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16 Nov 2022 Social workers were denied access to homes as domestic abusers blamed Covid

Coercive control, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse soared during the pandemic, according to experts.

All forms of domestic abuse increased during the pandemic with social workers claiming some abusers used Covid-19 as a reason to deny them access to homes.

They also said coercive control, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse soared.

A team led by Dr Stephanie Holt, associate professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin, distributed a survey to more than 1,300 members of the Irish Association of Social Workers.

Those who responded were clear as to the rise of certain types of domestic abuse. According to the study: "When asked to compare which forms of DVA (domestic violence and abuse)
had increased, stayed the same, or decreased since the pandemic, the most notable perceived increases were in coercive control and emotional abuse which were reported to have increased by 76.4% and 82.8%, respectively, pointing to changes in the nature of DVA during this period.

"Practitioners commented on the ways perpetrators had opportunistically exploited stay-at-home orders to intensify levels of surveillance and control, and to limit or avoid contact with other households and professionals, thereby remaining largely unseen by those outside the home."

According to one social worker in the study: "Significant increase in perpetrators not allowing social workers into home to see partners or children. Reason generally being Covid-19, they won’t allow anyone in."

Coercive control and abuse

Social workers felt every type of domestic abuse increased in the period, ranging from 24.2% who felt sexual abuse had increased, to the 82.8% who felt there had been a rise in emotional abuse. In addition, more than 60% believed there had been an increase in physical abuse, and more than three-quarters of social workers believed there had been an increase in verbal abuse and coercive control.

According to one respondent: "For many respondents, lockdown measures contributed to increased levels of risk to victims, safety plans being impacted either due to perceived restrictions on routes to safety; or isolation from family."

According to another social worker: "In my experience domestic violence is not occurring in more households but it got worse in the ones where it is already happening as people are on top of each other all the time and there is no break from it."

A small sample of social workers reported ‘increased’ child abuse or neglect compared to pre-pandemic times.

Waiting lists

The shortage of face-to-face visits was seen as the biggest obstacle to addressing domestic violence concerns, alongside limited opportunities for those affected to leave the family home. More demand led to longer referral times and increased waiting lists, with an increase in DVA-specific services including helplines and emergency accommodation.

According to the authors: "A clear message emerging from this study is the critical need for social work assessment and intervention with families experiencing DVA to remain adaptive to the ever-changing Covid-19 context and continue to develop innovative practice approaches that aim to meet the needs of those most at risk."

The research, entitled Social Workers Response to Domestic Violence and Abuse during the Covid-19 Pandemic, has been published in the British Journal of Social Work.