‘We Knew There Would be an Influx of Referrals’: Covid-19 and the Voluntary Sector

How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In a three part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Aurora New Dawn’s CEO, Shonagh Dillon to find out about the impact on the charity, which works with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. In part one, Shonagh explains the services her organisation provides and the mental health impacts on her staff and clients during the pandemic. 

Paris: How has Covid-19 and the lockdown affected the services you deliver?

Shonagh: Right from the start, we knew there would be an influx of referrals. So, we prepped for that quite quickly. As you’ve reported before, we [turned] one of our projects into a 24/7 helpline, which has meant a 63% increase on that part of our service. We’ve had over 1000 calls to the helpline. In terms of other services, we saw a quick increase on our armed forces project and in terms of stalking, that’s kind of remained steady. But there’s been more enquiries, particularly at the beginning around digital cyber stalking, because everybody’s online. Our stalking service has consistently proven it’s needed throughout the years, and we are really proud to offer the bespoke and specialist advice to victims and survivors around stalking issues.

I think the worry for us was that issues like stalking would fall off the radar a little bit. But the team have been brilliant at keeping that going, they work in partnership with Hampshire Constabulary, Solent Health, the Crown Prosecution Service and probation [and] together they’ve managed to keep a really close eye on it. So, we haven’t seen a huge dip, and more so, we’re probably getting an increase in referrals now.

In terms of sexual violence, clients are always coming through thick and fast. What we have noticed for that client group is the amount of support people need around their mental health, in terms of being cut off from your coping mechanisms of what [you] would usually do to be able to cope with trauma, being forced to stay in or even to not be able to access things like the gym. So even asking for help was probably, for people that are in trauma, seen as ‘Oh, you know, they’ve got stuff going on, so I won’t bother them’, so we certainly put a lot more emphasis on supporting victims and survivors across our services, with their mental health depreciating because they’re locked down.

Quite a few of our clients have got complex PTSD as a result of trauma. So, removing all the coping mechanisms is going to have a really strong and long lasting impact on how they’re feeling about themselves. And I know that actually, charities that work in mental health were shouting about that from the start, and quite right too, because there will be a long-term mental health impact from Covid.

Can I follow up about your Armed Forces project? Could you explain a little more about it?

Our Armed Forces project has an advocate who is a multi-advocacy post. She supports victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. And either they are military personnel, or the victim is attached to military personnel, so either married to them or ex-partner or familial. That’s a bespoke service.

What we wanted to do was provide a package of support to Armed Forces communities, because we recognise that they weren’t engaging so much in generic services as the life and culture in our forces’ communities is incredibly different. In a sense, we need to understand how it works, to speak their language and support them. There’s different ways of supporting victims and survivors that are linked to the Armed Forces that wouldn’t necessarily be known to generic services.

We started that project in 2017 as a pilot, and we’ve gained more sustainable funding  from the Armed Forces Covenant Trust for three years. It’s a really interesting project. Our Armed Forces advocate is just amazing. She understands the forces because she lives it. She’s done some amazing work along with the partners in the forces that work with us really closely now. We’ve got a good service and we are really proud of it. Most recently our work was noted in the government report.

It’s understanding the complexities of those communities as well as the culture that’s inbred in different types of forces. The Navy might be slightly different to the RAF, might be slightly different to the army. They’ve all got their different ways of viewing things and doing things, but also they’re quite transient. They don’t think in terms of locality, they think in terms of nationally, and internationally. You need to be able to move really fast and geography can’t be a problem. We’ve had referrals from abroad, including Canada [and] Germany. It’s a really interesting project and one we’re proud of.

So it’s a global project?

Yeah it is.

And you briefly mentioned the helpline. In one of your first interviews, you spoke about setting it up. Can you tell me a little bit more about what’s happening with the helpline now?

I have a very fond affiliation to helplines because that’s where I started my career in the male violence against women sector. It’s a really simple tool. It’s a great way of providing information, guidance and lots of emotional support to victims and survivors as and when they need it. It was important [for] us to make it 24/7 because we recognise that survivors will know when’s the best time to call and if we’re prescriptive about that, then it might prevent them from calling.

