Children witnessed more domestic abuse during the pandemic, a senior service manager for Refuge in Lewisham has said, while some victims were preyed upon by sexual abusers as they had nowhere to go.  

Refuge is a UK charity that provides support for victims of domestic abuse.   

Maria* works at Lewisham’s Athena service, which is run by the charity.  

See more: Nearly 7,000 women referred to domestic violence services in Lewisham

She spoke to the local democracy service about the obstacles that arose during the pandemic and what needs to change to support victims of domestic abuse.    

It comes as Lewisham Council consults on its five-year strategy to tackle domestic abuse and all forms of violence against women and girls in the borough.  

See more: Council wants views on tackling domestic abuse

Maria explained what it was like after the first lockdown hit.   

“It’s been difficult, that’s an understatement. We are a service that is not necessarily designed to be working from home. Everything had to change,” she said.    

Clients would usually be referred to the service through GPs, police, or social services. But restrictions meant people weren’t going to the GP anymore and Refuge experienced a spike in direct calls and contacts, mostly from victims who had reached crisis point.   

“The contact we had during the lockdown was pretty much all from clients that were at crisis point, by that I mean clients that had nowhere to go that day, that had to call the police following a really serious incident, and that required a lot of intervention to meet their most basic needs.  

“Often you would have clients who need a place of safety and that needs to be secured straight away, because one thing the perpetrators are really good at is instilling the idea in the victims that they cannot cope by themselves, that they’re going to be nothing without the perpetrator.   

“It’s really important to fight that message and the reality needs to match that. It needs to happen quickly,” Maria said.   

But at the start of the pandemic people were not even allowed to be out. The Government clarified shortly after the first lockdown began that the rules did not apply to victims of domestic abuse.   

However, the restrictions still caused obstacles. Clients may have fled with no money or spare clothes.   

“Normally you could go to the shops to get something but you couldn’t do that. You can’t go online shopping if you don’t have an address.   

“The foodbanks were closed to the public - they worked amazingly and switched to home deliveries but again that’s difficult to do when you are a victim of domestic abuse and you don’t have an address or you might not be safe to receive the delivery,” Maria said.   

The organisation was still able to take women and children into its refuges, but there were still practical issues for victims like long queues in supermarkets with very young children and no one to leave them with.   

People ended up having to use corner shops, which are more expensive and problematic if on a budget. Schools closing also took away their children’s routine.   

Maria said: “We had a few cases of Covid amongst our residents, which meant that the entire house had to isolate and we had to improvise with food.   

“It’s really important that the people in the refuge are treated like the human beings that they are.   

“Pasta for ten days is not going to do. It’s important to think about what’s going to help them get through these ten days and cater for people individually so that the person feels they are being cared for, because that’s the one thing that’s been missing in their life.” 

Maria did a lot of shopping throughout the pandemic, liaising with local supermarkets to explain why the service should be exempt from the two items maximum rules (she had really positive responses).    

But some things were just impossible to get.   

“At one point we were looking for footballs for children to play with - it seemed there were no footballs in the country,” she said.   

We saw instances where women felt they had no choice but to agree to an offer of accommodation in return for having to experience sexual abuse. Those were some of the things that happened

Maria said there has been a lot of talk in the media about an increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic.  

“What’s more helpful to think about is the fact that the pandemic didn’t cause domestic abuse but might have exacerbated the situation.   

“Abuse might have escalated faster and to a more significant level than in non-pandemic times.  

“What also happened was that there was much more abuse that happened in front of children.   

“Very often you’ll have a situation where maybe the children are in a different room or in bed, but obviously we were all staying at home all day long so there were more instances where children were reported to us having witnessed the incident, more so than in usual times.   

“But it’s important to say that children who live in that environment are always affected regardless.”  

Abuse victims with No Recourse to Public Funds were made much more vulnerable as a result of the pandemic.   

They don’t have access to the majority of welfare benefits and often live in insecure settings, such as on a friend’s couch.  

“Because of the risk of contagion people became less willing to accommodate them and they end up being homeless with very few options.   

“They became very vulnerable to abuse by someone that would unfortunately prey on those vulnerabilities.   

“We saw instances where women felt they had no choice but to agree to an offer of accommodation in return for having to experience sexual abuse. Those were some of the things that happened,” Maria said.   

Perpetrators of abuse were also using children as an opportunity to continue their abuse.   

“Child contact was tricky during the lockdown because it was an allowed activity so children could move in between parents, but that was often abused by the perpetrator either by not returning the child at an agreed time or exploiting the situation by alleging the child had to self-isolate,” Maria said.   

To support victims of domestic abuse she said one of the most important things organisations should do is recognise the many forms of it, including coercive control, tech abuse, and economic abuse.  

“We are all well prepared to recognise abuse when it looks like a bruised face but not so much when it’s more allegedly subtle. That can be just as devastating and long-lasting.   

“I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me that they have forgotten, if you’ll forgive the word, about a physical assault, but they just can’t shake off those words and the way that they were treated.  

“It’s really important for agencies to be prepared to understand those dynamics because that’s how you intervene earlier before the crisis point.   

“Because sometimes once the crisis point is reached there are very few avenues left for interventions, women do die as a result of domestic abuse.   

“Awareness of the multitude of forms of domestic abuse needs to be a top priority and one that would give us a better chance of having the perpetrators being held accountable for the abuse,” she said.   

Maria would also push for a stronger focus on gender-based violence, thinking about domestic abuse, but also trafficking, modern slavery, honour-based violence, and sexual violence.  

when you go to make an application for homelessness, is the space conducive for you making a disclosure? Is the space adequate to say 'I've been raped by my husband'?

She would look for a stronger focus on implementing a trauma-informed response – there are long-lasting impacts of trauma and those are both physical and mental.   

“It can make it more difficult for victims to access services – what you might have is clients who are really angry and wouldn’t you be angry if your safety had been compromised in the most basic way.   

“That can affect how you access the service, because if you’re angry and you go to the bank and you try to stop your bank account and you present as angry, you’re not going to get served.  

“It’s about moving from thinking about ‘what’s wrong with you’ to a more trauma informed response which looks at what has happened to you,” Maria said.   

She also said the environment where victims access support should be conducive to allow for privacy.   

“For example, when you go to make an application for homelessness, is the space conducive for you making a disclosure? Is the space adequate to say ‘I’ve been raped by my husband’.  

“Will people hear you say that? Unfortunately the answer very often is yes,” Maria said.   

Asked about how she coped during the pandemic she said staff do not work in isolation and are very much part of a network.   

She added: “It was the reality of knowing that what you were doing was really important and really needed.” 

If you are affected by domestic abuse, you are not alone. You can access free and confidential support from Refuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and digital support via live chat Monday-Friday 3-10pm via