Local authorities have seen a dip in domestic violence and child abuse reports since the start of Cayman’s shelter-in-place and curfew regulations.
While a fall in statistics may look good on the books, the head of the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), Kevin Ashworth, said he believes it is a sign of a deeper, more sinister situation for victims of abuse.
“If reports aren’t coming in, then, of course, we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s the key concern. We’re not naïve enough to think that incidents have suddenly stopped because of COVID or reduced because of it, necessarily. I think it’s just the access to reporting is the issue,” Ashworth said in a recent interview with the Cayman Compass via Zoom.
He pointed out that while international trends point to spikes in abuse, here in Cayman that’s not the case. He said the current situation with COVID-19 protocols can recreate a dangerous scenario for people trapped in abusive relationships.
“Without doubt, the lockdown situations and the self-isolations and stay-at-home protocols do increase risk for domestic abuse,” Ashworth said.
“Certainly, ongoing survivors of abuse will then be placed in a situation where it wouldn’t be as easy for them to get out of the abusive situation; certainly, to make the reports that they need to make.”
What the numbers say
Last year, domestic abuse and child safeguarding referrals in Cayman hit record reports, crossing the 1,000 mark.
For many who work with victims, this increase was seen as a positive development because it showed that more people were willing to seek help.
Ashworth said, prior to the implementation of shelter-in-place protocols last month, MASH was seeing high levels of domestic-violence reports, Concerns grow despite drop in number of domestic violence reports with monthly averages of more than 200.
In January 2019, 276 domestic-violence referrals were received; in January 2020, there were 230. In February and March this year, reports totalled 214 and 219, respectively.
“We are seeing a slight average decrease in referrals, and I say only slight. In 2019, there was an average of 232 domestic violence [a month] referrals to the police, during the first three-month period, January to March, and in the corresponding period this year, we’ve seen 221,” Ashworth said.
When it came to child safeguarding, the MASH unit saw an average of 97 referrals per month for the first three months of 2020, up from an average of 83 a month for the first quarter of last year.
With most of those referrals coming from schools, the numbers have dipped slightly in recent weeks as students now are being home-schooled and, like domestic-violence victims, they too are shut in with their abusers.
“We have seen referrals again increasing, not to the same levels as we would see under normal conditions,” Ashworth said.
“We are receiving the referrals. It is reassuring, obviously, that we haven’t just had a massive downturn in those referrals. They cross all the boundaries of emotional abuse, physical abuse and some sexual abuse referrals.”
He believes the drop in reports is linked to the lack of access to support services during the COVID-19 crisis and the fact that survivors are sheltering in place with their abusers, so their ability to report is hampered.“
Just as an example, if somebody wanted to have a private conversation on their cellphone or make a report to 911, it would be extremely difficult in an abusive relationship where you might be sharing the same room or certainly a smaller accommodation, as [opposed] to having some privacy to make that call,” he said.
If someone is in an abusive relationship where calls or messages are monitored, then they “would resist making any reports anyway, certainly under present circumstances”, Ashworth said.
Added to that, he said, are the limits on support services in the community that they would ordinarily have access to.
He said many of the local support outlets, apart from the emergency services, are temporarily suspended or their staff are working from home, “and therefore the turnover of support, certainly the efficiency of that support, in relation to any requests for assistance, might not be as quick as it has been in the past”.
Those support networks also include faith-based organisations – churches which have also not been able to hold regular services and meetings, he added.
Despite these obstacles, Ashworth stressed the importance of reaching out for help.
“If you are suffering from domestic violence, you’re not alone. There is help out there and, as any other normal circumstance outside of COVID, if you have a situation that you need emergency assistance, then please ring 911 and we will make sure that we get the appropriate assistance to you,” he said.
With COVID-19 protocols set to continue, Ashworth said the decline in reporting means there need to be innovate approaches to helping survivors.
“We are still getting far too many reports of domestic violence. Domestic abuse has been a problem for a number of years and will continue to be so, and obviously we’ll try and address it in as many different ways as we can,” he said.
The Alliance to End Domestic Violence, a multi-agency committee that was formed last year, has been working on alternate ways to help victims make reports, such as a text-messaging alert.
“They could maybe just send a text message which would be silent, hopefully. But again, the text message would be traceable. So, we’re looking at how we can do that safely with the survivors,” Ashworth said.
He said there have also been discussions about an ‘intervention before crisis’ process where somebody could go into a pharmacy or a supermarket or an outlet that is open and use a codeword to get help.
“From a police perspective, obviously, we would urge caution with that … We would have to get a lot of buy-in from the business community and, certainly, some consistency with the business community to make sure that when somebody does come in and uses the codeword or uses a certain phrase that was recognised by the staff,” he said.
Ashworth added that a live webinar with multi-agency presenters and facilitators is being planned, which will offer victims tips and hints on getting help.