How has the pandemic affected frontline workers in local services and charities? Sarah Cheverton talks to Gina Pruett, a DVA Car Advocate at Aurora New Dawn, a Portsmouth-based charity working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking, about the impact of the pandemic on victims of domestic violence and on the frontline workers who support them. Transcribed by Peta Sampson.
SC: Can you tell me about your role at Aurora New Dawn, how long you’ve been with the organisation, and what made you join the team?
GP: I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of the team for just over a year now. I’m one of the DVA car advocates, so I work frontline in Hampshire supporting victims and survivors at the point of crisis. We go out with police, and respond to 999 calls for domestic incidents.
I’d been aware of Aurora for quite a while and the incredible and inspiring work they do via social media, as well as from personal and professional contexts. At the time I really wanted to challenge myself and I’d had an ambition for a while that I wanted to work within the domestic abuse sector. I saw a job pop up on social media, and I was a little bit hesitant, but with a bit of encouragement from friends I went for it and here I am!
I can honestly say this job is like nothing else, it’s unique and I’m so proud. I tell people all the time that I absolutely love my job, but it’s more than just a job. I’m a survivor of domestic abuse myself and it’s a really important issue for me. Daily, I wake up with inner passion and determination to have some part in making that impact for victims and survivors – shouting from the rooftops to add to their voice and give something back.
Victims and survivors sometimes make contact a few months later just to thank us and you can hear the inner peace and contentment in their voice. Although they thank us for, in their words, saving their life, it’s really they who have done that, but knowing what we do makes such a difference and spurs me and my colleagues on.
I could not feel luckier to have a job that is more than just a job, especially with the team. They’ll probably hate me for saying this, but they are all determined, passionate, and supportive.
So that’s why I joined the team and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What was an average day for you before the pandemic?
An average day before the pandemic was full of adrenaline, a buzz of the unknown. In this role, you don’t know what is going to come. Before lockdown we were out every Friday and Saturday night with response and patrol police officers in Hampshire, going to domestic incidents at the very point of crisis.
We want to be able to engage survivors so we go to them face-to-face to provide specialist independent support, advice, and advocacy. It also works for the officers because we learn from each other and support each other professionally to try and get the best outcome.
Sometimes victims and survivors aren’t keen on the police and us going along means that sometimes we can enhance that engagement – again, to try and get the best outcome. Before the lockdown, we would also be in other areas, for instance, the police control room, investigation centres, or resolution centres so we also see what happens after an arrest. That’s an important time because we can talk to the victim or survivor when the offender has left and is out of the way, so it’s safer. The victim and survivor may feel safer to talk and it can be a vital time to be there and let them know there’s help and support.
Normally day-to-day, you never know what you might be faced with, but it’s all usually face-to-face, and out and about.
Donate to Aurora New Dawn’s fundraiser here, or share on your social media to help spread the word. And spread the word about their new video, created by Robin Creative Media, Ltd, below.
And what’s an average day for you now?
With the lockdown and the pandemic, we can’t support people face-to-face like we usually do but, with the help of our CEO Shonagh and the rest of the team we’ve adapted and that’s where the 24/7 helpline came in.
Now, I am working from home covering various shifts on the telephone to make sure that we can still be that point of help, advice, support, advocacy, at a vital time, 24/7. That could be at 2am, something happens or a vicitm or survivor just needs to know there is someone there for them.
Some of the work has parallels with before: I still don’t know what’s coming each day in the calls or emails. We are still working with police officers, electronically. But it is also so different. It’s hard, but I wouldn’t change it at all.
Personally, the day-to-day is very different. Before, I could differentiate family time and work mode. When I left the house each morning or dropped the kids at school, I switched into my role. Now, working from home, it’s a juggling act, you try to separate it. I can’t do the drive home each day and I think I took that for granted, it helped to boundary the day and shut off from work. But I’ve adapted. No doubt as soon as we’ve all fully adapted, we’ll be asked to go back to whatever normal was before!
