Skip to main content

Domestic Abuse and Child Welfare: A Practice Guide for Social Workers

Domestic abuse during COVID-19

Domestic Abuse and Child Welfare: A practice guide for social workers was completed shortly before the current pandemic took hold in Scotland. Concerns for the safety of women and children experiencing domestic abuse have heightened since the crisis began. Lockdown and social distancing have the potential to exacerbate situations which were already high risk. While coronavirus and social distancing are no excuse for abusive behaviour, such circumstances offer abusers opportunities to assert control, and serve to intensify isolation, already a prominent factor in domestic abuse. We are now facing a rise in rates of abuse as well as an increase in the difficulties women and children face in accessing support.

The way we work as social workers has changed in recent weeks. But we can and must continue to respond to domestic abuse as it continues to be one of the key factors in many of the cases which come to the attention of children and families social workers. Our guide outlines key practice messages and these remain as strong and important as ever. Women and children may feel even more vulnerable and isolated as lockdown continues for the foreseeable future. However, being at home should not mean that they are unable to reach out for support.

In writing this guide we were acutely aware of the challenges and barriers to engaging with women and children experiencing domestic abuse. The guide draws on expertise from those who know what works. Covid-19 has added an unquantifiable layer to these challenges. Social workers have been classed as key workers and are trying to carry out their roles within the additional pressures of the current climate. Now more than ever we need to consider how we can support women and children while holding perpetrators to account and trying to overcome the barriers of access posed by the pandemic.

Social workers are operating under extreme restrictions and are facing acute challenges in their efforts to support and protect women and children. This may temporarily impede capacity to practise in ways suggested by the guide. Communications and connections with people have changed quickly, and we must be more creative than ever about how we fulfil our responsibilities. However, our values and our ethics remain the same, and we can still draw on our knowledge, skills, experience and relationships, and these will stand us in good stead. Human rights are still pivotal to our beliefs and practice. We must consider the potential impact, both short and long term and do all we can to coordinate support during this time and to ensure women and children know how to access it.

Despite Covid-19 restrictions the practice messages the guide contains remain highly relevant and we hope it will contribute to practice as we begin to emerge from this crisis into the future, and fully comprehend the impacts on the most vulnerable in our society. Currently the guide sits alongside BASW’s ‘Practice Guidance for Children and Families Social Work During Covid-19’[1]. This preface aims to highlight particular concerns at this time and signpost social workers to additional resources.

What is the impact of Covid-19 on domestic abuse?

Women and children are always disproportionately affected in a crisis or disaster situation. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, lockdown brings new challenges to how we achieve safety for women and children. Rates of abuse are set to rise, while access to services and opportunities for intervention decrease. Within days of the lockdown being announced, organisations around the world were already reporting increases in requests for support and help[2]. In Scotland, there was initially a decrease in reports of domestic abuse to the Police and in calls to domestic abuse helplines, but these are now rising. The initial dip has been attributed to the adjustments women have been experiencing in response to lockdown and the changes it has brought to everyday life – for example shopping, home schooling, working from home. The decrease should not be taken as a reflection that domestic abuse was happening less during this time.[3]

Dr Silvana Martinez, President of the International Federation of Social Work, writing about femicide and violence against women during Covid-19, stresses that we all must play a part in letting women know they are not alone and ensure continued communication whatever way we can.

“This isolation, in itself reinforces the isolation suffered by these women, since -as we,  who work on the problem of violence against women, know well- one of the first strategies used by violent males is to systematically isolate women, dismantling their social networks (family, community, work) to be held hostage at their mercy.”[4]

There are fears that perpetrators might use self-isolation to keep their partner at home and increase her isolation from the outside world. Or as a justification to keep children in their home, away from the non-abusing parent, for longer than their normal contact arrangements would allow. Scottish Women’s Aid has reported beginning to hear such reports [5]. Threats of spreading or catching the virus could potentially be used as a means of asserting control.

