Teachers and work colleagues urged to help confront ‘grim reality’ of domestic violence
- Credit: Laura Dodsworth
Fears have been raised about a tide of abuse referrals as victims of domestic and sexual violence return to schools and work places.
With more people heading back to the office and children potentially seeing teachers for the first time since March, police expect “signs of abuse” to manifest themselves - and are asking teachers and colleagues to make an effort to notice them.
Andy Coller, head of safeguarding at Norfolk Constabulary, said “hidden” abuse crimes went unreported during lockdown as victims were trapped in with their abusers and referral services were running at reduced capacity.
But this trend is expected to reverse as we approach winter.
Mr Coller said: “Once people are back in work or at school, with other people from outside the home, they start to talk about what has happened to them.
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“Schools are one of the main ways of reporting these crimes: teachers are trained in safeguarding and attuned to spotting signs of abuse.
“We usually experience an uplift in reports of physical and sexual abuse and neglect every September - but this will be exacerabated due to lockdown and the social restrictions that have been in place for much of this year.”
For Norfolk and Suffolk child abuse charity Fresh Start New Beginnings (FSNB), a 50pc rise in abuse referrals since lockdown was lifted is only expected to worsen as children access safe spaces like schools.
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They are asking teachers to be ready to confront the grim reality of child abuse, with government figures estimating that one in every 20 children under the age of 18 is a victim of sexual abuse.
The charity said before lockdown they were working with just over 200 children - but in August, before school even returned, the figure swelled to 300.
For Childline, the helpline service run by anti-cruelty charity NSPCC, counselling sessions are running at an increase of 37pc compared to pre-lockdown levels - proving that “children have been the hidden victims of this pandemic”.
The situation for adult victims of domestic and sexual abuse is equally dire.
There was a 344pc increase in the number of people contacting Leeway’s domestic abuse services between March 23 and August 31 compared to last year.Leeway’s chief executive Mandy Proctor said: “A return to work means that some people are more likely to have time away from the perpetrator, providing an opportunity to make a call to access support - so we expect to see more calls as restrictions are eased further, people return to offices and the government’s furlough scheme ends.
“We are urging friends, family and neighbours if you see, hear or are worried about someone, please ring in to the police and report this.”
For FSNB, it is important that confidants of abuse victims do not “deny” disclosure when they hear it - especially from children.
They said: “It is common for people to be in denial about child abuse, as they don’t want to believe that the child has been harmed, or that someone they know and trust is capable of such a thing.
“We advise anyone that may have been told about sexual abuse to believe what the child says.
“It is very uncommon that children make up stories of sexual abuse as they often don’t have the understanding of sex and relationships.
“Children often tell about their sexual abuse when they realise what has happened to them is wrong and they need an adult to help them make it stop.”
Norfolk’s Pandora Project, which works with women and children who are victims of abuse, said Covid-19 “has been used as a weapon by abusers to instill fear and keep control”.They said: “If someone asks you for support, you might just be their lifeline”.
How to ‘spot the signs’ of child abuse
FSNB said the signs a child is being sexually abused are “not always obvious”, especially as they have often been groomed not to tell anyone.
But general behaviours to look out for are:
• A child becoming withdrawn or anxious
• Knowledge of sex/intimate relationships not appropriate for their age
• Poor relationships with a parent or parents
• Always choosing to wear clothes which cover their body
• Lacking in social skills, and having few if any friends
• Running away or going missing
And what if you think an adult is being domestically or sexually abused?
According to Victim Support, a charity which supports people affected by crime and trauma in England and Wales, trying to ‘fix’ the problem yourself could be dangerous for the victim of abuse.
Instead, they suggest the following:
• Ask someone you think may be a victim of domestic abuse if they are okay - but try not to “pry”
• Try sending them a friendly or amusing message to let someone know you are thinking about them. Think about how you are contacting someone, as the abuser may see or hear this contact
• Use “talking points” as a way to start conversation - sometimes what’s happening on TV or the news could help someone disclose what is happening to them
• Let someone know you believe them and that you are there for them. Be patient, and don’t expect them to tell you what’s happening the first time you ask
• Try not to offer lots of advice - sometimes offering solutions can make people feel judged
• Help with safety planning - offer a safe space, hold copies or their important documents or provide a place they can store an ‘emergency bag’