S&C is working with Aurora New Dawn during the lockdown to capture the impact of the pandemic on the charity, their team, and victims and survivors of domestic abuse. This week, Aurora’s CEO Shonagh Dillon talks to Sarah Cheverton about Aurora’s new, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, helpline for victims of abuse across Hampshire.
SC: Can you tell us how the new 24 hours a day, seven days a week helpline for victims of domestic abuse came into being?
SD: Yes, I can. We have a domestic violence and abuse car project where we are usually out on Friday and Saturday nights in police cars with officers, attending domestic abuse incidents and offering independent specialist support at the point of the incident. During the weekdays, our team are based in police investigation centres around the county, which is how we target domestic abuse incidents and really try to engage survivors. So, before the pandemic, we’d be out and about with police officers every day of the working week, and then on Friday and Saturday nights until 3am.
So that was still going for the first week of our teams starting to work from home. But very quickly, we realised that the country would go into lockdown and we wouldn’t be able to go out with the police. The police still wanted us with them, and we wanted to stay with them, but obviously it became too dangerous in terms of public health for us to be out and about with police officers.
Now, my career started on a local helpline when I was a student as a volunteer, and then later I worked on the National Helpline. At Aurora, we’ve also run a county-wide helpline before. So the quickest and easiest way I thought we could respond to victims and survivors needs was to do our own 24/7 helpline, and that’s what we did!
We set up the helpline and started taking referrals directly from the police, initially linked to our DVA car project but with expanded hours (because we don’t do 24/7 on the police cars). The police responded really well so after around 10 days, we thought we would open it up to the public. We did this because the national helpline was receiving a surge in calls and anecdotally we were hearing from victims and survivors that they weren’t able to get through. So we thought, well, we can offer a helpline in Hampshire and we worked with our colleagues at You First – an amazing bunch of women. They work on our DVA car project with us and they agreed it was a great idea, so they work their shifts now on the helpline.
What was amazing was how we all turned it around as quickly as we did. One of the things we wanted to do was relieve the pressure from the national helpline, and make sure victims and survivors could access direct contact to local services. One of the things we have noticed already is that 50% of clients that are contacting us want to engage in long-term support with other independent services around the county, which is also amazing.
How have you and your teams had to change the way you work on a daily level?
I am so proud of my team and what they’ve achieved, and I’m really inspired by the voluntary sector as a whole actually. I think the private sector and statutory institutions have a lot to learn from us after this, as we have turned our services upside down on a penny. And when I say on a penny, I mean it!
We are not as well funded as other sectors are and yet we have all continued to deliver services – key services, vital services. There have been no changes to service delivery: we are open for referrals, we never had to stop contacting our clients.
One of the things we had to change, obviously, is the face-to-face support. We really miss that with our client base as do they of us. But we are offering every single service user the opportunity to have a video conference if they want it. Some are taking it up, but nothing beats face-to-face contact and we know it’s incredibly precious, for trauma-informed response. If a victim can get to know us face-to-face, it makes all the difference.
The other side of this – and a key difference – is for our team. They are also dealing with the lockdown, and they do a traumatic job. It’s very hard work on the frontline, they are listening to and supporting victims and survivors who have been through the most awful, degrading types of abuse. So usually where we would be able to have a chat with our colleague, we’re not able to do that as readily. So we’ve had to make sure the team are looked after too, in terms of their emotional wellbeing.
What has been the response to the helpline so far?
The response to the helpline so far has been excellent. We went live on 30th March with Hampshire Constabulary, and on 6th April, we opened the helpline to the public. As of 23rd April, we’d had 145 referrals in just over three weeks.
Victims and survivors are accessing the helpline directly, they are accessing us via our social media channels, and I would say the proof is in the pudding. If victims and survivors are responding to it and getting support out of it then we’ve done our job.
I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to deliver what victims and survivors need, that they are able to get the support they need at the exact time they want it. It’s been really wonderful to see that we are able to reach those survivors when they need it most.
What are the main challenges facing your service right now and how are you trying to address them?
Well, some of them haven’t changed, to be fair!
The main challenge for the violence against women sector is funding. It was a problem prior to Covid-19 and the pandemic has made that more apparent; not only in terms of the upsurge in awareness of increased risk to victims and survivors during the lockdown. I think there may also be a surge in victims seeking support for the abuse they experience after the pandemic ends, a concern which is echoed by my colleagues around the country. The challenge is funding and making sure we can meet the demand and meet the needs of victims and survivors.
How am I trying to address that?
Well, I constantly keep my eye on sources of funding, I’m networking with funders and commissioners, and I’m having conversations with people nationally. I have conversations with people right across the country about funding and also about how different services are responding, and we often get ideas from each other. For example, we’ve been able to manage the digital and online responses really quickly because we’re active there usually.
Victims and survivors need much more support at the moment due to the particular conditions of the pandemic and lockdown. Across all our service areas – sexual violence, domestic abuse or stalking – the amount of time victims and survivors need is vastly increased now, which is understandable. We are a trauma-informed and client-centred service and we respond to the needs we see from clients. At the moment, there’s a bigger need for emotional support, alongside all the practical advice, guidance and advocacy. It is not a client’s problem that our services are in higher demand. No victim or survivor should ever feel their advocate is too busy for them, and we make sure that doesn’t happen by constantly reviewing our service in line with what we can see they need.
How can our readers support Aurora New Dawn and the new helpline during lockdown?
S&C readers are amazing! Your readers are already sharing our helpline, so please just keep sharing! Keep sharing! Keep sharing!
We haven’t needed to put any money into promoting the service – it’s all been done with the click of a button or word of mouth. Survivors have told us on the helpline, ‘Someone told me about it and gave me the number.’
You have no idea how powerful it is to share our helpline number or poster on social media, or to stick the poster up where you work, or in the window of your house. You may feel like what you’re doing is nothing, really. But it is everything to a survivor because they will be looking for it, they will be looking for that access point.
So, please, keep sharing.
In terms of other stuff, we will be launching a fundraiser, so if people want to join in with that, please do – even again, just helping us spread the word. I am not in the business of expecting money from the public at the moment. I recognise how badly so many people have been hit economically by this pandemic. It doesn’t matter if you can’t give us any money, just share the social media!
People that can donate will donate. But the big job is raising awareness and reaching out to victims and survivors. That’s why we’re here. The financial stuff is my problem and that sits at my door.
So keep sharing our information, keep letting people know we are here, because we will be here – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – until the lockdown lifts.