up by 20%, child deaths rose by 19% and there was a 20% rise in babies being killed or harmed in this time.
The reopening of schools and nurseries have triggered a rush of new referrals to children's services and organisations which work with families. This surge in demand is largely due to reports of domestic violence from families trapped indoors with their abusers. Child protection services were struggling with chronic underfunding long before the pandemic hit and much like the NHS, services are now running to catch up with a massive backlog but without the same injection of extra cash and public appeals that the NHS have received. Dr Casebourne of the Early Intervention Foundation stated:
"There is little doubt that 2020 has seen a rise in domestic violence - without support the trauma of witnessing or experiencing abuse can stay with children for many years". - Dr Casebourne, Early Intervention Foundation
It is not always the case that leaving an abusive partner will increase a woman’s safety and research has established that, in many cases, domestic abuse from an intimate partner does not end upon separation. Post-separation can actually see an escalation of abuse with women reporting continued threats and intimidation when leaving their abusive partner.
Separated mothers are often under greater pressure from an abusive ex over the Christmas period. When looking to vary contact for the festive season, the safety of the children should always be the primary concern and when considering the potential risks that a perpetrator poses to their victim, past behaviour is the most reliable indicator of future behaviour.
A lack of childcare support can also cause vulnerable mothers to turn to ex-partners for help and support with added stress from school closure overriding the assessed risk from the abuser. Separated fathers can also use guilt to coerce mothers into allowing contact, particularly over the Christmas period. Therefore victims, who have separated due to written agreements with children's service, will require extra support during this time. Visit our post How Can Vulnerable Mothers be Supported to Detach from Their Abusers? for further guidance.
Safety planning for the Christmas period
It is important that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse, which should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern. Where social workers are already working with a family that are remaining together, both the victim and the perpetrator should be included in the planning. Older children should also be involved so that they have a safe route out of the home with a place of safety arranged in advance. Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our post How to complete safety planning with families and for cases where coercive control is a concern visit Coercive Control: Management and Safety Planning Guidance for Social Workers.
Guidance on how to speak to children about abuse, possible risk management strategies for keeping children safe within the home and post-separation can be found in our post How can Children be Protected from Abuse Post-Lockdown?
For professionals working with families where a safety plan is already in place the following would indicate that the level of risk is rising:
Evidence that the tension is rising in the home such as the parents frequently arguing;
Evidence that separated parents are having contact or the mother becomes pregnant;
Allegations of violence or abuse from a parent or third parties;
The parents fail to cooperate with any written agreements and fail to engage with social workers;
Inability to contact the parents or see the children;
A change in the behaviour of the children or victim together with unexplained injuries to them;
Police notifications of domestic incidents or disturbances in the home.
DV-ACT provide a number of interventions to keep families safe including risk assessments and treatment programmes for parents aimed at improving children's safety in the home. This includes a vulnerability programme for mothers and holding perpetrators to account for their behaviour through motivational work and a full perpetrator programme.
References and resources
Refuge reports further increase in demand for its National Domestic Abuse Helpline services during lockdown - https://www.refuge.org.uk/refuge-reports-further-increase-in-demand-for-its-national-domestic-abuse-helpline-services-during-lockdown/
Women’s charities fear an increase in domestic abuse this Christmas - https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/domestic-abuse-christmas-stresses-b1956631.html
NSPCC Child abuse and neglect in the UK today - https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1042/child-abuse-neglect-uk-today-research-report.pdf
Zero tolerance for domestic abuse this Christmas - https://www.worcester.gov.uk/news/zero-tolerance-for-domestic-abuse-this-christmas
In an emergency always dial 999
If you dial 999 and are unable to speak press 55 and follow the instructions from the operator, find out more here - https://www.policeconduct.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Documents/research-learning/Silent_solution_guide.pdf
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
Action on Elder Abuse helpline: 0808 808 8141
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form firstname.lastname@example.org
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Online community support - With Abuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and even houses a solicitor who will answer questions and queries for no charge, and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
DVACT-PAI are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments and interventions to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DVACT-PAI was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. You can read more about our recent merge of DV-ACT and PAI on our blog post to find out more about me and the start of DV-ACT please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?