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Youngsters are begging to return to school to escape the nightmare of domestic abuse as figures reveal calls to helplines have soared to an average of one an hour.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) say calls are up by nearly a third since the beginning of lockdown, from 140 to 185 a week.
In one heartbreaking call, a 10-year-old boy told Childline: “We should be allowed back to school now so my step-dad stops hitting mummy.”
One 16-year-old girl told the helpline: “I want my parents to break up. They are constantly arguing and they have both started drinking a lot more.
“They say some pretty horrible things to each other. It’s been like this for ages. Since the lockdown, my mum has been physically abusive and I’m really worried because they have both spent the night in jail before.
“I have no school work to do and my mum is not working and everything feels like it’s getting worse.”
Another girl told Childline: “I really wish I was back living with my foster carers, but I’m stuck at my mum’s place ’cause of the lockdown.
“My step-dad makes mum drink every night and I hear them shouting and throwing stuff at each other – it makes me so uncomfortable.
“I don’t like being alone with my step-dad either – he tries to kiss me really hard on the neck and other private places. Last time, it made a bruise.
“He said I’m not allowed to ‘snitch’ on him as everyone will be cross with me. I don’t know what to do.”
Since lockdown began, 1,500 adults have told the NSPCC’s helpline about their fears for children trapped in their homes. Some 58% led to referrals or a referral update to the local authority.
May saw the highest number of contacts to the helpline about domestic abuse – 1,017 – since recording changed in 2016.
It is feared the plight of some children may be going under the radar during the lockdown as they are not attending school and other organisations where people might have spotted signs that something was wrong.
Although schools have been open to vulnerable children throughout lockdown, the worry is that some youngsters will fall through the cracks; or their parents will choose not to send them to school, or that they may be facing living in an abusive household for the first time.
Tom, 50, an abuse survivor, told HuffPost UK how he was physically and mentally abused for 10 years by his parents from the age of six and how going to school had been his only respite from the constant fear.
He admitted he doesn’t know how he would have survived the current situation being locked down with his parents and he can empathise with the ordeal faced by children trapped in similar situations.
“I was withdrawn from society and locked up in my room,” he recalled. “I was allowed to come out to eat, but that was about it.
“I was sometimes allowed out for short intervals but that would normally constitute some other form of abuse so in some ways. Being locked up was almost a relief as I knew I would not get physically hit.”
Like a caged animal, I didn’t know any different – what it was like to be outside that cage. I didn’t know what real life was. Tom, 50, an abuse survivor
Tom told HuffPost UK how he was mentally tormented by his controlling mother and lived in constant fear of his violent father, but because his parents were church-goers and religious, to the outside world, they seemed much nicer people than they actually were.
“It started seriously when I was about six, but there were things that went on before that,” he said. “Like a caged animal, I didn’t know any different – what it was like to be outside that cage. I didn’t know what real life was.”
Tom remembers once dropping a ball so it landed on the garden and his father struck him with a spade several times to punish him. Being attacked with the spade formed a regular part of his punishments and he still bears the scars.
If he did anything that his parents deemed as wrong, such as mentioning he had spoken to someone at school, he would be punished and denied food and was locked up and not allowed to go to the toilet, wash or bathe.
“It becomes your normal and the good bits of my life were when I was not being hit and the bad bits were when I was being physically hit. I just lived in constant fear.”
Tom remembers fracturing his arm after his father threw him around and attacked him. When he went to school, he was unable to hold his hand up to answer a question and when he explained to his teacher that he had a sore arm, he was sent to the school nurse – who in turn sent a letter to his parents asking them to take him to the doctor. He then got in trouble all over again.
“I suffered years of physical and mental abuse,” Tom told HuffPost UK. “My father predominantly carried out the physical abuse while my mother was the instigator of the mental abuse and made out everything I did was a bad thing so my father would physically abuse me.
“It was almost like a double act.”
Tom also faced the fear of a vicar, a friend of his parents, visiting the home as he touched him inappropriately for more than four years. “I could not speak out about it as my parents thought he was great and my parents would be in the same room and see.
“It was a case of trying not to squirm away from him as that would lead to me being punished later by my parents.”
Feeling he had no one to turn to for help and only realising when he was about 11 that his life was significantly different from that of other children, Tom began planning his way out from the age of 13 and finally escaped the family home three years later.
