Liverpool’s Signa Awareness was formed in 2018 by founder Maureen Harris, a social worker with Liverpool City Council, working in safeguarding. The charity offers interventions for both victims and perpetrators, finds safe ‘escape routes’ for those at risk, and is even working with teenagers to help eradicate generational patterns of abuse and change culture.
But Maureen says she’s been left stunned by the increased numbers of people contacting the charity after pandemic social distancing came into force March 16th.
Speaking as Signa Awareness launches a new fundraising campaign with Liverpool Hope University – to provide free essentials, like toiletries, to victims fleeing domestic abuse – Maureen reveals: “We’ve seen a huge rise in cases amid the Coronavirus lock-down.
“We’re actually seen our referrals almost double compared to what we were typically experiencing at the start of March.
“You’ve got people at home, enjoying a drink, in close confinement, often with the pressures that come with having children around them. And there’s a general malaise that’s just exacerbating the issue.
“We used to be fearful of a spike after big football matches. Now it’s the pandemic which is causing huge increases in victims of domestic abuse.”
Maureen says Signa Awareness – which operates across the city and is based in Garston, south Liverpool – is now handling around 20 referrals every week – and there are waiting lists for both victims and perpetrators.
She adds: “When an offender isn’t able to go out and do what they want, they’re going to feel stressed. And that stress is likely to be taken out on their partner or children – or both. What we also find is that the victim gets blamed for all the perpetrator’s woes.
“It’s very dangerous, particularly when the victim can’t leave the house as much as they’d like due to Covid-19 restrictions.”
Signa Awareness has adopted what’s known as the ‘Duluth Model’ – a concept of domestic abuse care first created in northern Minnesota, USA, and which aims to hold offenders accountable while letting the voices of victims be heard – and for those voices to inform policy decisions.
Having brought the Duluth Model to the UK, victims can go through a 10-week intervention in a group or on one to one basis through ‘See the Signs’, the flagship programme of Signa Awareness.
The male perpetrators of domestic abuse are offered a 26-week group intervention based on the Duluth Model to support them in changing their behaviour.
This programme involves supporting the partners of offenders as well, with offenders joining the programme as either self-referrals or referred by the Local Authority or Courts.
Victims are given detailed welfare advice while perpetrators are forced to confront the consequences of their actions in a bid to ultimately change their behaviours.
Like many other charities, funding is an ongoing concern – something Signa Awareness wants to be addressed by the Government. Since 2014, the charity Women’s Aid has been campaigning for extra Government funding to preserve the national network of specialist refuges.
It says that in 2017, on one particular day, 94 women and 90 children were turned away from refuge. Meanwhile 60% of all referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17, ‘normally due to a lack of available space’.
Signa Awareness say the victims they help come from all walks of life, all social classes, and all ages, too – typically spanning women in their early 20s to late 50s.
And for Maureen, key to really tackling the issue is early intervention.
She says: “Not all offenders are going to change. But if we can get two in ten people to overhaul their behaviours, then that’s a good result.
“We’re trying to alter ingrained generational and cultural problems. We need to break that link in the dominos and intervene as soon as possible – because we know that abuse is prevalent in teenage relationships, too.
“Educating the next generation to prevent this cycle of abuse is key.”
It is a criminal offence in England and Wales for someone to subject another to coercive control – a law that came into force in 2015 and which recognises victims who experience a pattern of repeated control and domination from a perpetrator.
In recent weeks an enhanced Domestic Abuse Bill has been introduced to Parliament – an element of which will stop perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in the family courts.
But while Scotland has much tougher laws on coercive control compared to England – maximum sentences run to 15 years in Scotland compared to England’s five years –
Maureen doesn’t think that a tougher crack-down in itself is a cure-all.
She adds: “Locking people up without putting interventions alongside the sentencing will not change their behaviour. The offenders are going to leave prison with the same beliefs – they’ve learned nothing other than how to be more aggressive and angry.
“By the time a case has escalated to the point where there’s a custodial sentence, many lives would have been destroyed, including the perpetrators’.
“We need to get to these people much sooner to really make a difference. There needs to be funding made available in order to be able to intervene earlier and protect society and the lives of those involved.”
** You can donate to the Signa Awareness fundraising campaign through Liverpool Hope University’s online portal.