For all of us, life in lockdown is stressful. Living with uncertainty, worrying for the safety of yourself and loved ones, feeling trapped in a space we never imagined we would spend all day, every day. For those children currently living in a household with domestic abuse (and one in seven children and young people under 18 will have at some point in their lives) these concerns will be hugely magnified.
The more time that at-risk families spend cooped up together, the more situations might escalate and spill over into abuse. Children won’t just be at risk themselves, they’ll be more likely to witness abuse that was previously hidden from them when they were at school or out of the home. In my work I often see people turn to coercive behaviour when they lose control elsewhere in their lives, and I think it is fair to say that most of us will never experience a greater loss of control than we are currently experiencing. No wonder then, that domestic abuse charity Refuge are reporting a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the lockdown.
And yet, paradoxically, the number of referrals my local authority has received since schools have closed has dropped sharply. I cannot understate how vital a role schools play in identifying and reporting abuse and other causes for concern. They are the ones who see children five days a week and can pick up on the tell-tale changes in mood, behaviour and appearance. There are a whole range of adults to whom children might feel comfortable disclosing information and a myriad of opportunities for them to do so, often at the most unexpected of times. Although many teachers continue to check in with families and social workers, the truth is we have lost our eyes and ears, and therefore many children have lost their voice.
We do our best, given the circumstances. In my local authority, we continue to visit families wherever we’re able to, sticking to the doorstep if they are comfortable with that. If not, we’re relying on remote technology. Of course this is imperfect. A doorstep doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy from neighbours or family. In cases of possible abuse, the person suspected of committing the abuse is invariably close at hand and therefore the opportunities for unguarded conversations are vanishingly rare.
Fortunately, the Frontline programme has trained me to feel comfortable with the concept of safe uncertainty. I trust in my professional judgement and the relationships I have built with families, even when unknown factors are involved. Recently I supported one mother who had made the painful decision to have her child stay with a family member during lockdown, because this would be best for the child. On the other hand, for some of the families I work with, I’ve even identified lockdown as a protective factor, particularly where outside influences are a concern. However, for other social workers, whose training has taught them to treat any uncertainty as a risk, the uncertainty can be overwhelming.
With schools closed and referrals down, communities have a huge role to play. I think a lot of people are worried that, if they report something to social services that concerns them, that means social workers will turn up and take the children away. Actually, we’re here to support families. The first step is always to work out what is going on and if the family in question wants or needs support. Don’t be afraid to speak out if you are worried.
If you want to help vulnerable children and families at risk of abuse, continue what we’ve all been doing during this pandemic. Look out for your neighbours, look out for your community. Offer whatever support you can, while maintaining social distancing. That little bit of social contact, for someone experiencing abuse, could be the lifeline that lets them get the message out that they need help.
Dean Stamp is a participant in Year 2 of the Frontline programme. He has an additional role of completing narrative-informed work with those who are currently or have been abusive within relationships.