“He has used Covid-19 to his advantage”

After the arrival of the coronavirus in March, here at SEA we knew that government lockdown and social distancing restrictions would create the perfect breeding ground for abuse.

The isolation brought about by the government rules would allow abusers to exert more control than ever.

With support from Standard Life Foundation, in order to fully understand the experiences of victim-survivors of economic abuse during this remarkable time, we began a rapid review. The Cost of Covid-19: Economic abuse throughout the pandemic was carried out in the summer of 2020 and surveyed over 500 victims-survivors and front line professionals.

One area we were keen to explore was how perpetrators of abuse were manipulating the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), run by the Department of Work and Pensions, to continue to control a former partner and their children during the pandemic. Multiple women have long reported how the CMS is, “the last invisible chain”.

Our research found that 84% of women respondents in the UK either strongly agreed (68%) or agreed (15%) with the statement: ‘as a result of the perpetrator’s actions during the outbreak, I am worried about my current access to child maintenance payments’.

22% claimed that CMS payments had stopped altogether during lockdown. 9% that perpetrator’s had threatened to stop paying, 20% said that the perpetrator had paid less, and 18% that the perpetrator had paid unreliably. Only 15% paid the same.

‘Coronavirus has been the perfect excuse for him to just stop paying. There is very little communication from him either; any message from me is met with aggression in reply. I have had to accept that there will be nothing from him, and to adapt to survive on my own, simply to keep myself as stress-free as possible.’ (Victim-survivor)

‘He assaulted me and reduced payments straight away.’ (Victim-survivor)

Women reported that the lack of payments meant they couldn’t afford basic necessities such as food for themselves and their children.

‘It has a huge [impact], that’s food shopping to me and my daughter.’ (Victim-survivor)

However, problems with the CMS existed long before the arrival of Covid-19. Lone parents have complained of the general incompetence of the CMS for years, including hours spent waiting on the phone, poorly trained case workers and lost information. There is also concern about the lack of enforcement applied to those who owe arrears, as well as the loopholes in the system, particularly for the self-employed. Respondents reported these problems became even more acute during the lockdown.

‘We have always had concerns about the child maintenance system. This crisis has shown how faulty it is.’ (Professional)

Additionally, due to the increased demand for Universal Credit during the first lockdown, the DWP removed staff from the CMS. As a result, the CMS announced they would temporarily stop both chasing arrears and temporarily stop the need to see physical evidence of loss of earnings from parents who owed payments. Some women reported they were told by the CMS to directly contact their abuser, a potentially dangerous and traumatising thing to do.

‘CMS are aware of domestic abuse yet they have refused to speak to parents with care throughout the pandemic… They have forced me to contact the perpetrator so that I have some money for my children and it has been devastating in my anxiety and wellbeing.’ (Victim-survivor)

The decision left many feeling that victims and their children had been forgotten. As one professional reported, “Now it’s like [the CMS] doesn’t exist for women and children anymore – just for perpetrators to abuse”.

To protect against economic abuse and prevent families falling into poverty during the pandemic, SEA strongly recommends:

  • Government must support victim-survivors of economic abuse by making a minimum payment to victim-survivors in lieu of non-payment by a perpetrator. A government support system for lone parents should not be utilised for abuse.
  • Services offering advice on the CMS is are fully trained in recognising and responding appropriately to domestic abuse, including economic abuse specifically so that staff understand exactly how abusers use the system and why their role is so significant

Download the full report here.

Watch the recording of SEA’s webinar on economic abuse and children.

Listen to the second episode of SEA’s Survivor Stories Podcast on the CMS system.