Safeguarding: Spotting the signs of domestic abuse

Written by: Debbie Gardner | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The coronavirus lockdown has led to an increase in domestic abuse and violence. Safeguarding expert Debbie Gardner looks at the role of schools in spotting the signs in a world of remote learning and national lockdown

With lockdown measures in place, the risks of increased incidents of domestic abuse are perhaps greater than ever before.

The isolating features of lockdown play directly into the hands of perpetrators of domestic abuse, who tend to exhibit coercive and controlling behaviour anyway and can now use the lockdown as an excuse to impose stricter and more unrealistic regimes on their families’ activities and behaviours. Both social distancing and isolation are core tactics of a coercively controlling partner.

I have been involved in running weekly webinars discussing the challenges of safeguarding during Covid-19 with schools across the country, listening to their concerns and offering advice.

The concerns of school leaders echo the news stories detailing increased incidents of domestic violence during lockdown, including the notable increases in calls to national helplines.

For example, during the week commencing March 30, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by an average of 25 per cent, while hits to the national domestic abuse website increased by 150 per cent during the initial stages of Covid-19 lockdown.

Many school leaders are reporting either increased concerns for families who are particularly vulnerable, or increased notifications from social services that a domestic violence incident has taken place involving one of their families.

Even in lockdown, the classic signs and symptoms of someone coping with domestic abuse are still the same: a change in body language or behaviour that leads you to believe something is just not right.

So, what are the key actions schools can take either in or out of lockdown to help a family they believe is at risk for domestic abuse?

Keep in contact

Children benefit from contact with a trusted adult such as a teacher. People tend to underestimate how much children are aware of what is going on; they think children are sleeping or playing video games or playing outside, but children are very perceptive and they may reach out to a trusted adult if they feel they are safe.

Schools are using different methods to keep in touch during lockdown. You may be using video-conferencing for lessons and have the ability to notice the demeanour of a particular child, whereas others may be keeping in touch through emails or occasional phone calls.

The key is to keep in contact and keep reminding them that they know how to get a hold of you.

Use gentle questioning

Check-in with someone who you are personally worried about. If making a phone call to a suspected domestic abuse victim, always assume that the perpetrator could be listening in. The same goes for instant messaging services, email, video-conference and so on.

Domestic abuse is all about power and control. If there is something going on, the perpetrator may be spying on emails, listening in on conversations or even recording conversations.

For this reason, it is important not to ask direct questions if you are concerned. Instead, ask gentle questions that demonstrate you are there for them. Ask them how they are, are they okay, you might mention they seem a bit down today. Teenagers in particular are more likely to respond to gentle questioning as opposed to direct questions. The same goes for any colleagues you may be concerned about. Pay attention to how they look, respond and react.

Empower them with information

Equip both children and parents with the tools they need to access assistance.

Do not put pressure on a parent to leave as, statistically speaking, it is when someone tries to leave that the greatest risk presents itself. As a perpetrator’s control slips, the risk of them responding with violence increases. Instead, empower the victim to seek help from appropriate sources.

Provide both telephone and online contact details for local and national organisations from which they can seek help or advice, including Childline.

As mentioned above, national services are reporting increased levels of online use, likely due to a greater need to seek help quietly and covertly.

There is also a system called Silent Solutions, for victims of domestic abuse who may be afraid of escalating harm if they are overheard when calling 999. When somebody calls 999, an operator will ask which emergency service is required. If the caller is unable to signal to the operator, the call will be forwarded to an operating system. If 55 is pressed by the caller, the system will detect this and the call will be transferred to the relevant police force as an emergency.

If you think anybody is in danger, ring the police immediately. Police will also be able to access any information in relation to social care – i.e. if there is a child protection plan or social worker, via their police public protection department as the police child protection officers work closely with children’s services – and this can help guide their response.

Get creative in how you offer assistance

As there is too much risk involved in being forthright with questions or offers of assistance, be inventive and adapt your tactics depending on the method of communication.

If you are emailing, put the contact details for support services in your email signature. That way, it appears that you are offering those details to all email recipients and not singling someone out.

If your school uses an email system to contact all parents, utilise that to send a letter providing contact details for various support services.

If possible, offer non-threatening support that gives you the opportunity to have a visual check, such as dropping off learning resources. Use schooling as an easy excuse to contact either a child or parent.

Keep a record of everything

Document everything so there is a comprehensive log in place enabling you to track trends and patterns and so that you are in a position to provide as much detail as possible to social services and police if needs be. Record times and dates, who said what, when, and document any disclosures.

Information-sharing is key. If social services are already involved with a child and you have concerns, contact them and have that conversation. Share information and plans with multi-agency partners of the families that you are concerned about and ask the police to flag these concerns in the event of a 999 call.


In the months, if not years, following lockdown, schools will be faced with the emotional scars that have imprinted upon children during this period. The most important things you can do are to keep in touch however you (safely) can and be sure to document everything so that as much information as possible is available to build a programme of support and intervention for the children who need it most.

  • Debbie Gardner is a safeguarding consultant and trainer for safeguarding company MyConcern. Debbie is an experienced safeguarding practitioner and a former South Wales Police public protection officer with expertise in the field of domestic abuse. For details on the free safeguarding webinars, visit

Resources & support

There is a range of help and support for domestic abuse victims during the lockdown.


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