There are little things I do, like I make sure I change my clothes before and after my shift, just to try and separate that. I know it sounds odd but it really does help. I was trying to hide away in my bedroom working but that didn’t really work, so I’ve nicked my daughter’s desk and put it in the lounge to make a two-in-one lounge/office!
We’ve all had to make little planners so we know what we are doing each day because the children were getting very confused. Even more so now, you need to take time for yourself. So within that planner we make sure we have time out, whether it’s something we do all together, or I just take 15 minutes to myself.
I’ve tried origami this week, admittedly, with a lot of sellotape attached because it’s just not happening! But, it’s important to take time for myself that isn’t just work. I think that’s really important in this role, and for any key-workers and crisis workers. We are so tuned into the role. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and trying to mix that with children and a demanding rescue cat that I got just before lockdown doesn’t work!
I think the biggest change for me is missing the face-to-face work, whether with the team, with victims and survivors, or with police colleagues. We do video calls but it’s not the same, and we now realise how much we relied on each other in the office, just to rant or a bit of support or get a bit of advice!
Don’t get me wrong, we are all available at the other end of the phone, any time but it’s just different. The work has always been intense and adrenaline-filled, but it’s intensified, I think. I read something the other day that said ‘usually it’s like walking on eggshells, but at the moment it’s more like walking on glass’. When you’re trying to help somebody there is a difference between being face-to-face and on the phone – I don’t know why but there is.
As a team, we are all working so hard in our different roles to make sure that we deliver that service to victims and survivors. We’ve all had our moments – as you saw from Shonagh’s article last week! – and we are not ashamed to say that, we are human at the end of the day. If it wasn’t for the team I don’t know where I’d be now. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, we share memes! We are all there to support each other and get through it.
We are not super humans but we are also not alone, and we are determined to make sure that victims and survivors are not alone either. We are here for them.
From your point of view, as a frontline worker for Aurora, what is the main change for victims and survivors of domestic abuse, right now, in lockdown?
I think the main change for victims and survivors is that they’re being seen, but for all the wrong reasons. The issue is being recognised and that’s so needed, it’s amazing.
But it also frustrates me that it takes Coronavirus for the government and others to face domestic abuse head on. This violence and abuse has always been there but society has brushed it under the carpet: it’s private, it’s behind closed doors.
Things have come a long way, but people are still saying about domestic abuse, violence and murder: ‘Oh, it’s the lockdown, it’s stressful, so there’s domestic abuse.’ It frustrates me. More support and funding is talked about but we want to see it.
Shonagh wrote about it, right at the very beginning of the lockdown. We are all facing isolation, we are all feeling trapped, and are potentially unable to work, and unable to see loved ones. Lots of us are worried about what is coming next and the implications of the next phase. Now imagine those same feelings for those facing domestic abuse every day: it is more heightened, it’s more intense, it is magnified, and they are in increased danger, some can’t escape. I worry that the lockdown rules provides abusers with an excuse for themselves: a way they can justify keeping victims in isolation, and keep survivors silenced.
But we are not going to let them do that. We’re still here, refuges are still open, police will attend. The support is still there, and victims and survivors are finding their opportunity to reach out safely and get that support. I feel a lot of people find the helpline, at the moment, is more of a lifeline. They have told us so.
Lastly, what would you say to someone that is struggling with domestic abuse right now and is unsure of what to do?
We see you. We hear you. You’re not alone, and we believe you. If there is something inside, a feeling that is telling you to pick up the phone then there is a reason for that.
We are here 24/7 for that reason, we are here for you.
If you – safely – can reach out, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do. If that’s the only step you can see right now, that’s the first step, take it. It’s a step forward you are making, it’s your strength, your fight, your determination. There is a reason we use the word survivor, and it’s because you are surviving this.
My message is, your inner strength cannot be broken. Reach out to us, 24/7 on the helpline number, and obviously, call 999 if you are in immediate danger. That’s the first step.