The shocking rise in domestic violence sweeping UK as families isolate during the coronavirus pandemic – The Sun

JUST two days after taking a family photo during their daily walk, Kelly Fitzgibbons was murdered by her partner Robert Needham, who also shot dead their two young daughters, before killing himself.

This shocking crime is just one in a wave of domestic violence sweeping the UK as families self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis.

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Six weeks ago, Kelly and Robert took their two young daughters on a family walk through the pretty countryside near their West Sussex home.

Along with their pet dog Bill, four-year-old Ava and Lexi, two, excitedly explored and played in the spring sunshine, while Kelly took photos she would later upload to Facebook, entitling the post: “Our walk for the day”.

Like so many British families cooped up at home during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, which had begun a few days earlier, it was a chance for some fresh air and for the children to burn off extra energy.

But two days later, on March 29, the entire family were tragically found dead in their home in Woodmancote, near Chichester, each of them having sustained fatal shotgun wounds to the chest, neck and head.

The killer? Robert Needham. The 42-year-old builder had killed his entire family and their dog, before turning his gun on himself. Needham ran his own domestic construction company, but it had been dissolved last October and at the time of his death, he was believed to have been in serious financial difficulties.

The family had moved into the home of his elderly mother – who is thought to have been self-isolating elsewhere at the time of the murders – while Needham renovated another property six miles away. A family friend said after the deaths that: “It might have been that there were issues over finance or it might have been issues over people living together in confined conditions.”

In an emotional statement released to the media, Kelly’s twin sister Emma Ambler said: “Kelly was a wonderful and special person. She was kind, caring, funny and always smiling, with an amazing love for life. Kelly will be missed by so many people and has left a hole in our hearts that will never be filled.”

The murder of Kelly, 40, a legal secretary, Ava and Lexi sent shockwaves through the country. Yet theirs is only one case against the backdrop of a steeply rising incidence of domestic killings and violence since the UK lockdown began in March.

Over the past six weeks, there have been 4,000 domestic abuse arrests in London alone, while new data from Counting Dead Women, a project that records the killings of women by men in the UK, shows the number of domestic murders has more than doubled since lockdown.

Its founder, Karen Ingala Smith has identified at least 16 killings between March 23 and April 12, 2020, including those of children, whereas for the same period over the last 10 years, Karen’s data records an average of five deaths.

These findings were raised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in April, when Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, told MPs at the remote session: “We usually say there are two domestic abuse killings a week, that looks to me like five a week, that’s the size of this crisis.”

While it’s unknown whether there was a history of domestic violence in Kelly Fitzgibbons’ relationship, a former neighbour of the couple described Robert Needham as a “bully”, who regularly argued with his partner. “I didn’t want to get into a confrontation with him,” the neighbour, who did not want to be named, said.

Their control is being threatened, and these are people who do not like being told what to do. They blame their partner and family – who become the whipping boy for all their frustration.

“The lockdown isn’t creating new abusers, but it’s bringing out the ones we already have and exacerbating their behaviour, which is why we’re seeing a rise in domestic abuse reports,” says Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic criminologist and former police officer, who lectures at the University of Gloucestershire.

“Their control is being threatened, and these are people who do not like being told what to do. They blame their partner and family – who become the whipping boy for all their frustration.

"This period of time may even see previously non- violent men, albeit ones who committed emotional, financial and coercive abuse, turn physical. Most won’t reach the highest level of violence – murder – but some will, even if they have never previously been violent.”

During the days either side of the Needham murders, details of a string of equally shocking family killings in the UK emerged. The murder-suicide of Elsie Smith, 71, and her husband Alan, also 71, is believed to be the first of its kind during lockdown.

The pair were found dead at their home near Cambridge on March 25. Elsie had suffered fatal stab wounds to her neck and head, believed to
have been inflicted by her husband, while a post-mortem was unable to determine how he had died.

After the discovery of their bodies, a neighbour said he feared the lockdown had driven Alan “over the edge” after he’d expressed worries about how the couple would access food and medicine.

Last month, the charity Refuge, which runs the National Domestic Abuse helpline, revealed that calls had rocketed during lockdown. The number rose by 25% in the five days after March 30, while visits to the helpline’s website were up by 150%.

The Respect phone line – which is for perpetrators of domestic abuse who are seeking help to change their behaviour – also received 25% more calls, with its website recording an increase of 125% visits. Domestic abuse reports to Crimestoppers have also surged by nearly 50%.

Chantal Hughes is the CEO of The Hampton Trust, a charity that works with both perpetrators of domestic violence and their victims.

“We’ve seen an increase in referrals – from both the police and social care services – and engagement with our service users since lockdown began, but because we’re unable to provide face-to-face services, we’re focusing on crisis management, trying to de-escalate the chances of the men we work with turning to violence during this time,” she says.

“It really is terrifying to think of women and children trapped in homes that are like pressure cookers right now. They can’t get out, they may not even be able to call anyone. They’re trying to stay out of their abuser’s way and keep the children quiet, too, aware his frustration and anger is building.

"The domestic homicides taking place at this time are premeditated and well planned. These men will have controlled their partners and families for a long time,” she adds.

It really is terrifying to think of women and children trapped in homes that are like pressure cookers right now.

Refuge has also warned that isolation “has the potential to aggravate pre-existing abusive behaviours.” In response, last month the government unveiled the #YouAreNotAlone campaign in an aim to reassure domestic abuse sufferers that support is available during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that the Home Office will find £2million to bolster domestic abuse helplines and online support, plus a further £3.1million was later promised for children who have been abused or witnessed abuse during lockdown – with the money handed to councils, charities and the police to combat the surge in violence.