Since leaving his abusive childhood, Tom has forged a successful career and personal life and is now a loving and supportive father to a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
He told HuffPost UK he never talks about his past with anyone and hides it as he fears being judged.
He described himself as feeling like “a spoilt picture that you want to screw up and throw in the bin”.
Tom said he can relate to the children currently trapped in abusive situations in lockdown as he says the abuse is “intense and constant” and that “even when you are not experiencing physical abuse, you are living in constant fear of it”.
I used to dread the school bell ringing signalling the end of the school day as it meant I had to go home. Tom, 50, an abuse survivor
“The only break you ever get from it is when you go out to do something – which for me was going to school.
“I used to dread the school bell ringing signalling the end of the school day as it meant I had to go home. And I would dread the school holidays.
“For children in abusive households, being at school is often the only time they get to access other people and their teachers are like a safety net. To lose that must be horrendous.
“I always hoped someone would notice what was happening to me and teachers are people these children usually have regular contact with and can trust.”
Many people are worried about the risk of children being exposed to coronavirus by returning to school – but Tom says these fears need to be balanced against the harm some children may be being subjected to in their homes.
The NSPCC argues that the increased risk during the coronavirus crisis further highlights the need for the government to amend the law to recognise the daily nightmare of violence and coercive control for some children.
It wants young people who escape abuse to have access to specialist support to recover.
The charity says the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is at committee stage, fails to do this in its current form despite repeated calls from experts including the domestic abuse, children’s and victims’ commissioners – as well as the Home Affairs Select Committee.
New analysis of 11 serious case reviews submitted to MPs set to scrutinise the Bill shows children have been seriously harmed and even killed because domestic abuse was not considered to be a child protection issue.
During lockdown, fears about the virus are being exploited to cut off kids’ contact with family and friends and to monitor their movements under the pretext of keeping them safe from the virus.
One mother who called the NSPCC helpline described how her former partner had taken her baby son away and she didn’t know what to do.
“He stormed into the house the other day saying he was going to take the baby for a few days – he said he wouldn’t get to see him until the summer because of the lockdown.
“When I refused, he pushed me against the wall and took off with the baby and house keys. I’ve not heard from him since.
“I’m really worried about my baby’s safety. My ex can be a bit rough when he handles him and he sometimes tells him to ‘shut the f*** up.’ I told my social worker what’s happened and they’re trying to locate him so I can get my baby back.”
Even when children aren’t always the ones to suffer physical harm, they have told Childline they feel trapped. In some cases, it has led to depression, suicidal thoughts and self harm.
The smallest things make him angry and he starts shouting. I’m terrified of him and I’ve had enough. I can’t take it any more – please help me. A 14-year-old boy calling Childline
One 14-year-old boy told Childline: “I really need your help. My dad has been physically abusing my mum. He has an anger problem and it’s getting out of hand.
“The smallest things make him angry and he starts shouting. I’m terrified of him and I’ve had enough. I can’t take it any more – please help me.”
Emily Hilton, NSPCC senior policy and public affairs officer, told HuffPost UK that before coronavirus: “Many of these children would have been able to go places like school or out with their friends and get some respite.
“But [now] they are not able to physically meet people the same or have that safety net.
“Children are not really having much interaction with the wider world. Instead, they are constantly at home where abuse might take place.”
Action for Children told HuffPost UK it is deeply concerned about the record rise in contacts to the NSPCC’s helpline.
“Under normal circumstances, these children would be much more visible,” said head of policy and research Eleanor Briggs.
“But at the moment, a lot of children are not in school and are ‘hidden’ and this is a very dangerous time for children experiencing domestic abuse in their household.
“This alarming new evidence shows that for thousands of children exposed to horrifying physical and psychological abuse under lockdown, the ‘stay at home’ message sadly did not mean ‘stay safe’.
“The lockdown’s impact on our most vulnerable children trapped behind closed doors shows just how vital it is the government gets this Bill right and recognises them as innocent victims, not just witnesses.
“Throughout the crisis, our frontline workers have been carrying out doorstep visits at a safe distance to give eyes on families we know are at risk, but what these children desperately need in the long term are the right laws to keep them safe.”
Adults concerned about a child living with domestic abuse can contact the NSPCC Helpline confidentially for advice and support on: 0808 800 500 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Children with any worries can call Childline on: 0800 1111 or e-mail: www.childline.org.uk