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Bishop of London raises alarm on domestic abuse during lockdown

07 May 2020

Bishop Mullally and safeguarding charities urge churches to be vigilant for signs of abuse

Posed by model/iStock

THE Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has joined safeguarding charities in urging churchgoers to look out for people who are more vulnerable to domestic abuse during the coronavirus lockdown.

Since the Government’s instruction in March that people with Covid-19 symptoms should self-isolate, the Metropolitan Police have reported 4000 arrests for domestic abuse offences in London: an average of about 100 a day. The research project Counting Dead Women calculated that there were at least 16 domestic-abuse killings of women and children between 23 March and 12 April. Calls to the national domestic-abuse helpline Refuge increased by 49 per cent during Holy Week.

Commenting on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returned to the House of Commons for its second reading last week, Bishop Mullally, wrote in a blog post: “[The] Church has always been a voice for the voiceless and a sanctuary for those in need. Domestic abuse in all its forms is contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity. Our current times should be no exception — our buildings may not be open, but the Church’s work goes on. Out of sight must not be out of mind.”

The safeguarding service manager for the Christian charity Thirtyone:eight, Cathy Johnson, agreed. “Domestic abuse happens across all communities, regardless of any specific demographics, and this is true of church communities, too,” she said on Monday. “The church only becomes aware of an issue when a family hits a crisis and reaches out for help. What follows is often a sense of shock or disbelief, as the family in question were perceived to be ‘OK’.”

The restriction of home groups or pastoral visits during the lockdown has made it harder for churchgoers to check on known vulnerable people, she said. “If there is a known history of concern for an individual or family, now is the time for the church to be intentional about finding ways to connect and offer support.”

Thirtyone:eight works with the Christian charity and helpline Restored to deliver training on domestic abuse. Restored helps churches to recognise and “respond well” to abuse in the congregation and community. Its director, Bekah Legg, said on Monday: “As a charity, we have worked hard to respond to the new situation, providing toolkits for those living with their abuser in lockdown, church leaders, and for men who perhaps recognise that they are losing control and want to regain it.”

Restored has released new online-training resources to meet the increase in enquiries from church leaders. “If you have concerns about someone in your church, or down your street, or in your friendship group, I’d urge you not to let that concern go, but to follow it up with a gentle phone call or text to check in on someone,” Ms Legg said.

“If someone does disclose abuse, take time to listen without asking too many questions. It takes a phenomenal amount of courage to speak out about abuse, and victims often think no one will believe them.”

Captain Emma Scott, who is a member of the Salvation Army’s steering group on ending domestic abuse, expressed concern that the reported increase in domestic violence during the lockdown was “just the tip of the iceberg”. “We are also concerned that as and when the lockdown restrictions begin to lift there will be higher demand on services as women are able to access them again.”

Captain Scott, who is also a co-founder of the Link Café, a Salvation Army project which supports women who have left abusive partners in south London, said on Wednesday: “The Salvation Army is working to train local church leaders and volunteers in how to spot the signs of domestic abuse. Our safeguarding unit is ready to advise our local churches and centres and direct them towards what local support is available for people at risk in their areas.”

Last month, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced a new campaign, #youarenotalone, publicising support services and helplines for domestic-abuse victims.

Ms Johnson said that individuals might not be able to talk freely on the phone or on social media, and that children in the household might also be affected. Churches were well placed to help people in an abusive home find a safe space by reporting immediately any concerns to the designated safeguarding co-ordinator, she said. “Children’s Services and the Police are still working on the front line, and so serious concerns should still be escalated.”

A report from the Home Affairs Committee, published last week, instructs the Government to take more urgent action to address the reported surge in domestic violence during the lockdown. It states: “Action is needed during the Covid-19 crisis — both during lockdowns and after them — to prevent and tackle abuse and to support victims, otherwise families and communities will be dealing with those serious consequences for many years.”

Backed by ring-fenced funding, the cross-government strategy must, it states, adapt victim support, provide alternative temporary accommodation, hear Domestic Violence Protection Orders quickly, and grant legal aid automatically to domestic-abuse victims for immediate protection. “The Government should provide an emergency funding package ring-fenced within the promised £750-million fund for charities.”

Yvette Cooper MP, who chairs the committee, said: “The emotional, physical, and social scars from domestic abuse can last a lifetime. If we don’t act to tackle it now, we will feel the consequences of rising abuse during the coronavirus crisis for many years to come.”

A separate study commissioned by Northumbria Police, published last week, warns that parents are also at risk of domestic violence from their children.

Since 2018, researchers from Northumbria University and the Children’s Emotional Language and Thinking project have been studying childhood challenging violent or aggressive behaviour (CCVAB). Their report speaks of a lack of co-ordination and information-sharing on CCVAB between health, mental-health, education, social-care, and criminal-justice services.

In March 2019, Northumbria Police became the first force in the country to record manually these cases. The force responded to more than 500 calls in the first nine months. Jeannine Hughes, a senior lecturer in social work, education, and community well-being at Northumbria, said: “There are many families living with this in silence. This form of abuse exists, and we need to be able to provide targeted interventions to help people who find themselves in this situation. The police get called when it reaches crisis point, which is too late.”

Detective Chief Inspector Louise Cass-Williams said: “It’s hard for victims to report abusive partners — let alone their own child. Child-to-parent abuse exists in many forms: it can be emotional or financial, it can see children damaging property or their home, and, of course, it can be physical and violent.

“It’s in a parent’s nature to protect their child, but, sometimes, it’s the parent, sibling, or family member who needs to be protected from the child.”

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