Social distancing making victims of domestic violence invisible: aid workers


Social distancing measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus Covid-19 are making the victims of domestic violence increasingly invisible, aid workers said to NRC. With the schools closed and everyone at home, police and teachers can’t spot signs of abuse. Social workers can’t visit vulnerable families at home. And victims have less opportunity to call for help with the perpetrator at home all the time, they said.

The national domestic violence network Veilig Thuis receives nearly 11 thousand reports of domestic violence and child abuse per month. Two thirds of these reports come from police officers. The number of reports increased since the Covid-19 outbreak, but “not significantly”, chairman Debbie Maas said to NRC, adding that this “is far from reassuring for us”. According to Maas, neighborhood teams, teachers and police now have less of a view on victims.

Social workers usually visit vulnerable families at home, but now mainly have these conversations by telephone. This means they miss out on visual cues of abuse or neglect – they can’t see the state of the home or read a child’s body language, for example. It is also hard to have an honest conversation with a victim when the perpetrator is hanging around the phone, listening to what they’re saying.

Victims are also less able to reach out for help, Nelleke Wannet, an aid worker in the women’s shelter in Oosterbeek, said to the newspaper. “The perpetrator is no longer in the pub or at work, but is at home. And you’re not going to call when the perpetrator is home. That’s terrifying.” Victims also have less contact with friends, family and acquaintances, which means these have less opportunity to notice something is wrong and contact the authorities, Wannet said.

Safety shelters are also struggling to help the victims who do come to them, according to the newspaper. Strict measures were taken at the women’s shelter in Utrecht to prevent the coronavirus spreading among residents. The shelter has room for 30 women and their children, with shared bathrooms and kitchens. No visitors are allowed, and counselors only have telephonic contact with residents. In the first few weeks the women and their children were only allowed outside for an hour per day, that has now been doubled to two hours. That is too difficult for some women, shelter host Aldine van Schaik said to NRC. Someone left the shelter last week because she was just too lonely. “Sometimes you wonder whether the deprivation of freedom is ethically justifiable,” Van Schaik said.

Social distancing is also making counseling more difficult, Wannet of the women’s shelter in Oosterbeek said. No physical contact is allowed and counselors need to stay 1.5 meters away. Then it’s hard to put a woman at her ease, Wannet said. This week a woman came to the shelter with a day-old baby, Wannet told the newspaper. She stumbled out of the taxi with her things and her baby in her arms. “I thought, should I take the baby? That is not allowed according to the regulations. But she was weak and in pain, so I picked up the child.”

Valente, a sectoral organization for social relief, is calling for the approach to domestic violence to be coordinated nationally. According to the organization, there is no central coordination point among municipalities responsible for the care of these victims.

Aid organizations are trying to lower the threshold for victims to ask for help by offering chat services and WhatsApp channels. The Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports are also looking into whether the Netherlands can implement a “code word” for domestic violence like other countries had, sources told NRC. In France an the Canary Islands, for example, victims of domestic violence can ask the pharmacy for “mask 19” to signal that they need help. The pharmacy workers will say the “mask” is out of stock, but to leave an address where one ca