Survey findings: Analysts fear surge in domestic abuse when Covid-19 restrictions ease

A new report published today by The Drive Partnership (Respect, SafeLives, and Social Finance) warns that abusers are reporting that relationship problems have lessened during lockdown – but that this view is unlikely to be shared by victims.

The report, based on the findings of a survey conducted between August and October 2020, suggests that lockdown restrictions made it easier for people who use abuse to maintain control over their victims, even without, in their view, being abusive. The Drive Partnership, which works with high-risk, high-harm perpetrators of domestic abuse, and conducted the research, warns professionals involved in responding to domestic abuse to exercise extra caution.

Kyla Kirkpatrick, Director of Drive, said:

“Victims often report high levels fear when they are being coercively controlled, even when there is no physical abuse taking place at that time. Just because things seem quiet, doesn’t mean all is well.

We know the voluntary sector has been reporting far higher increases in demand for domestic abuse related services than the police over lockdown. We fear the relatively low increases in police callouts may reflect the daily efforts of victims up and down the country to tread on eggshells, and we worry about what’s ahead when lockdown lifts.

We urge those working with perpetrators, including the police, to exercise professional curiosity when dealing with those known to pose a risk of abuse now during lockdown, but also to prepare for a potential surge in reports when finally, the lockdown lifts.”

The survey asked people who use or had used abuse in their relationships a series of questions about their experience of lockdown. Almost all respondents said they had not experienced more relationship problems in lockdown, and more than half reported that name calling, shouting and being aggressive had reduced during this time.

The authors suggest that this may reflect victims’ additional efforts to protect themselves from harm, for example through compliance and placating, rather than any reduction in risk.

Indeed, when frontline professionals working with perpetrators were surveyed in a separate survey referring to the same period[1], 95% thought the lockdown led to an increase in risk for child and adult victims.

The report also warns of a possible escalation in harm when lockdown eases and urges police and domestic abuse services to be prepared for a surge in demand. This surge could be created by:

  • Perpetrators feeling threatened when the restrictions lift and they have to relinquish their sense of control, leading to desperate or abusive behaviours.
  • Victims having more opportunities to access help, including reporting current domestic abuse, or that which took place during lockdown.

This demand on police is likely to occur when their capacity is also being stretched due to street crime and theft levels returning to normal.

Whilst the authors recognise the sample size is small, the findings appear to align with separate research by Katrin Hohl (City, University of London) and Kelly Johnson (Durham University) who found that there was a surge in first-time domestic incidents reported to the police as the first lockdown eased in summer 2020[2].

ONS data also shows the largest month-on-month increase of domestic abuse-related offences was between April and May 2020, coinciding with the easing of lockdown measures[3].

In preparing for the lifting of lockdown, services must be more accessible than they are now. The survey found that although specialist services that help perpetrators manage their behaviour were deemed to be effective by perpetrators themselves, such services can be difficult to access; half of those surveyed who had received this kind of relationship support found it hard to obtain.

Jo Todd, CEO of Respect, said:

“When perpetrators recognise they have a problem and reach out for help, services must be available to respond; it is a crucial opportunity to keep current and future victim/survivors safe.

There’s no excuse for abuse – and help is out there.  Anyone concerned about their own or someone else’s behaviour can contact the Respect Phoneline on 0808 8024040”.

Key findings from the report:

Please note that this report only documents the perspective of those causing harm, and conclusions should be triangulated with victims’ experiences during lockdown.

  • Lockdown hasn’t made life harder for everyone. From the point of view of people using abuse in their relationships, lockdown appears to have reduced the impact of things that cause them problems in their relationships such as finances, friends, and jealousy. 94% said they have not experienced more relationship problems during lockdown.
  • Most also felt their abusive behaviours reduced, saying that arguing had halved and name calling, shouting and being aggressive reduced by more than half.
  • The authors stress that this perceived reduction in aggression does not necessarily mean less fear for victim/survivors. They note that whilst it could reflect perpetrators’ efforts to control their behaviour it could also reflect victims’ efforts to protect themselves from harm.
  • Responses to questions about how the epidemic had affected the needs of people using abuse showed wide variation – responses on many needs such as financial, physical health and mental health were almost evenly split between people whose needs had got greater, reduced, or stayed the same. For example, a third said lockdown made their mental health needs easier and a third said they made them harder.
  • Most people who had sought support in the past had predominantly turned to specialist services, their GP, or their family for help. Two thirds found the support they had received was helpful to change their behaviour.
  • Speaking to someone and being listened to was the kind of help that perpetrators wanted most and found most useful.
  • Just under half of those who had ever received support from a specialist service found it difficult to obtain.
  • Most found that learning greater self-control and understanding their own behaviour better were the most effective tools in changing their behaviour.

