A guest blog by Nia Clark, Senior Research and Engagement Officer at Agenda
The pandemic sharpened social inequalities, widening pre-existing divisions in society and significantly impacting girls and women facing multiple disadvantage. On 26th May, Changing Lives and Agenda convened a meeting with our Community of Practice group as part of the project Services in Recovery, funded by the Smallwood Trust. Comprised of local practitioners and women with lived experience, the group discussed the ways in which the pandemic impacted service provision and support in Northumbria.
Challenges facing services during the pandemic:
Whilst emergency COVID-19 funding was available for many services, this was mostly given on a short-term basis without consideration of long-term needs. This led to many organisations scrambling to use funds and avoid underspending. By contrast, today, some services are struggling to secure funding amid a cost-of-living crisis. This demonstrates how short-term action may have been prioritised over sustainable results.
During the pandemic, staff changes and people taking time off due to illness meant that services could be disjointed. Furthermore, the periods of lockdown made it more difficult for survivors of domestic violence and abuse to disclose their experiences. Indeed, while domestic violence increased, it was reported that there were fewer referrals. For practitioners, video calls made it challenging to notice subtleties during discussions with women at risk of domestic violence. Furthermore, these calls sometimes took place with the perpetrator in the same room. These challenges highlight the importance of resuming in-person meetings.
Participants expressed concerns about parent–child contact and disruptions due to the pandemic. Mothers whose children were removed were unable to have in-person parent-child visits during the early lockdown phases. The halting of in-person visits was damaging for both mothers and children. Moreover, when visits were organised virtually, there were often issues with technology. For those experiencing financial issues and without access to equipment or internet, this created additional problems. It follows that online services can be prohibitive to the most vulnerable women in society.
Positive developments during the pandemic:
The pandemic meant that a lot of “red-tape” was lifted with practitioners able to give direct support that went straight to those in need. Furthermore, collaboration improved between organisations, accelerating due to the urgency of the situation. In Newcastle, joined-up work tackling homelessness was an example of improved partnerships between the public and voluntary sector. Ultimately, the pandemic illustrated how inflexible procedures can be adjusted to ease burdens on service providers and better support women experiencing multiple disadvantage.
The use of video and phone calls benefitted women who might have difficulty travelling to in-person meetings; for example, those who live rurally. One woman with lived experience shared that she found it much easier to contact her workers, who readily answered their phone. Moreover, group zoom calls with other women with experience were easily facilitated, which she said allowed her to focus on their recovery. Several participants noted that the improved communication reminded them of “how social [services] used to be.” This indicates the need for co-operation and consistent care to better meet the needs of women.
Some practitioners stated that safeguarding improved during the pandemic. For instance, one participant noted that there was an increase in safeguarding referrals, which mostly came from the police. Additionally, the pandemic led to a radical transition from in-person court hearings to the widespread use of remote hearings. Women attending hearings remotely highlighted that they felt more comfortable and less intimidated. This shift meant that the anxiety of being in the same room as an accused perpetrator was removed. Thus, there is potential for continuing to use virtual courts to reduce trauma and increase protection for survivors of abuse.
The pandemic presented services with an unprecedented crisis and demanded sudden changes. This session with our Community of Practice spotlighted the importance of revising approaches and ensuring that services better meet the needs of girls and women facing multiple disadvantage.
Working in partnership with Changing Lives, Agenda will draw from the experience of practitioners, policymakers and women with lived experience in Northumbria to provide national recommendations for improvements, setting out how public services could better respond to the needs of women and girls.