The government has been urged to introduce emergency measures to protect women trapped at home with abusive partners in the wake of concerns domestic abuse could soar under social isolation measures brought in to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Frontline service providers warned women who have escaped their abusive partners are fearful about having to continue handing over their children to ex-partners for meetings ordered by the family courts as the coronavirus crisis deteriorates.
Mandu Reid, leader of Women’s Equality Party, urged the government to protect women and children confined to their homes with abusers in the wake of the government’s police-enforced lockdown which has warned citizens not to venture out of the house for all but essential journeys to stop coronavirus spreading.
Ms Reid is calling for Domestic Violence Protection Orders to be extended to cover the full length of the government’s lockdown and court fees to be waived to ensure police forces do not bear the costs.
Police can evict suspected abusive partners from the home for up to 28 days without bringing charges under the current system of such orders however campaigners say the reality of application is poor in comparison to other countries due to costs.
Ms Reid said: “For women and children stuck in abusive relationships, the prime minister’s decision to keep people at home will create huge anxiety and may even put their lives at risk. That is why I am calling for emergency measures so that perpetrators can swiftly be removed from the family home by police for the duration of this lockdown. Staying at home has to mean staying safe – for everyone.
“Domestic Violence Protection Orders are a vital tool that give women the breathing space to access support and prevent violence from escalating. Over the coming months, we need to make sure perpetrators cannot return to the home as long as women are forced to stay there. That means waiving the court fees that police are required to pay, and prioritising these cases in court.”
She called for an “urgent cash injection” for refuges which house women fleeing abuse to ensure no woman is denied a space in a shelter during the coronavirus crisis.
Lizzie*, who was married to her abusive ex-partner for 20 years, told The Independent she was fearful her ex could use the coronavirus outbreak to abduct their two children.
The 46-year-old, who says her former husband subjected her to physical violence, financial abuse and severe coercive control, said her ex sees their children through a contact order but is forced to do supervised visits.
She said: “I fought tooth and nail with the courts to stop him from getting 50-50 custody. I am worried that he gets too close to the kids. I am also concerned he sees his being a dad more important than health regulations around coronavirus. He has been so pushing for contact regardless. Because everything’s changed, he could change everything.
“It is a time people are behaving a little bit abnormally, everyone is going a bit manic and panicking. He might think: ‘The world is coming to an end, I’ll do what I want to do’. What worries me is police, NHS staff, people working in the courts, and social workers don’t have time to look at people like us. Their attention is on coronavirus. Everyone in public agencies has disappeared since coronavirus.”
Lizzie said her ex has subjected her to a great deal of abuse since they separated – as well as challenging the amount of contact he had been given through the family courts due to claiming it was insufficient.
“He controlled and crushed me and then I realised he was doing the same to the kids,” she said. “He was controlling beyond imagination. I died a death. I thought my life was done. This is a very difficult time for domestic abuse victims. You are sending us back home and being out of the home is our sanctuary. I remember thinking ‘thank god the kids are at school and not with him’. If he were imprisoned in the house in isolation he would be taking out frustrations on us. He would get very angry and aggressive.”
Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.
Ava*, another domestic abuse survivor who has asthma, also voiced fears about handing her son over to her abusive ex-partner in the wake of the coronavirus.
Asthma sufferers are deemed to be at higher risk of more serious complications from coronavirus – a disease which can cause issues with breathing due causing an infection in the respiratory tract.
“Last October I had to get an ambulance for asthma,” Ava said. “I have viral-induced asthma. The second I get ill, it is really bad. The solicitor said my ex can only do supervised visits because he is not capable of looking after the child. I am worried he will try and see our kid. He is careless with hygiene. He works in a company where two people have come down with coronavirus symptoms. He would not respect the best interests of the child.”
Jane Gregory, the founder of Salford Survivor Project, which helps domestic abuse victims, said: “What if the dad isn’t going to allow the child to go home after a visit. Abusive exes use children as weapons. The courts are shut down so you can’t go to court to get your child back.”
Adrienne Barnett, a senior lecturer in law at Brunel University London who specialises in domestic abuse and the family courts, has urged the President of the Family Division, which consists of 19 High Court judges, to look at the issues facing parents with child contact orders in the face of the coronavirus pandemic in a letter seen by The Independent.
Dr Barnett, who specialised in family law while practising as a barrister for more than 30 years, said: “These parents are extremely concerned that compliance with current orders will put the health of the children, themselves, their families and the wider community at risk.”
Every week in the UK, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner.
A government spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse is a devastating crime and we understand victims and survivors may feel even more vulnerable
“Advice and support will continue to be available to victims. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is staffed by experts 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and the government has announced a £1.6 billion COVID-19 fund for local authorities to support the most vulnerable. Anyone in immediate danger should call 999.”
*Lizzie and Ava’s names have been changed to protect their safety
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/
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