The survey was open between August and October 2020 and had 32 responses. Respondents were mainly approached to complete the survey by the specialist services they were engaged with such as Respect accredited services.

Drive has been funded by a government grant through Respect to write this report.

Read the report

Notes to editors

  • For more information, comment or interviews please contact louisa.comber@safelives.org.uk
  • The Drive Partnership is made up of three organisations, Respect, SafeLives and Social Finance. Between them, these organisations have significant expertise in working with victims, perpetrators and developing sustainable responses to entrenched social problems. 
  • Respect accredited members and members of the Call to Action network helped shape and disseminate the survey. The design of the questionnaire was co-created with a small number of volunteers who had used abuse and were accessing a service.

Further relevant research

The Drive Partnership survey of professionals working with perpetrators[4]:

Professionals working with domestic abuse perpetrators during the COVID-19 lockdown were managing increased levels of risk while facing a range of challenges – from financial, to technology, to multi-agency working. 95% felt COVID-19 has led to an increase in risk for child and adult victims and survivors of domestic abuse.  

SafeLives Staying Safe at Home data[5]:

A survey of victim/survivors during the pandemic found the most common response to concerns around safety was fear of the perpetrator.

Katrin Hohl (City, University of London) and Kelly Johnson (Durham University)[6]:

As well as finding a surge in first-time domestic incidents reported to the police as the first lockdown eased in summer 2020, this study also found a reduction in victims telling the police about separations during lockdown, and a rise after lockdown eased. This suggests the restrictions stopped them from being able to leave abusive relationships.

The Femicide Census[7]:

Highlighted separation as a known trigger of domestic abuse risk escalation.  

More about Drive

The Drive Partnership believes domestic abuse is not acceptable or inevitable. The Drive Intervention works with high-harm, high-risk and serial perpetrators of domestic abuse to prevent their abusive behaviour and protect victims. Drive challenges these perpetrators to change and works with partner agencies – like the police and social services – to disrupt any ongoing abuse.

Drive advocates for changes to national systems so that perpetrators posing all levels of risk can no longer get away with abusive behaviour and can access the help they need to stop.

Drive is a partnership between Respect, SafeLives and Social Finance:

Respect UK – Respect is the UK membership organisation for work with domestic violence perpetrators, male victims and young people. Respect have developed standards and accreditation and provide training and support to improve responses to adults using violence and abuse in intimate relationships. Respect accreditation is the benchmark for the provision of quality interventions with men who use violence against their female partners. 

SafeLives – SafeLives is the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good. SafeLives work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse.

Social Finance – Social Finance is a not for profit organisation that partners with the government, the social sector and the financial community to find better ways of tackling social problems in the UK and beyond.

Resources

For anyone who is worried about harming someone or about their behaviour please contact the Respect Phoneline: 0808 802 4040.

For any professionals looking for advice on working with perpetrators of domestic abuse please use the Drive and Respect Phoneline webchat.


[1]  http://driveproject.org.uk/news/survey-findings-services-working-with-perpetrators-of-domestic-abuse-during-covid-19-lockdown-continued-to-deliver-despite-significant-challenges/

[2] https://campaignforsocialscience.org.uk/news/a-crisis-exposed-how-covid-19-is-impacting-domestic-abuse-reported-to-the-police/

[3]https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseduringthecoronaviruscovid19pandemicenglandandwales/november2020

[4] http://driveproject.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Drive-frontline-survey-full-report.pdf

[5] https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Safe%20at%20Home%2020200615.pdf

[6] https://campaignforsocialscience.org.uk/news/a-crisis-exposed-how-covid-19-is-impacting-domestic-abuse-reported-to-the-police/

[7] https://www.femicidecensus.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Femicide-Census-10-year-report.pdf