CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

How secret ops helped council support domestic abuse victims during Covid-19

Head of Camden's service talks of 'army-style maneouvres' to help victims

04 December, 2020 — By Harry Taylor

Traffic on a Camden-run website to help victims rose by 200 per cent in lockdown. Credit: Laura Dodsworth

SECRET operations were set up during the coronavirus lockdown to help people trapped in abusive relationships escape, the head of a council-run service helping survivors said this week.

Caitriona Scanlan, from Camden Safety Net, told of how the service had been put under its greatest ever pressures as Covid measures tightened and warned of a need for more places of refuge for those who suffer domestic violence.

She told the New Journal that some victims had escaped using secret phones provided by the service or through meetings in public places arranged covertly beforehand. “Sometimes it did feel like army manoeuvres, getting all of the pieces to fit together,” she said. “We just got our posters and we put them anywhere that was legal to do so. In the parks, outside the community centres, and I think that certainly led to the increase in [self] referrals. We used our imagination to think, ‘where is somebody in lockdown, who is feeling scared, going to go?”

Ms Scanlan, who has worked with victims for more than 35 years, said as soon as the first lockdown was announced in March, there were concerns for those struggling to get away from abuse at home.

She said: “The fear was ‘how can this be used against any client of our service and their children, and how can we get the message to them’. Part of [people’s] thinking is that there was no services available. You couldn’t go out and access those services, because they didn’t exist. Everything looked shut.

“We know that’s not true, but when you’re hunkered down, when you’re living in a very controlling situation you believe those safety nets do not exist.”

In the spring, traffic on Camden Safety Net’s website where victims can seek help, rose by 200 per cent – but amid this, the council saw a 40 per cent drop in referrals from its partners.

There was an increase in self-referrals, but levels are only now returning to usual.

A Greater London Assembly report showed that August was the worst recorded month in history for domestic abuse, with 14,691 reported cases – although this factors in any underreporting during the earlier lockdown.

The same concerns arose around the closure of schools. They can be a venue where children might raise problems at home, or teachers can pick up on signs of problems at home. Camden’s children’s services teams adapted, and continued to visit homes but saw a similar uptick in cases during the summer.

Angela Mason, Camden’s education chief

The council’s education chief Labour councillor Angela Mason said: “In a way there were more serious cases coming through after lockdown, and in a large number of those, domestic abuse was the key presenting issue. Schools are protective for children. They are safe places with trained adults capable of responding to a whole variety of children’s needs.

“Keeping schools open has to be the objective, I know it’s been difficult, but the impact on children from not going to school and the particular risk of children living in housing with abuse is very severe.”

While demand for help increased, the supply of refuge beds did not expand at the same pace. In June the government gave £8.1million to refuges for extra spaces, which helped Solace Women’s Aid provide 70 spaces across the capital. However those places were filled immediately, according to Ms Scanlan, who said the funding “didn’t touch the surface of what we needed”.

She said: “On the front line we were still finding it really difficult to place clients and survivors in refuge spaces with children. The communication from government was ‘Yes, we are providing more’, but it still wasn’t enough.

“The ambition might have been there, but the reality and [to] those experiencing it, it was really difficult to access refuge space.”

The council’s women’s forum is now running an inquiry into domestic abuse. Chaired by Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief-of-staff and Camden school governor Helene Reardon-Bond, it will look at how council services can better support victims and will take evidence from survivors.

If someone believes that a friend or neighbour is a victim of domestic abuse, they can get advice from Camden Safety Net. “The question often is, why doesn’t she just go?” said Ms Scanlan. “Well that may put her in more danger. Actually you wouldn’t, if you were her. Every circumstance is different, every case is different. If someone say they are suffering from domestic abuse, believe them.”

Anyone who needs support or advice can call the Camden Safety Net team on 020 7974 2526. In an emergency they can call 999, and stay silent and press 55 if they fear they are being overheard by an abuser.

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