COVID-19 has led to new ways to reach victims across Cleveland for domestic abuse charity Harbour Support Services.
At the height of lockdown, there was an increasing number of referrals coupled with an inability to carry out face-to-face and group work with clients.
Restrictions meant Harbour staff had to work smarter and look at new ways of working to make sure some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable residents continued to get access to their services.
One of their innovations is a new live chat facility, which can be accessed via the charity’s website.
Live chat means anyone, who wants to access Harbour’s services, can do so online, in the evenings and at weekends. There is also a message facility, where staff can call clients back if they are unavailable.
While the service was introduced out of necessity, it is now likely to become a permanent feature.
Caren Barnfather, Business Manager at Harbour Support Services, said: “Live chat means that if an individual is struggling to call us due to their movements being restricted, they can now communicate with us via the website.
“Many of our clients do not have access to a mobile phone with credit for outgoing calls – or their access is restricted by their abuser.
“Live chat gives them access to support, advice, information and appointments. For us, it creates another pathway into our organisation and its services, which didn’t exist previously.
“We have found many of our clients are now engaging with us digitally or remotely, who were not ready to do so in person.
“We have had people tell us that they “did not have the confidence to reach for the phone and talk” but did do it this way.”
Harbour has also found that some younger clients, who have either experienced domestic abuse in the home or in their own relationships, prefer engaging with support online.
Caren said: “Some of the young people have said that they find it difficult to come to a support group and many of our teenagers prefer to converse one-to-one using Zoom or another online app.
“They’re totally comfortable with that as a communication form, it’s how they live their lives. With our clients aged 13-plus, we actually had a higher level of engagement during COVID than pre lockdown because of using digital tools.”
In addition to looking for further funding to make live chat a permanent fixture, Harbour is now looking at offering a range of “blended” services, which encompass digital, telephone and face-to-face support and interventions.
Caren said: “The assumption at the start of lockdown was that any service needs to start with face-to-face contact.
“We now realise that some people prefer their first – and sometimes ongoing – contact with us to be digital.”
Lockdown also brought a new way of working for the Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs,) who work for Harbour in Stockton and Hartlepool.
IDVAs support men and women who are at the highest risk of domestic abuse in communities throughout Cleveland.
New working arrangements mean an IDVA is now available five days per week to offer advice and support to victims as their case progresses through the criminal justice process.
Caren said: “Previously, the IDVAs in Cleveland shared responsibility for covering the court, but this was not across the week. Now if there is a domestic abuse case in court, the court IDVA is present on the premises to offer support to the victims and ensure their voice is heard in the proceedings.
“The other IDVAs can now concentrate on their existing case loads, taking pressure off them.
“We also found that this approach has given us earlier access to more victims than we would otherwise have supported at the courts.”
Harbour benefitted from additional funding of £100k to enable it to respond to the increased costs of providing services during the pandemic. This has led to the equivalent of 9.5 new full-time posts across services in Cleveland.
Posted on Friday 9th October 2020