Domestic Violence

COVID-19 Triggers a Catastrophic Increase in Domestic Abuse

Why COVID-19 lockdown is so dangerous for people in abusive relationships.

Posted May 12, 2020

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Worldwide, the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been fast and furious. Overnight vast numbers of people in the UK have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or told to work from home. Schools, sports clubs, and leisure facilities have closed. Networks of family, friends, and support services are fractured. Exercising in public more than once a day and being away from home for anything other than a handful of reasons has become illegal

The costs versus the benefits of lockdown for criminal justice have been widely debated, none more so than for people in abusive domestic relationships. Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, irrespective of age, gender, socio-economic status, and sexuality. Domestic abuse typically, but not always, occurs in the home between family members – heterosexual marriages/partnerships, same-sex marriages/partnerships, children and parents, and siblings, for example.

There are different types of domestic abuse, but possibly one of the most challenging types to understand is controlling and coercive behaviour. Rather than being physically violent, this type of abuse is psychologically violent and largely silent to those outside of the relationship. It has taken some time for the British legal system to fully understand the true nature and impact of psychological abuse. However, in England and Wales, this all changed in 2015 when Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act created a new offence of controlling and coercive behaviour. 

For the first time, numerous psychological and coercive behaviours became unlawful. For example, isolating a person from friends and family, monitoring their time, destroying their possessions, monitoring via online communication tools or using spyware, taking control over where people can go and who they can see, and accessing personal communication (phone and email accounts). All typically justified by perpetrators as "caring", "because I worry about you," or argued as acceptable because "you don’t answer my calls" and "I never know where you are or who you are with, so what do you expect." 

Lockdown is perhaps the worst situation imaginable for victims but a "gift" to abusers. Not surprisingly lockdown has resulted in a catastrophic increase in domestic abuse in the UK, which includes psychological coercion and control. Jealous and possessive partners are more easily able to leverage maximum control, using the "exercise once a day with family" rule and threatening to report absences in contravention of the lockdown rules to the authorities. Unpredictable behaviour that leaves victims feeling like they are walking on eggshells is now inescapable and victims cannot easily phone for advice or assistance, or access online advice because abusers are less likely to be going to work and may never leave the house alone. 

Despite the challenges of seeking help during lockdown, the World Health Organisation has highlighted a 60% spike in calls to European domestic violence hotlines in April. Calls to domestic abuse helplines in the UK are reported to have increased by almost 50%, with a 35% rise in calls to men’s advice lines. The Metropolitan Police have also revealed that an average of 100 arrests a day for domestic abuse offences in London during the first six weeks of lockdown. These figures are shocking, but it seems likely that they are just the tip of a very large iceberg and only when countries emerge from lockdown will the full scale and impact emerge. 

Domestic abuse is a complex and multifaceted crime. Psychologically coercive and controlling behaviours are prevalent and believed to occur early on in an abusive relationship. The importance of these behaviours for assessing the risk of domestic homicide has recently been highlighted by the eight-stage "Homicide Timeline." The timeline was developed following research investigating 372 cases of intimate partner homicide, including interviews with bereaved families and professionals, and is one method being used to support professionals and practitioners to better understand risk in cases where coercive control is reported. It can be difficult to appreciate the relevance of possessiveness, extreme jealousy, and coercive controlling behaviours, which can be easily brushed aside. The timeline draws attention to these types of behaviours and highlights the importance of considering the motivation behind these actions rather than just the severity of the actions or behaviours themselves. 

The timeline suggests that as early as stage 2 of a relationship, possessiveness and jealousy begin to emerge, and by stage 3, the relationship is being dominated by coercive control and psychological manipulation. Stage 4 is a trigger stage, where an event or series of events occur that threatens abusers’ ability to control their victims. The timeline was developed pre-COVID-19 lockdown, but a number of the triggers highlighted are relevant to lockdown, for example, financial insecurity, physical and mental illness, and significant changes in circumstances. According to the timeline, triggers can lead to an escalation in violence and the severity of control tactics, which are markers of stage 5. 

It is absolutely right that psychological methods for controlling and coercing partners and others in domestic and intimate relationships are taken very seriously. Victims live in fear with very little physical or psychological freedom, and even worse, this type of behaviour can escalate, resulting in homicide. In the UK, Section 76 sends a clear message about the types of behaviours that are unacceptable, abnormal and illegal, but conviction rates are low.

Promising extra funding and additional safe refuge spaces for victims during lockdown are akin to managing symptoms. A better way to protect victims and reduce the risk of extreme physical violence and even homicide may be to vigorously pursue and prosecute offenders early on in the timeline, when manipulating and controlling behaviours begin to emerge. Like the COVID-19 lockdown, a fast and furious response may be required to truncate the domestic abuse timeline.

You are not alone: The 24-hour national domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247.