Key points

  • Domestic abuse is more likely in lockdown. During pandemics violence against women and children tends to increase, and houses where abuse is taking place become harder to escape.
  • Children and young people’s access to support services may be restricted in lockdown. With face-to-face support less available, it may be unsafe or impossible to access support on the phone or online.
  • Issues in the justice system may be affecting domestic abuse cases. Delays in court processes and the transition of children’s hearings to being held online may both impact on children’s rights to safety and participation.

Domestic abuse has become more likely in lockdown

Scottish Government acknowledges that lockdown restrictions exposed some children and young people to increased risk of child abuse and domestic abuse.

That includes an increased risk at home, and an increased risk online.

International evidence shows violence against women and children tends to increase in pandemics. Stress within families is likely to increase when there’s less support available, and less money available as well.

And it’s harder for children and young people to get out of a dangerous situation in a pandemic. There’s less access to safe spaces outside of your house, and children often don’t know where and how to access help.

Support for those at risk of domestic abuse still exists. Agencies continue to work together, and extra social workers have been recruited. 94% of children with child protection plans were physically seen in the first weeks of May 2020.

But services need to be clear that a child must be seen in person where there’s concern they’re at risk of harm or abuse.

symbolic illustration of Article 19 of the UNCRC.

UNCRC Article 19

I have the right to be protected from being hurt or badly treated

Article 19 of the UNCRC makes it clear that children and young people have the right to be protected from violence, just like everybody else.

An Impact Assessment for the coronavirus pandemic

We supported the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland to create an Alternative Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, looking at the laws and policies passed in Scotland in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Impact Assessment looked at how these had affected children and young people in nine different areas, including domestic abuse. It found several concerning things: that lockdown, changes to legal processes, and reduction in services all meant the risk of domestic abuse was increasing and getting out of an unsafe situation was now harder.

A:

Adults in power often make decisions that affect people― such as laws and policies. When they do this, they don’t always think about the impact these decisions will have on children and young people.

A Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, or CRIA,is a way to include children and young people in a decision. It looks at the ways the decision might affect the rights of children and young people― both positively and negatively.

By doing this, it means people know what the effect of the decision on children and young people is likely to be.

What needs to change as a result of this Impact Assessment?

Our office has made several recommendations around what Scottish Government and others need to change as a result of what this Impact Assessment has found. They’re changes which will help keep human rights promises to children and young people as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and which will safeguard their human rights in any future crisis.

In some cases risk is increasing…

Being stuck at home

In lockdown people had to stay at home more and would meet people outside their home much less frequently. This would have put children and young people experiencing domestic abuse at risk of further and escalating harm.

Guidance said that you can leave the home for safety reasons, and that this includes escaping domestic abuse. However, this guidance doesn’t contain specific safety planning for children or information about how they might be able to seek help.

Being unable to access places outside of home

Schools and other places outside the home can provide children and young people experiencing domestic abuse with a source of freedom and support, and are places where adults may notice that abuse is taking place. But these have been closed during lockdown, and no equivalent places for reporting abuse or accessing support exist.

Concerns around lockdown restrictions and domestic abuse

Although lockdown guidance said children and young people could move between their parents’ households, it didn’t mention their best interests or their right to have a say.

Contact

Places like child contact centres that exist to allow contact while protecting children from abuse are closed during lockdown. After child contact visits children may not be allowed to go back to the place they usually live.

…and in some recovery is possible

In some cases where the perpetrator of domestic abuse is living apart from children, mothers and children have reported the positive effects of recovery from domestic abuse.

Some groups of children and young people may be more at risk

Before the pandemic some groups of children and young people were more at risk of abuse, including those who are disabled and those who are LGBTQI+. They may have become even more at risk with lockdown restricting their ability to leave their homes.

Evidence also suggested domestic abuse may have increased during lockdown in BAME communities.

Children and young people’s access to services that may help is restricted

When a child or young person lives at home and isn’t able to leave their house without a parent, accessing social services and domestic abuse services isn’t always possible.

In lockdown, face-to-face support for children and young people experiencing domestic abuse has been restricted. Support has moved to phone and online services, but these aren’t reaching many of the people they exist for. Not all children and young people will have the privacy they need to access and share information, and contacting these services is particularly risky for children and young people at risk of domestic abuse.

Extra funding’s been provided for these services, but we don’t have full data on how many children and young people have been reached because of it. We do know that helpline use rose during the time the Impact Assessment analysed, but also that child wellbeing and protection-related referrals did not— and that referrals to the children’s hearings system didn’t rise, either.

Issues in the justice system impact on domestic abuse

Court proceedings are facing delays

Court proceedings have faced delays, including where they relate to cases concerning child contact, domestic abuse and child abuse. Sometimes, unresolved cases can increase danger.

Children’s hearings are happening virtually

Domestic abuse is the second most common ground for referral to a children’s hearing, and during lockdown these have been held virtually. Holding them in this way has been how they’ve been able to happen at all, and they fact they’re still ongoing recognises children’s rights to protection, justice and review.

However, the Impact Assessment found these virtual hearings didn’t always make decisions with the information they needed from professional assessments, or with the involvement of children and young people.

It also found that there are serious issues around the involvement of children in virtual hearings in cases of domestic abuse. Participating in a children’s hearing from home is not safe or appropriate if a child is living with an abuser: many will lack the privacy they need to disclose abuse and report on current circumstances. Even if they’re able to do this, having to relive trauma within your home can be a very difficult thing to do.

As well as this, digital exclusion will decrease opportunities for children’s views to be heard at all. There are barriers to digital participation that may exist even for children and young people who do have reliable internet access, like finding it difficult to give an accurate account of their views and feelings within a virtual setting.