Covid-19 and its associated restrictions are making leaving – and reporting – an abusive relationship more difficult. Katrin Hohl and Kelly Johnson share the preliminary findings of their research into how lockdowns make reporting to the police harder, alongside their recommendations for forces to prepare for a surge in reports post-lockdown.
This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.
By Katrin Hohl (City, University of London) and Kelly Johnson (Durham University)
Published: 4th January 2021
In March 2020, domestic abuse charities sounded the alarm. From the beginning of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, their helplines experienced a sharp rise in calls from victim-survivors, and saw early evidence of domestic abuse cases escalating, featuring high levels of physical violence and coercive control (Home Affairs Select Committee, 2020). Domestic homicides more than doubled in the first three weeks of lockdown.
Elsewhere, countries entering lockdown earlier than the UK reported increased domestic abuse and delayed reports, with victim-survivors only able to seek help once restrictions eased. In the UK, police chiefs and charities anticipated an escalation of an already existing crisis. In the previous year, police recorded nearly 1.3 million domestic abuse-related crimes and incidents in England and Wales (ONS, 2020), already overwhelming police forces and chronically underfunded domestic abuse refuges. But no-one knew what exactly to prepare for– how large would the increase be? Would it happen immediately, or would it be delayed? Would the rise be temporary, or long-term? The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown are unprecedented in recent history, and there was little existing scientific evidence to draw on.
We began our research in June 2020, aiming to provide timely empirical evidence on how COVID-19 and related lockdown rules affect domestic abuse as it comes to police attention, as well as policing responses. We are examining all domestic abuse-flagged incidents and crimes reported to seven police forces across England since the onset of the pandemic. We are comparing these data to those of the two previous years to account for seasonal and long-term trends, and we are mapping them onto the introduction and lifting of national and local COVID-19 restrictions. To date, we have analysed over 490,000 domestic abuse incidents. We also regularly interview police officers about responding to domestic abuse across the changing context of the pandemic and triangulate the findings with our statistical analyses. Police data do not allow us to make direct inferences to actual levels of domestic abuse. Multiple barriers to reporting mean that only a fraction of abuse is captured in police data. Yet, studying police-recorded domestic abuse is important as it encompasses all cases where we expect some form of police response – in the form of officer deployment, ‘positive action’ (e.g., arrest), safeguarding and/or a criminal justice outcome.
Our preliminary findings
First, COVID-19 did not create the domestic abuse crisis – but it has exposed it. We used difference-in-difference regression and data from the two previous years to test whether lockdown had a statistically significant impact, once controlling for seasonal and annual trends. Our results suggest that long-term trends largely account for the steady rise and high levels of police-recorded domestic abuse – the domestic abuse crisis predates the pandemic. Our findings demonstrate that perpetrators do not need a COVID-19 context to entrap victim-survivors – they were already doing so before lockdown. However, emerging research shows that some domestic abusers are using the lockdown rules to intensify or conceal violence, coercion and control.
Our findings also suggest that COVID-19 restrictions and associated socioeconomic strains make leaving abusive relationships more difficult. We identified a sharp decline in victim-survivors telling police they had recently separated or attempted to separate, indicating that the lockdown is keeping victim-survivors in abusive relationships. Our data also indicate that separations are delayed until restrictions are eased, rather than cancelled. Since separation is a known trigger for domestic abuse escalation, we are recommending police forces and other domestic abuse services prepare for a surge in high-risk and high-harm reports when Covid restrictions lift in 2021.
FIGURE 1. Police recorded domestic abuse incidents in six English police forces.
Second, we found the impact of lockdown on police-recorded domestic abuse is complex, with differential effects on different subgroups. In one force, a decrease in ex-partner abuse masked an increase in current partner abuse, giving the appearance of no lockdown effect at the aggregate level. In some forces, there were fewer reports from victims with a previous history of reported domestic abuse, indicating that the lockdown is making reporting harder for those most at risk. There was no statistically significant change in victim or perpetrator recorded demographics; this means there has been no recorded change in reporting from minoritised individuals or communities, despite the potential for interlocking inequalities to compound their risk of domestic abuse. In five forces, there is also evidence of a delayed lockdown impact on first-time reports of domestic abuse, first-time reports started to increase once lockdown measures eased over the summer. We are still analysing the impact of the second wave of the pandemic on reporting; however, we expect the delay in reports to continue until lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Third, from our interview findings, we found that police officers are conscious of the lockdown generating additional risks and barriers to reporting for victim-survivors. For example, being locked down with abusers restricts avenues to safety and support. However, officers also felt they were attending an increased number of lower-level domestic incidents precipitated by the stresses and demands of the pandemic, that were not necessarily reflective of a broader pattern of domestic abuse. Officers saw victim safeguarding as a priority and simultaneously expressed concern about proportionality, mirroring broader tensions relating to police legitimacy that have emerged through the pandemic. We are continuing to engage with forces on these matters. Existing research suggests that some frontline officers can miss ongoing patterns of domestic abuse and coercive control, which is crucial for effective victim safeguarding.
In sum, while the full extent of the impacts of COVID-19 continues to emerge, our current research highlights that the effects are complex – impacting differently on different types of abusive relationships, and that the pandemic context is keeping victims in abusive relationships for longer, delaying separations until after lockdown. Victim-survivor attempts to separate from the abuser are a known trigger of an escalation in domestic violence. Consequently, we are recommending police forces and domestic abuse charities prepare for a post-lockdown surge in reports of high-risk domestic abuse, and prepare to support victim-survivors wishing to safely exit abusive relationships. Our findings stress the importance of retaining a firm focus on addressing domestic abuse – as lockdown lifts, vaccines are rolled out, and beyond.
This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the UKRI Covid-19 rapid response research call. Project title “Responding to the Covid-19 domestic abuse crisis: developing a rapid police evidence base”. Grant reference ES/V007033/1.