Particularly during Covid lockdown, we were getting calls at 4am because that’s when the perpetrator was definitely asleep, or calls [at] obscure times because they’d gone shopping, so it’s a very simple project. And it’s one we do in partnership with You First. They work with us on our DVA cars. It’s been a lovely project to watch, because it reminded me of my roots. We don’t need to make things complicated. We don’t need to wrap ourselves up in bureaucracy. If a victim has a phone number that they can call at any time, they will, and if they can, so it’s about providing that resource and making it as simple as possible.

Making sure that when you answer the phone that you are empathetic, open and non-judgmental, that you believe them. It’s just really simple stuff. It’s the bedrock of why we do what we do, it just brings you right back to, ‘what are we here for?’ and ‘why are we funded? Why do people support us?’ The most important thing for us, is victims and survivors [have] access points [which] are incredibly important to make as simple as possible.


How has the pandemic and lockdown affected your staff, both their work and their wellbeing?

That’s a really good question. Of course, it’s had an impact. I think the thing about advocates and crisis workers is we’re all doers. We’re all problem solvers, and we like to get active. We all struggled, and I include myself in that. There were points, particularly at the beginning of lockdown, where my job suddenly got so busy and we were scrambling around to make sure that we had the right responses for victims and survivors.

I doubled my working week in hours which is absolutely fine. That’s what I’m here to do. Certainly, the staff were all being as flexible as they possibly could. I’ve never heard the word no from any of them so that’s a testament to them, they really are amazing women. I struggled, I think it was week two of this term starting and I just thought ‘I can’t home school and do this. I just can’t do it’. I put my big girl pants on, got on with it, because actually, what’s the alternative?

One of the things we did is start reaching out to each other and having a good moan about it, like ‘I’ve forgotten how to do algebra’ and, ‘I’m not a natural teacher’, and also just having the level of patience, because it’s not my kids’ fault either that I have a really busy job. My husband’s a key worker, so he was out to work every day. It was me, because I could work from home, we all had moments, we all had tears. And, we’re honest about that.

I think that’s because of the women I work with really. You have to be able to be honest about the fact that you’re struggling too and the nature of what we’re asking, we’re really quite strong on boundaries at Aurora. That’s why the office is such a sort of bubbling place really, because we’re always debriefing or popping in and out of each other’s offices or by each other’s desk to talk about a case or get advice, and that, all of a sudden had gone. I am asking people to take really traumatic things into their own homes that they wouldn’t normally, so we talked about where you’ve set up your working space, maybe if that’s in your bedroom, it might not be a wise idea. And one of the advocates was like, ‘that’s why I wasn’t sleeping’. So yeah, it has had an impact.

I know that the staff team have got a really busy WhatsApp group. You have to be able to still touch base with people. I certainly feel very lucky about who I work with at Aurora, they’re not just my colleagues, they’re my friends and I appreciate working with them. I have good fun with the people I work with. There’s a camaraderie in the women’s movement that I’d like to say you don’t get anywhere else, there’s a sense of companionship that I miss with not being in the office.

It has impacted and it will impact; because of the way Covid is, we’re not ever going to be back in the office, all of us, full time before the end of the year. We are starting to drift back into the office from September, but we’ve got to do it in team bubbles to make sure that everybody’s as safe as possible. There’s no, ‘okay, that’s done now’. We just [have] to be really conscious that we check our own mental health. We’ve been lucky, we’ve had clinical supervision. Our clinical supervisor is amazing. She’s a therapist that supports the team. She’s done that all virtually.

I’m so proud of the team. I’m just so humbled and I’m just really lucky to work with them. They’re amazing. They are such dedicated women.


S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:

  • voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
  • small businesses and self-employed people
  • BAME communities
  • people with disabilities

We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences in any of these areas, get in touch with us over on Facebook and Twitter, or email us at submissions@starandcrescent.org.uk

Image by Aurora New Dawn.

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