The challenge of offering socially-distanced support to the women living in Lancashire's refuges
When a woman fleeing domestic abuse seeks the sanctuary of one of Lancashire’s refuges, the immediate priority for the organisations which run them is to provide a place of safety.
However, that focus very soon shifts to offering the support needed to help her recover from her harrowing experience and start to rebuild her life.
Yet like so much else in these times of lockdown and social distancing, that process now looks very different.
In some of the county’s refuges, that means women who would usually meet up for group support sessions are now instead meeting virtually – even though they are all living under the same roof.
“We’re doing a lot of our group work via conference calls and having one-to-one conversations over video phone,” explains Alex Atkinson, head of support services at Safenet, which oversees the partnership operating Lancashire’s refuges.
“We’re having to do any in-depth, face-to-face work with PPE on. When somebody is in trauma, that makes it really difficult to be able to reach out to them.”
It is far from the only challenge that Covid-19 has brought to the way in which refuges function. As well as the crucial need to keep the virus away from the doors of facilities through which it could so easily spread, staff are also having to keep a check on how the restrictions are affecting the mental health of their residents – which could already be in a fragile state.
That has left refuge operators with an unenviable conundrum – how to keep vulnerable women safe from coronavirus, but without making them feel as though they have swapped one effective prison environment for another.
“We have seen a spike in incidents of self-harm. Women in refuges are staying in one room, sometimes with children – so that’s really difficult.
“They are even more restricted than in their own home, but at least they’re safe.
“But we don’t want to restrict people too much – it’s classed as a home environment, so they have to also be able to manage – we don’t want people finding it so horrendous that they don’t want to stay.
“Some residents just want to go and see their family. They have escaped their partner and want to be able to go and see their mum or dad. Of course, nobody can do that easily at the moment, but these are people who have left everything behind, so it’s especially difficult for them.
“We did a survey of our residents – and the majority understand the measures we are taking and say that they’re still feeling safe and supported, but they’re struggling with their mental health. Fortunately, we’ve got strong links with mental health services across the county and can get [rapid access],” Alex says.
The physical layout of Lancashire’s refuges varies, meaning that the way in which each can operate under the current threat is different.
Those with sufficient space have attempted to use it more flexibly in order to create socially-distanced communal areas which allow residents at least to enjoy watching television together. In those buildings which are based around individual flats, residents have their own living room in which they could have a visitor if the necessary two-metre distance can be maintained.
In common with most organisations offering domestic abuse services during the pandemic, Safenet has seen a reduction in referrals since the lockdown began – as those suffering at the hands of a partner find that they have fewer opportunities to seek help and, ultimately, escape.
In contrast, few of those already living in refuges have the opportunity to move on under the current restrictions – which could prove a problem for the expected influx of referrals as the lockdown begins to lift.
Alex believes that such an increase will come not just as a result of greater opportunities for women to flee – but the gradual realisation that they need to.
“Some women are finding that their partner is actually controlling, because they are together with them so much more at the moment. They are wanting to ask questions, clarifying whether something is abuse.
“We also expect an increase in men coming forward and we do have accommodation for men.”
“Domestic abuse hasn’t gone away during the outbreak – if anything, it’s higher,” Alex warns.
HOW TO GET HELP
Round-the-clock support for those experiencing domestic abuse in Lancashire is available by calling 0300 303 3581 or emailing [email protected]
A live chat service is also available every day from 10am–12noon, 2pm–4pm and 8pm–10pm. Visit safenet.org.uk for more details.
One Lancashire women, speaking under a pseudonym, told Safenet staff of her growing fears since life went into lockdown.
“It was bad before this – but at least I could get away and so could he.
“But now there’s no escape, I can’t even make a call without him wanting to know who I’m on to or what I’m saying – he checks everything.
“All of a sudden, my iPad is his – he was never even interested in it before lockdown and yet now he’s on it all the time.
“He threatens all sorts and I know if I don’t do what he says, he’ll carry it through.”
POETRY IN THE PANDEMIC
I woke up in the morning hoping it was just a bad dream,
Then I turn on the news and hear Covid-19 and want to scream.
I'm scared of an invisible killer. I hide in my room,
Talking to people over phone, internet or Zoom.
Self-isolating and standing two metres apart,
Waiting for BBC News to show the daily update chart.
Washing my hands to the happy birthday song,
We need to stand together, keep going and be strong.
Sometimes I feel like giving up on my life as it is too much,
But I keep going thanks to the Safenet staff who are my crutch.
Without them, I don't know where I'd be now.
We're all pulling each other through it somehow.
So for now, we will keep on going to beat this Covid-19
By standing together, washing our hands and staying in quarantine.
Anon (Safenet user)