Responding to Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence during the COVID 19 Pandemic
Updated 02 April 2020
Specialist services have been taking action in light of the current and developing situation with COVID 19 and violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence (VAWDASV).
Welsh Women’s Aid continues to consult with our membership to ensure we’re responding to the consistently evolving situation, and that specialist services will be supported to provide lifesaving and lifechanging support to those who need it in Wales as well as protecting survivors and staff within their services. This briefing highlights key concerns to be addressed and solutions to be implemented to ensure a robust response to VAWDASV during this unprecedented time for consideration of Welsh Government and public bodies in Wales.
Below are Welsh Women’s Aid’s key COVID 19 work areas and our plan of recommendations.
Number of beds. Information from Routes to Support shows that there are currently under 10 beds available across refuges in Wales. Whilst this is currently manageable in the short term, we already know that in normal times 512 women were turned away from refuge last year due to their being no space or capacity to meet their needs when and where they needed it.
Why refuge space is limited. At present we are aware of services closing beds or whole refuge properties closing due to:
- Self-isolating survivors with vulnerabilities in refuge (pregnancy and disability)
- Self-isolating survivors due to COVID19 symptoms
- Limited staff due to staff childcare or having to self-isolate due to vulnerabilities or symptoms.
‘Bed blocking’ is also an issue as survivors are unable to move on to new properties due to RSLs and private renting not being available due to COVID 19 restrictions.
Funding sustainability. The cost of voids due to closed beds has also been highlighted. This raises concerns around the impact on the sustainability of provision as housing benefit and support funding that would usually cover rental and staffing costs will decrease significantly.
Access to food. Access to food for women in refuge has also been raised by refuge providers. Refuges cannot do delivery orders, due to disclosures of addresses and some women only have cash due to no access to cards. Due to staffing shortages delivering food to refuges where survivors are self-isolating, particularly in rural areas is particularly onerous on services. We are advising members on linking in with mutual help groups in communities however these are minimal at present in some areas and again cannot have access to the refuges.
Supporting children and young people. Children are spending most of their time in refuge, this is impacting on survivors and support workers being able to carry out normal refuge and support activities when children would usually be in school. It is also adding to the demand on children’s workers where they are available. Not all refuges have dedicated children workers and many have minimal hours so children are not getting as much support as they may require.
Resource: We have produced and shared this information on supporting children and young people at this time: https://www.welshwomensaid.org.uk/2020/03/supporting-children-and-young-people-through-the-coronavirus-pandemic/
Sexual Violence services and community provision
Phone and online support. Sexual violence services and most domestic abuse community provision has moved provision to telephone or online support. Services have been purchasing phones for women to ensure the can provide support to people who do not have the access they need, limited data due to pay as you go contracts or live in rural areas with limited connectivity. Similarly, they are purchasing equipment for staff and are having to cover the costs of home working, and will require additional funding to ensure they can sustain this provision.
Safe spaces. Both survivors and support staff are finding it hard to find safe spaces for remote support as family and children are in close proximity. We are consistently advising that KPIs need to be relaxed from commissioners to ensure support can be as flexible as possible to help accommodate people’s individual circumstances.
Training. Training is required for staff and volunteers on the use of technology and the provision of remote support for survivors, particularly in remotely handling flashbacks and triggers during sessions.
Provision for women exploited by the sex industry
Women in the sex industry will be more vulnerable to risk, violence and exploitation, and experiencing further poverty. There must be a full consideration of what resources are available to support their safety and wellbeing.
Current concerns and points to raise:
- Heightened risk of infection
- Additional support may be needed for self-isolation, social distancing or access to healthcare
- Access to condoms, other health and wellbeing supplies, and to share ugly mug information could be reduced if outreach support is limited
- Women who are engaged in street prostitution are likely to be disproportionately impacted by any fines or arrest if stricter restrictions on leaving the house are implemented
- Consideration of the need of women engaging with substance use must inform the response with substance use services
- Provision of personal protective equipment will be crucial for services to continue to provide outreach support to women in the sex industry that may have COVID 19 symptoms
Live Fear Free Helpline
The helpline continues to provide a full 24/7 provision.
While calls remain at an almost consistent level, it is likely that some survivors do not have the safe space to make calls and less professionals currently working to make inquiry calls. To address this, we are promoting the webchat and texting services which may be easier for survivors to make contact through. We are also promoting safety and self-care messaging for survivors through social media.
Staffing of all VAWDASV provision
Across the board staffing is an issue for services due to staff with vulnerabilities, sickness and childcare concerns. Most services have reduced staffing in place and are currently managing this through reallocation of cases and duties, however some have had to reduce provision due to staff shortage. Smaller, local services are being significantly impacted by staff shortages.
Solutions and recommendations:
To deal with the above situation we request the following be considered across Welsh Government:
We welcome the unprecedented action that the Welsh Government is taking to support charities and vulnerable people, specifically the extension of support to women with no recourse to public funds. The ongoing plan to respond to the pandemic must include a strategy to protect women and girls and prevent abuse and this must be informed and monitored by those linked to the frontline provision of VAWDASV specialist services across Wales.
