Coronavirus (COVID-19): domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls during Phases 1, 2 and 3 of Scotland's route map (22 May to 11 August 2020)

This report presents qualitative evidence on the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on people experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women/girls.

3. Summary of main findings

While there are some anomalies in the trends identified (particularly in the experience of minority groups), there are several consistent trends reported by services that relate to victims' and children's experience.

The key points emerging from the research are as follows:

Referral rates:

  • Over the period of lockdown and Phases 1 to 3, referral rates varied quite significantly across different support and advocacy organisations. Despite some anomalies, there are some generalisable trends identified.
  • Many frontline third sector organisations experienced similar trends in referral rates, with referrals reducing significantly during the initial weeks of lockdown and gradually increasing throughout the later weeks of lockdown, and throughout Phases 1, 2 and 3.

Mental health impact:

  • Throughout Phases 1 to 3, all VAWG services in the sample consistently reported victims experiencing significant mental ill health due to the impact of COVID-19.
  • Victims cited the combined impact of isolation, lack of safe childcare options, managing the risk of domestic abuse and the risk of the virus to have a severe impact on their mental health and resilience.
  • Many organisations observed significant increases in crisis work with victims, with many people experiencing suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety, increasing substance misuse as a coping mechanism, and/or increased levels of fear, both of the perpetrator and the virus.

Accessing support:

  • The main barrier for services engaging with clients continues to be mitigating the service-generated risks of contacting those who reside with and are monitored by their perpetrator.
  • Organisations reported increased engagement with families who had multiple, complex and intersecting needs that had been disproportionately affected by lockdown restrictions
  • Digital exclusion of some victims was a consistent finding, reported by a number of support and advocacy organisations across Scotland and throughout Phases 1 to 3.
  • As Scotland moved into Phases 1 to 3, many services reported that clients were facing increasing economic/financial challenges related to accessing fuel, food and essentials for children.
  • Destitution funds for victims have been effective in supporting some victims[9] facing economic crisis during Phases 1 to 3.
  • The accessibility of housing for families fleeing abuse has varied across local authority areas in Scotland.

Risk assessment and safety planning:

  • Some organisations limited their face-to-face contact with victims, or online engagement with victims, due to concerns the victim might be monitored by the perpetrator.
  • Despite the easing of restrictions, some domestic abuse services reported they continued to provide safety planning advice specifically applicable within victims' homes, because the options for safety planning in public places remained limited.
  • Throughout phases 1 and 2, there were reports from some victims who found the restrictions provided them some respite from abuse by their perpetrator, and allowed them safe space and time with their children, which was positive. For others, lockdown and the continued restrictions magnified their isolation and escalated post-separation abuse.
  • As Scotland entered Phase 1, organisations began to receive communication from victims who were postponing separating from abusive partners due to the continued restrictions, particularly the limitations around access to temporary/alternative housing.[10] As Scotland entered Phases 2 and 3, a number of services reported cases where the victim had communicated they were making plans to separate from their abusive partner in the following weeks, in most cases when the abusive partner returned to work and/or children returned to school.

Criminal Justice:

  • As the Phases out of lockdown progressed, there were increasingly frequent reports of victims losing faith in the criminal justice system.
  • Victims' stress and anxiety related to delayed or rescheduled court cases was reported consistently throughout lockdown and Phases 1 to 3.
  • Court advocacy services consistently reported a number of challenges in effectively advocating for victims who were witnesses in criminal cases, or engaged in civil court processes, due to the quickly changing landscape of court processes.

Perpetrator tactics:

  • In general, perpetrator tactics have remained fairly consistent throughout lockdown and Phases 1 to 3. Perpetrators continued to employ creative ways to coercively control their victims, including use of the Health Protection legislation and threats of infection to control their victims.
  • During Phase 3, some services began to anticipate that many of the risks and perpetrator tactics specific to lockdown was likely to continue despite lockdown being eased, as the Health protection legislation has acted as a 'starting point' for many perpetrators.


  • Consistent with the period of lockdown, services received reports of children being exposed to increased levels of abuse from domestic perpetrators. This was due to prolonged contact with perpetrators when children were not returned to the non-abusive parent after contact; perpetrators' drug and alcohol abuse in the presence of children; and the impact of the perpetrator's psychological abuse and monitoring behaviours on the non-abusive parent and their parenting capacity. Services for children and young people reported this has had a significant impact on children's mental health and wellbeing.

Child contact:

  • Domestic abuse perpetrated during or via child contact was widely reported by organisations across Scotland throughout the period of lockdown and Phases 1 to 3.
  • There were consistent reports from across Scotland of women facilitating child contact outwith the conditions of agreements or court orders, in order to placate perpetrators and manage abuse.

Women in Prostitution and Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE):

  • Throughout Phases 1 to 3 there was evidence that women involved in prostitution continued to meet in person[11] and online advertisements continued to make reference to Coronavirus and/or women's challenging financial situation as the justification for engaging in online work.

Honour-based violence:

  • During phase 3, two specialist Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) domestic abuse support organisations highlighted a decrease in contact from women experiencing honour-based violence and/or enforced servitude from their extended family, raising concerns that women were unable to make contact due to stricter controls on their freedoms.

Experience of domestic abuse/VAWG services:

  • Across the board, the restrictions associated with Phases 1 to 3 had a significant impact on VAWG services' working practice.
  • There were also a number of opportunities and positive outcomes identified for VAWG services during phases 1 to 3, relating to partnership-working, attendance at remote events and offering a service to more or a broader range of victims.

The remainder of this paper provides additional information on findings within each of the identified thematic areas.



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