Children no longer have school to escape to, or clubs or interests outside the family home. A vital monitoring element is missing if nobody outside the home is having contact with vulnerable children. Self-isolation and social distancing have the potential to be used as justification to deny professionals access to a child or a family home. Families are being forced to spend increasing amounts of time together with little contact with the outside world, bringing the prospect of increased risk.

What can social workers do during this time?

A declaration written by the Committee of the Parties to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) on the implementation of the Convention during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a number of measures states should take during this time. These are in respect of prevention, support, risk assessment and intervention, among others. It highlights the need for coordinated and holistic responses. It discusses the likelihood that isolation will increase the exposure of women and girls to all forms of gender-based violence, and reminds us that we must be:

“Mindful that such a risk is particularly high for women and girls belonging to disadvantaged groups and/or at risk of multiple discrimination depending notably on their social or ethnic/national origin, such as for example women with disabilities, women in prostitution, elderly women, migrant and asylum-seeking women…” [6]

In the guide we discuss the importance of understanding what is really going on in a situation. That still stands. Continue to listen and validate strengths. When you have an opportunity to engage with a survivor, take the time to work out what’s going on. Try not to assume that things have changed due to Covid-19. In addition to some of the suggestions in the guide, ask yourself what has changed since Covid-19? Is it a factor in the perpetrator’s behaviour or the survivor’s response? Continue to look beyond individual instances and towards patterns of behaviour.

Bear in mind the impact of wider socio-economic issues. In addition to Covid-19 what impact are factors such as disability, ethnicity, sexuality or immigration status having? What about mental health and substance and drug or alcohol use? What is there about the current situation which is serving to increase the perpetrator’s control and is it different to before?

Women and children need to know that they are not alone, and that help is still available. We must become more creative in the ways we engage with families during this time, and embrace digital methods of communication. BASW’s Guidance for children and families social workers provides a checklist when using technology to connect with families, alongside a list of considerations to apply when assessing and trying to mitigate risk in families. These include providing clear, accessible information about how to contact key people and signposting to helpful organisations, considering preferred methods and times of contact and identifying additional resources to ensure people have the means of maintaining contact, for example mobile phone credit, access to wifi.

Check what specialist domestic abuse services are still available in your area. Some organisations have moved to virtual platforms to run support groups. Some may be offering online or telephone support as a substitute for face to face. Contact your local Women’s Aid organisation and ask what they are currently able to offer. Refuge spaces are still available but may be reduced given the need for families to isolate. Remember that police are still functioning, the legislation in relation to domestic abuse remains and prosecutors are continuing to process domestic abuse cases. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 and the safeguards it introduced still stand through the pandemic. Women should still report abuse to the police, who have vowed they will continue to take it as seriously as ever.

The Scottish Government have pledged additional funds over the next 6 months from their Communities Fund to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland, to help ensure that these vital services can continue to deliver key support.

Remember it is not always the safest option for a woman to leave and we must not place the sole responsibility on a woman to keep her children safe. However, there may be times when it is best for separation to occur. In this instance work closely with police, housing and specialist support services to ensure safety of all concerned. We must not assume it is the woman and children who should be the ones to leave the family home. We must continue to partner with survivors and view their actions from a strengths-based perspective – an approach we advocate in the guide.

Think about the families on your caseload. Consider families where you know or suspect domestic abuse to be a feature. Be creative in the ways you can maintain contact with women and children. Ensure they have the contact numbers they need to get support. Phoning 999 is still an option in an emergency and there is the ‘silent option’ – if you are not able to ask for help when the operator answers, pressing 55 when prompted will transfer the call to the local police force as an emergency. If using a voice phone is not an option, you can register with the police text service by texting REGISTER to 999. Ensure families you work with know how to contact you, or your team if you are not available, and that you are there for them. When assessing what is going on in a family take account of Covid-19 – is it having an impact? When looking at perpetrator’s behaviour patterns, consider what is going on now and what went on before Covid-19. Remember it is not an excuse. Keep the perpetrator visible and look at his pattern of behaviour.

What are extra considerations during this time?

Social workers must have the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need to maintain contact with vulnerable women, children and young people. BASW’s Guidance for Children and Families Social Workers provides advice on how to keep yourself safe during home visits.