In countries, such as France and Spain, a response to VAWDASV has been inbuilt to their emergency response to the COVID 19 pandemic, recognising VAWDASV services as critical provision at this time and ensuring safety and support messages are included in public health campaigns.
- Regular feedback from VAWDASV sector representation in Welsh Government emergency planning meetings, this needs to be high level and ensuring it is feeding into housing, health, education and safeguarding responses.
- Support for the evaluation and data collection to provide ongoing picture of the impact of COVID 19 procedures on VAWDASV and specialist services without added burden on frontline provision and must be resourced appropriately.
As outlined above there are significant concerns about the sustainability of refuge provision and access to safe accommodation for survivors. Our recommendations below should also be aligned to our recommendations regarding finance.
- The Welsh Government must urge local authorities, Housing Associations and Social Landlords to work with specialist service to use any properties they have which are void and unallocated to fulfil Local Authority duty to house and keep women safe. Support is needed to enable void properties to be swiftly turned around, including provision of utilities and cleaning to enable them to become available for use.
- While it is paramount that local authorities up-keep their priority need duty to housing VAWDASV survivors, we are getting reports from members that they are being forced to utilise hotel and B&B provision. In doing this, they are being saddled with the cost and the task of procuring properties. Hotels and B&Bs are not safe provision, require costly block bookings and often do not have the facilities needed for food and other needs required by survivors. Local Authorities must work with specialist services to ensure the best provision of support at this time and ensure they support the cost and sourcing of any alternative provision.
Resource: See our statement on the use of hotels and B&Bs: https://www.welshwomensaid.org.uk/2020/03/statement-on-the-use-of-hotels-bbs-to-supplement-refuge-space-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
- Clear guidance for specialist services and local authority on the implementation of opening services to survivors with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). We encouraged and welcomed the removal of the NRPF restrictions. However, it is essential that this is clearly communicated so that it actually is delivered in practice, and that specialist services will receive funds to cover housing and support costs.
Communities are often the first to know about abusive relationships. Welsh Women’s Aid ‘ask me’ scheme has been working to effectively maximise communities’ understanding of VAWDASV and increase signposting to support. We have been supporting our community ambassadors to adapt their work during COVID 19. There are opportunities that learning from this scheme could inform the development of responsive communities as part of the COVID 19 response.
- Work with VAWDASV sector to support a central coordination of volunteers, to support service provision such as getting food or equipment to vulnerable women in refuge or at home.
- Work with VAWDASV sector to provide information to NHS and community volunteers, supermarkets and pharmacies of how to spot the signs of abuse and how to safely signpost someone to specialist support.
Health and social services
Members are reporting limited access to personal protection equipment. Some have stock, such as gloves, but it is running low, others have items on order but have long waits for it to arrive. Soap and hand sanitiser stocks are low.
The lack of testing also means that refuges are potentially being closed unnecessarily due to suspected COVID 19.
Safeguarding remains a significant concern, with fears of cases being de-prioritised or those at risk going unseen due to limited engagement with schools or inspection of care settings.
- Ensure safeguarding remains in place for children and young people – with children out of school, it is vital that social services remain vigilant for those children and young people who may be experiencing VAWDASV. Girls that may be at risk of sexual exploitation, FGM or so-called honour based violence are going to be even more hidden from support networks of friends, teachers and youth workers.
- Ensure that the enactment of the Emergency Coronavirus Bill in Wales is not implemented in a manner that may put women and children experiencing abuse at increased risk. There are potential implications on social services support with statements such as Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to enable local authorities to prioritise the services they offer in order to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met, even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full or delaying some assessments.  This must not lead to the de-prioritisation of VAWDASV survivors, particularly disabled women, who may be at greater risk due to more control being given to carers over administering medication and care.
- Provision of personal protection equipment for support workers in specialist services that does not put a financial burden on services.
- Testing kits to be made readily available to determine if refuges need to lockdown, and if staff and residents need to isolate.
- Welsh Government and Public Health Wales guidance on social distancing and self-isolation urgently requires specific safeguarding and support advice for those who experience harm at home or will have increased mental health concerns due to VAWDASV.
Resource: Safety and Self care information for survivors during self isolation is available here https://www.welshwomensaid.org.uk/2020/03/safety-and-self-care-advice-for-survivors-in-isolation/
We have evidence support workers are being denied access to childcare due to the lack of provision and the priority being given to NHS workers on the frontline. Whilst we absolutely support NHS workers accessing childcare, it’s imperative to note that NHS staff are not the only workers who are in a position to save lives during this crisis. For those who are currently in lockdown with their perpetrator, service access and availability are vital. Members have also reported that local authorities are only providing childcare when both parents have key worker status, or they are a single parent with no other family able to provide care. As many support workers are the lower income earner in their household, and the predominance of women being the main carer, lack of childcare provision is having a profound impact on VAWDASV service capacity which is 100% women led workforce. Furthermore, support workers are struggling to provide online or telephone support to survivors while working from home, due to their potential proximity to children for whom the content of the call is not appropriate for them to overhear.
