Supporting Survivors of Domestic Abuse: Early findings from the Third Sector

April Shaw & the DASV research team share early findings from interviews with third sector practitioners supporting survivors of domestic abuse through lockdown. Practitioners have reported significant challenges during the pandemic, both in supporting survivors and maintaining their own well-being.

Scotland’s third sector has played an important and vital role in supporting survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence through lockdown. We have spoken to staff from 17 third sector organisations throughout Scotland and the overwhelming response has been one of adaptability. Funding to deal specifically with Covid-19 was provided for some of the organisations but others have maintained their work within existing budgets while many remain in long-term insecure funding (see latest findings from the organisational survey).  All have had to adapt and innovate their practice while lockdown continues. Online support has been used to great effect for some while others have found it difficult to adjust due to unfamiliarity with digital technologies, lack of training in online working and lack of money to invest in new technologies.  

Moreover, the Covid-19 lockdown has shone a spotlight not only on financial, fuel and food poverty among survivors; it has also raised awareness of digital poverty. Helping survivors online is only possible if survivors can access online support safely. Some organisations reported that survivors at home with perpetrators could not easily maintain contact online or by phone – indeed some survivors have not been in contact and this has caused stress and worry for staff who were helping them. Many women reportedly do not want to access support remotely due to the unsuitability of their home environment (e.g. lack of privacy, poor reception/internet connection) or because they fear opening up difficult emotions without being in a safe space – either because they are worried that they won’t be able to cope alone with the distress or just that they are sceptical that online/phone support would be as effective. As one practitioner reported: In both scenarios, the human connection of inhabiting the same space seems to be important and a necessary factor for establishing rapport and trust”.  

Some organisations have been able, with help from external funding sources and from within local communities, to provide financial assistance for women and children. Food vouchers, food parcels, laptops for kids and help with smart phones has offered some relief but as waiting lists continue to grow, organisations have concerns that coming out of lockdown (and prolonging lockdown further) their services will be stretched even more.  

While partnership working has been good (e.g. sharing of resources, good practice and support) some have felt that statutory services have been slow to respond and adapt to the situation. In particular, survivors have been negatively affected by court trial delays, problems with bail restrictions and other case delays (echoing findings elsewhere). For example, it has taken longer to put Protective Orders in place. For some organisations, criminal justice delays have resulted in workers carrying larger caseloads and increased the backlog in cases, causing problems for staff and survivors alike.  

Issues around children are emerging as a distinct area of concern and stress. Mothers have justifiably been anxious about their children and schooling while delays in court proceedings have added further to their concerns. Child contact has been a huge problem for some, with perpetrators using contact as a means to manipulate survivors: e.g. by not taking children for contact visits or by suggesting they quarantine with their children. While courts were closed, any child contact arrangements that were not concluded left many women and children in limbo and anxious about their safety.  Furthermore, some organisations reported that government guidance has been confusing, particularly in relation to children accessing support from external agencies. Many workers and survivors thought there were no statutory services available while guidance on working with children is reported as ‘unclear’. Being unable to conduct face-to-face work with children has been particularly isolating for children and parents.   

Community diversity and inequalities present further challenges around Covid guidance. We heard these messages from DASV organisations working with BAME populations, where English is a second language (or not spoken at all) and with those working with homeless populations and people with learning difficulties. Ensuring these populations have access to appropriate information materials is paramount to their health and wellbeing.   

Maintaining staff well-being is another area that has raised some concerns (see early analysis of the organisational survey). Staff have endured the personal effects of lockdown, while also being anxious for the survivors and children they work with, particularly those they have been unable to keep contact with. Unable to meet face-to-face, some worry that their service falls short of client needs. Some organisations have by and large attempted to ameliorate staff anxieties with more regular check-ins, introducing well-being hours and generally supporting each other more often than pre-lockdown.  

Having adapted to lockdown with new processes and procedures, there is some optimism going forward (see our analysis of positives coming out of the survey). For example, online technologies have helped some organisations offer access to more services and support. Flexible working for staff (e.g. working from home) and new and creative ways of supporting groups and individuals online are also potential changes that may be adapted in future provision. Ensuring long-term funding for these third-sector groups is paramount to their survival and the important work they do with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence.  

April Shaw is a Research Associate in the DASV stream on the Scotland in Lockdown Study. She is also a PhD student looking at the lived experiences of older women in recovery from substance use.