The BASW guide also discusses the importance of staying connected, getting the support you need, and considering the impact of moral distress and human rights. See the guide for further advice and discussion of this.

Supporting Survivors – Safe & Together™ Model

The Safe & Together ™ Model is outlined in the guide. The Safe & Together ™ Institute has launched a Virtual Academy. It includes a suite of blogs, podcasts, webinars, resources and support containing useful information to help people adapt their practice during the Covid-19 crisis. There is access to their new Virtual CORE , and other elearning courses. It includes free webinars on their Covid-19 quick guide to using the perpetrator pattern mapping tool and tips on how to host virtual meetings.

The Institute’s COVID-19 page captures all their crisis related materials in one place. These are free resources to support workers and agencies during the crisis. One resource social workers might find particularly useful is their COVID-19 Quick Guide, and a related Danger Checklist.

Virtual Support Groups for Practitioners and Leadership are being delivered weekly and bring together dozens of professionals from diverse sectors from all over the globe.

The "Partnered with a Survivor" Podcast is a great free resource for professionals and survivors.

Coming soon: A friends and family ally guide to help family members support loved ones who are being abused.

Engaging with Perpetrators

There is guidance on the Community Justice Scotland website on how to prioritise work with perpetrators during Covid-19 and how to support partners and children. This relates to the Caledonian System but also includes specific guidance for areas that do not have access to the Caledonian System. There is also a manual available to all domestic abuse workers on how to work with abusive men over the phone.

For more detail and to access this guidance, click here.

Useful Links

In addition to the children and families guidance cited above, BASW have produced several other Covid-19 guides which are relevant. These cover areas such as digital capabilities, ethics, and home visits. They can all be accessed, here.

Below are links to other organisations which have produced Covid-19 specific advice and guidance for professionals and people experiencing domestic abuse.

Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline

This remains available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Support can be accessed via phone, web chat or email. Visit their website.

0800 027 1234

Scottish Women’s Aid

Scottish Women’s Aid now have a page on their website about Covid-19 and what it means for women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. The site includes information about legal and contact arrangements, support for women and children and information for practitioners.

The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre

The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre have published this informative blog on their website, which provides some answers to common questions about child contact and coronavirus. Areas it covers include court hearings and orders, contact arrangements and concerns about infection and self-isolation. The Centre is also offering urgent legal appointments for the duration of the ‘stay at home’ measures.

Rights of Women

This is an organisation for women in England and Wales. They have written a comprehensive guide on how to manage child contact during Covid-19, with a section specifically aimed at survivors of domestic abuse. Although legislation is different in Scotland, s of the issues to be considered are the same.

Safe Lives

Safe Lives is a UK wide charity who have a page on their website dedicated to Covid-19. As well as general advice, the page lists organisations who can help with specific concerns such as economic abuse. As a practitioner you have the opportunity to join the SafeLives Community to connect with other professionals and access latest coronavirus guidance. The page includes a link to a guide for survivors to stay safe, with useful strategies for self-care, support and safety planning.

Safer Scot

The Scottish Government have made it a priority to ensure that anyone experiencing domestic abuse gets the help they need during the coronavirus crisis. Police Scotland remain committed to tackling domestic abuse and monitoring the impact on families of lockdown. The Safer Scot website lists suggestions for how to keep safe during this time.

Scottish Government Child Protection Guidance

The Scottish Government has produced supplementary Coronavirus (Covid-19) supplementary national child protection guidance. This is being constantly reviewed and updated.

Parent Club

Parent Club is where the Scottish Government is publishing information for parents and carers about coronavirus and lockdown. It includes a section called ‘What if I don’t feel safe at home?’ which signposts to support agencies for women and men. Click here for more.

SCVO - Digital Capabilities

SCVO have produced a blog about the importance of digital support for those who are most at risk. They are moving to establish a national digital emergency response team, dedicated to equipping, training and supporting vulnerable people across Scotland to access the digital services they need. Read it, here.














Further information