- Inform all local education authorities that VAWDASV support workers are to be recognised as Key Workers and prioritised for provision of childcare options.
Finance (including Housing, local government and communities)
We are grateful that the Welsh Government has invested £10million into homelessness, including domestic abuse survivors and women with no recourse to public funds, however as is the case with standard housing support funding, specialist services are going to have to compete with larger generic services for this funding. As is evident from our yearly State of the Sector analysis, VAWDASV provision often struggles to receive its share of this funding without a ring fence. Additionally, it is also not just homelessness costs for domestic abuse survivors that are affected the VAWDASV sector, particularly for sexual violence services and support for women exploited by the sex industry.
In Scotland, £1.5million has been provided directly to the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence sector to address the additional funding needs and allow for the funding to be utilised in a flexible and needs-led way by the sector.
- Additional funding provided directly to the VAWDASV sector to cover:
- Loss of housing benefit revenue for refuges
- Additional costs of sourcing alternative accommodation, where necessary
- Need for new technology and digital capabilities, recognising the increased cost of equipment and digital tools at present
- The increasing costs of accessing PPE
- Training of staff on new technology or differing support methods
- Use of dispersed units/B&B if refuge becomes full due to longer stays self-isolating/infection containment is required
- Increased staffing costs such as to cover additional on call as staff may have to double or treble their on call commitments to cover staff who are off sick or self isolating. Similarly services are having to cover costs of staff working from home such as heating, phone bills and additional equipment.
- Increase funding for children’s workers as there are likely to be more children in refuge and other settings for longer due to school closures
- This funding must be swiftly and easily available to specialist services and go directly to them to deliver the provision needed, offering the flexibility to identify service specific need and continue to cover impact costs beyond the immediate crisis. The priority should be getting the resource where it’s needed quickly, and not on making cases for where exactly funds will be allocated. The need is evident.
- Amendments need to be made to allow for current funding to carry capital projects and recent short term grants forward into the new financial year as delivery cannot afford to be disrupted and using Capital Grant underspend money to purchase essential items (such as beds and white goods) to increase refuge and dispersed units capacity.
- Suspend any competitive tendering processes and KPIs, to ensure services are secure in their provision and can focus on frontline provision and adapting services to meet the need of survivors.
Consideration that those experiencing multiple forms of discrimination will experience further impacts from COVID-19 measures, including loss of minimal support networks and higher likelihood of loss of income due to informal/zero hour contracts. This may increase demand for specific services such as BME services as well as increase the multiple needs of those accessing all specialist services.
- Specific recognition of the need to relax KPIs in the provision for women experiencing multiple forms of discrimination, for instance disabled women with additional vulnerabilities, who may need to go into self-isolation for longer and may need to access dispersed units or remote support for longer due to the ongoing risk of infection. This will require longer stays in refuge which must be recognised by funders and should not impact KPIs.
- Consideration must be made for women in the sex industry and providing additional support to support services so they can continue to support women and adapt provision as needed. This should include PPE for support workers.
- Ensure a hardship fund for women particularly impacted due to loss of income or having difficulty accessing Universal Credit.
Assurance from Criminal Justice System is required to give public confidence that they will continue to respond robustly to all forms of VAWDASV. Some police forces in Wales have already reported a decrease in reporting. There are also concerns with the early release of prisoners that probation monitoring of offenders will be effective. The safety and needs of survivors must be prioritised in any early release scheme. A strong message must be made that we will not allow for lower expectations in responses to perpetrators of VAWDASV.
- A message should be jointly put out from all police forces in Wales addressing how Police will attend call outs and take people into custody, ensuring the risk of infection is not prioritised over the safety of women and children. That restraining and protection orders against the perpetrators will be continued.
- During a time of possible escalation of abuse, it will be important to promote the response available for those using abuse that may wish to access support. To this end, the promotion of the Respect UK Helpline should be part of government guidance and communications.
- Ensure support for the continuity of services available for women in the criminal justice system to meet housing and specialist VAWDASV support. Proposals to release pregnant prisoners back in to the community need to recognise that many of these women will have experienced VAWDASV and may have multiple needs regarding homelessness, substance misuse and VAWDASV.
The situation is changing rapidly, Welsh Women’s Aid is endeavouring to keep up to date with trends and concerns facing survivors and specialist services. We are in regular communication with our members to support them during this time as well as enabling the VAWDASV services in Wales to share any mitigating actions that may help others. We are working together with members, VAWDASV organisations across UK and Europe and public bodies to ensure we keep the network of VAWDASV provision in Wales open for survivors during this period.
We welcome the positive, solution focused responses from Welsh Government and other public bodies and will continue to work to support and inform this approach as much as possible.
For further information, please contact Head of Public Affairs and Communications, Gwendolyn Sterk at Welsh Women’s Aid on 02920541551 or email [email protected]