But charities are concerned these measures are just not enough. A staggering 80% of survivors who had previously been supported through face-to-face networks, told a Women’s Aid survey last month that this had either stopped completely or decreased.

Meanwhile, 72% said that their abuser has more control over their life since Covid-19. And over one-third of survivors also said their abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour directed towards their children.

Lucy Hadley, campaigns & policy officer for Women’s Aid, says: “We welcome the government’s #YouAreNotAlone campaign, but we need urgent action and leadership at all levels of government to ensure no survivor is turned away from support.

"The Covid-19 crisis could not have come at a worse time for specialist services, which have faced a funding crisis for years. Fourteen women and two children were killed by men in the first three weeks of the lockdown, between March 23 and April 12.

"This is three times higher than the average of three women killed every two weeks. We are filled with concern for those women for whom home is not safe, but a place of terror,” she adds.

The UK is far from unique in witnessing this rise in domestic violence in direct correlation to the country being instructed to isolate. It’s a disturbing pattern that has been repeated globally since the coronavirus crisis began.

How to get help in lockdown

  • For support, call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or go to
  • Women’s Aid has a live chat service Mondays to Fridays, 10am and 2pm, as well as an online survivor’s forum. Find your local domestic abuse service at
  • If you are in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are in danger and unable to talk, call 999 and listen to the questions from the operator and respond by coughing or tapping the head set. If you can’t make a sound, the call will be put through to an automated system, which asks the caller to press 55 to reach the police.
  • If you are deaf or can’t verbally communicate, register with the emergency SMS service. Text REGISTER to 999. You will get a text telling you what to do next.

In Hubei province in China, the heart of the initial outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during lockdown in February.

Calls to a helpline in the Catalan region of Spain were up 20% in the early days of the country’s confinement, while in Italy activists have reported receiving desperate text messages and emails from women unable to call helplines for fear of being overheard by their partner.

Dr Michelle Carr is a forensic psychologist, and describes the current situation as “a perfect storm” of toxic levels of stress, loss of control and anger, resulting in explosive violence.

She believes the rise in reports of domestic abuse is rooted in the impact lockdown has had on men’s lives, and their perception of their position in society.

If you are someone already prone to coercive or violent behaviour, the only outlet for that stress right now is going to be the people around you.

“We may believe we don’t live by evolutionary stereotypes any more, but we do, and men are still conditioned to see themselves as breadwinners, and their status and self-esteem dependent on their wealth and success. In an exceptionally short period of time, that has all been stripped away,” she says.

“We have men stuck at home all day, they may have lost their job or seen their income decline, they’re experiencing feelings of failure and also competitiveness if their partner is still earning – which is relevant given women are more likely to work in healthcare roles than men. Substance misuse is also a factor – with no work, they may be drinking more and even using drugs,” Michelle adds.

“They feel they have lost control over their life and are experiencing the highest level of stress, or ‘toxic stress’. If you are someone already prone to coercive or violent behaviour, the only outlet for that stress right now is going to be the people around you.”

Michelle draws comparisons between the Needham case and that of the Foster family – Jill, 49, and her daughter Kirstie, 15, who were shot dead by their husband and father Christopher, 50, in August 2008. Before killing himself, Foster also gunned down the family’s dogs and horses and then set their home in Shropshire on fire.

During the inquest into the deaths it was revealed that Foster was in “severe financial difficulty” after his company went into liquidation during the global financial crisis, and had told his GP he felt suicidal four months before he embarked on his killing spree.

“That time in history was really the last time, societally, we experienced such high levels of stress and anxiety. Then, like now, we saw that manifesting in these horrific cases of entire families being wiped out by one of their own,” Michelle says.

A 2010 report revealed that since the global recession had begun three years before, family murder-suicide rates jumped 9%, while in the UK the rate over the previous decade jumped from one every eight weeks to one a month by 2010.

“So much of male self-esteem and self-value is rooted in material possessions, what they earn, their social status. They may bottle up emotions and retreat into themselves,” Michelle explains.

What we are witnessing now, as we did in the Foster case and others like it, is men exploding with rage and stress, and taking everyone with them

“What we are witnessing now, as we did in the Foster case and others like it, is men exploding with rage and stress, and taking everyone with them. The dangerous reality of the current situation is that when men lose control, women and children suffer.”

One common characteristic of these cases is the gender of the perpetrator. “At the heart of these cases is a sense of entitlement,” says Jane. “Men are socially conditioned to believe they own their families. They have a sense of propriety over their wife or partner and children,” she says.

“Women’s relationship with the family unit is based on serving and nurturing. In addition to social messaging, there are also men who feel entitled because they are narcissists. When these men reach the point where they’ve decided to commit suicide, that sense of ownership results in them taking everyone and everything that forms part of their identity with them.

Their belief is: ‘I own you, you’re part of me, I’m not going to be here so nor are you.’”

Worryingly, Jane doesn’t believe these crimes will stop when this period of national confinement ends. The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned unemployment could hit 3.4 million – up from 1.3 million before the crisis – while the UK is bracing for its worst recession in 300 years. Life after lockdown is set to be extremely tough for many and Jane warns this could continue to trigger these acts of family annihilation.

“As well as believing we’ll see more of these cases as restrictions continue – because levels of frustration, anger and feelings of loss of control are likely to rise – I also think these murders will actually peak after lockdown is lifted.

"That’s when the full economic effects will take hold, and also when women will try to leave abusive relationships,” she explains. “This danger isn’t going to abate when we return to ‘normal’ life.”

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