How the COVID-19 lockdowns affected the domestic abuse crisis

Woman staying home for safety during coronavirus pandemic and observing empty streets

A study found that restrictions kept victims in abusive relationships for longer and its findings have helped inform police policy.

Between April and June 2020 of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a 65% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline compared to the first three months of that year.

Lockdown restrictions appeared to increase the severity of abuse and made it difficult for victims to leave or seek help.

Unprecedented times

Dr Katrin Hohl of City, University of London and Dr Kelly Johnson of Durham University developed a project to analyse the introduction and lifting of lockdowns on domestic abuse.

A limited amount of information was available to the police to inform procedure. So, the academics set out to:

  • provide a rapid, near real-time evidence base to inform the police approach to domestic violence and abuse during lockdowns and beyond
  • determine if the pandemic had a statistically significant impact on the volume or nature of domestic abuse coming to police attention during the pandemic, or both.

The most extensive study of its kind

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded study was the most extensive and rigorous analysis of police domestic abuse case file data conducted anywhere in the world at the time.

The academics used statistical methods to examine all domestic abuse-flagged incidents and crimes reported to seven police forces since the onset of the pandemic. Forces included the Metropolitan Police Service and Merseyside Police.

Researchers interviewed a total of 73 officers, tracking the impact of the pandemic on domestic abuse from March 2020 to April 2021.

Key findings and recommendations

The study identified key findings, including:

  • the pandemic lockdowns highlighted the pre-existing domestic abuse problem
  • restrictions kept victims in abusive relationships for longer
  • domestic abuse continued as lockdowns lifted and COVID-19 restrictions eased
  • while ex-partner abuse decreased, current partner and family abuse increased
  • domestic abusers used the lockdown to intensify or conceal their violence, coercion and control.

The study made recommendations, which were later used to inform police policy and procedure:

  • look beyond lockdown-induced spikes and dips in domestic abuse reporting
  • respond to the bigger picture of a long-term rise and gendered pattern in domestic abuse
  • when lockdowns lift, anticipate and prepare for high-risk situations resulting from pent-up separations of victim-survivors from abusers
  • police officers must have the knowledge and professional curiosity to recognise ongoing patterns of abuse
  • officers must not be too quick to assume domestic incidents are one-offs caused by pandemic circumstances
  • prepare for the consequences of the worsening negative impact of domestic abuse on victim-survivor mental health by providing adequate services and support.

Positive impact on resource allocation

Dr Katrin Hohl of City, University of London, said:

The study has meant the police forces now have empirical evidence to say that they need to allocate more resources to domestic abuse case handling. This is proving particularly important as lockdowns are lifted.

Informing policy and procedure

The study already has a far-reaching impact in helping real-time domestic abuse situations and is referenced in multiple research papers.

Dr Hohl and Dr Johnson shared their near-real-time evidence base with the:

  • Home Office
  • National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC)
  • College of Policing.

The study has played a crucial role in developing the NPCC’s understanding of how COVID-19 impacts police-recorded abuse and decision-making.

Cumbria Constabulary used the findings to allocate resources to process demands relating to domestic abuse.

Dr Hohl also gave evidence on the study at the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee Home Office Preparedness for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Consultation: Supplementary Call for Evidence Submission.

Read more about the study.

Top image:  Credit: martin-dm, E+ via Getty Images

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