Domestic abuse: The hidden legacy of the pandemic

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Domestic abuse in the family can have significant implications for the welfare and wellbeing of young people – and lockdown has seen a dramatic rise in cases. Sara Alston looks at what we can expect as pupils return in September


Hidden within the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is a terrifying rise in domestic abuse.

Last year, 830,000 children experienced domestic abuse in their own homes. In the first three months of lockdown, there was a 70 to 80 per cent increase in calls to domestic abuse helplines. And this will be only those who are willing or able to request help (Townsend, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. There will be many more who are living with unreported abuse. On average, victims live with abuse for two to three years, experiencing 50 incidents of abuse before getting help (SafeLives, 2015). Victims need to be asked multiple times by a professional about their abuse before they make disclosures (Price et al, 2007).


The risks

For families already under strain, the impact of the lockdown restricting social interactions and increasing health and financial worries will have tipped tense situations into abuse. The trauma of lockdown may have been a “trigger event”, sparking violence and abuse.

Lockdown saw an increase in mental health and substance abuse issues which commonly co-occur with domestic abuse (IAS, 2020). The situation will have been exacerbated for many families as their access to outside sources of support including schools, GPs and social workers were cut off.


What is domestic abuse?

The statutory guidance Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2020) uses the cross-government definition of domestic abuse and violence: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological; physical; sexual; financial; and emotional.”

Within this definition there is an implicit challenge to many common misconceptions about domestic abuse. It is important that all school staff understand that:

  • Domestic abuse is not synonymous with physical assault. The majority of domestic abuse does not include violence (ONS, 2019).
  • Victims and perpetrators can be of any gender.
  • Domestic abuse occurs in both same and different sex relationships.
  • Domestic abuse can be perpetrated by children against their parents and within intimate relationships between children.
  • Abuse can occur both within and outside the home, over the phone or online.
  • A victim of domestic abuse does not have to live with the perpetrator.
  • Risk does not end because a relationship has ended.


Abuse in intimate relationships between children

In the version of KCSIE 2020 put out for consultation in February 2020, but suspended due to Covid, there was a key strand that looked at domestic abuse within children’s own relationships, particularly those in their later teens. This has not been included in the finalised version, coming into force in September 2020.

Nevertheless, schools need to be conscious of this issue and ensure that they provide a safe and supportive place for those who need to seek help. As with adult domestic abuse, acts of abuse range from disparaging comments, constant checking or controlling actions and financial exploitation, to offences of extreme physical or sexual violence. Schools need to consider that age or power discrepancies between the partners could additionally, be an indicator of sexual or criminal exploitation.


The impact on children

The Children Act 2002 recognised as a risk of harm “any impairment to the child's health or development as a result of witnessing the ill treatment of another person” including domestic abuse. The current Domestic Abuse Bill explicitly identifies domestic abuse and coercive control as key risks to children’s health and wellbeing.

In KCSIE 2020, there is clear recognition of the adverse impact and serious long-lasting emotional and psychological impacts for children of witnessing domestic abuse.

The work on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) considers the long-term impact of domestic abuse on children. Domestic abuse impacts children’s mental health and development, including their ability to form and maintain social relationships. It may impact their social understanding and empathy. Children may feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (2020) has identified impacts including that children may:

  • Become anxious or depressed.
  • Have difficulty sleeping.
  • Have nightmares or flashbacks.
  • Be easily startled.
  • Complain of physical symptoms such as bed-wetting, tummy aches and other illnesses.
  • Have temper tantrums and problems with school.
  • Behave as though they are much younger than they are.
  • Become aggressive or may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people.
  • Have a lowered sense of self-worth.
  • Begin to play truant, start to use alcohol or drugs, begin to self-harm or develop an eating disorder (for older children).

Children living in a home where domestic abuse occurs are at increased risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect.


How children communicate about domestic abuse

As with any other safeguarding issue, there will be children who make disclosures about the abuse they have experienced. These should be handled in the same way as any other safeguarding concern or disclosure.

Many children will communicate their experiences through their behaviour. Particularly as children return to school after the lockdown, we must question what a child is communicating through their behaviour, rather than responding to the behaviour in a punitive manner as such a response, in turn, could compound and exacerbate the abuse. Many children who have experienced abuse will need to rebuild relationships with staff before they can make a disclosure.


Support to children

Given the huge potential impact on our school communities of domestic abuse we need to consider how we can support children as they return to our sites. Domestic abuse is a child protection issue and the most common cause of children being identified as “in need” and allocated a social worker.

The school’s approach must be reflected in robust safeguarding procedures, policies and practices. Key to this will be safeguarding training to ensure all staff have a full understanding of domestic abuse and its impacts. Schools should be ready to use Early Help Assessments, safeguarding referrals and engage with local and national domestic abuse services to safeguard their children.

The new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum becomes statutory from September 2020 (although schools that have had their preparations delayed due to the lockdown have been given until the beginning of the summer term 2021 to start delivery). The statutory curriculum (DfE, 2019) explicitly states that children should be equipped to understand:

  • Healthy and unhealthy behaviours in themselves and others.
  • Emotions and the impact that these have upon themselves and others.
  • The impact of a person’s behaviour on those around them.
  • That rules and expectations exist across society and within relationships.
  • That abuse is never acceptable.
  • That domestic abuse is socially unacceptable.

It is key this is used effectively to support children’s understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships.

With the return to school sites, we will need to regard all children as potential victims of domestic abuse. Of course, schools have lists of vulnerable children, but we need to be sensitive to and aware of the experiences of the children who were not on anyone’s list.

Abuse does not just happen to those we expect, and we need to be conscious of our own cultural assumptions and expectations, including the risks of staff being groomed by a perpetrator, which may blind us to child’s emotional and safeguarding needs.

Our safeguarding responsibilities include the need to ensure an understanding of the risks for all children; they must receive the protection and support they need.


  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit www.seainclusion.co.uk. Read her previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/3koprd8


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Keeping children safe in education, DfE, June 2020: http://bit.ly/1XOPREp
  • DfE: Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2kQwtgL
  • Institute of Alcohol Studies: Alcohol consumption during the Covid-19 lockdown, June 2020: https://bit.ly/33EpX0C
  • ONS: Partner abuse in detail, England and Wales (for year ending March 2018), November 2019.
  • Price, Baird & Salmon: Does routine antenatal enquiry lead to an increased rate of disclosure of domestic abuse? Evidence-Based Midwifery (vol 5), December 2007.
  • Royal College of Psychiatrists: Domestic violence and abuse – the impact on children and adolescents, accessed August 2020: https://bit.ly/3dy9s7w
  • SafeLives: Statistics on domestic violence and abuse, accessed 2020: https://bit.ly/31jsTwR
  • SafeLives: Insights Idva National Dataset 2013/14, SafeLives, 2015.
  • SecEd: Vulnerable children 'hidden and at risk' during coronavirus lockdown, April 2020: https://bit.ly/2W34Uzm
  • Townsend: Revealed: surge in domestic violence during Covid-19 crisis, The Guardian, April 2020: https://bit.ly/3fQKnGh


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