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Research by Refuge and Women’s Aid has underlined the damage done by government policies, especially for specialist refuge services.

Two women are murdered by their partner every week, while many thousands of children are forced to witness domestic abuse every year. Hestia say there might be as many as 1 million.

The pressure on councils, and charities, to provide safe accommodation for victims is increasing, whilst government funding continues to slack.

The government will highlight the £1.2 million that was recently awarded to Refuge for the National Domestic Violence Helpline, with additional funding for new digital and mobile resources and another £1 million for 6 more helplines until 2022.

As crucial as these helplines are, none of them can replace the safety and support of a women’s refuge centre, like those run by Refuge, Women’s Aid, Hestia and many other smaller organisations.

Despite their effectiveness – in providing shelter, counselling and career mentoring – cuts have forced many refuges to scale back their operations or close completely. An investigation by The Times revealed “Domestic abuse victims have ended up in homeless accommodation because of a lack of refuge spaces” and that “only two counties had enough refuges to meet binding Council of Europe requirements on domestic abuse.”

The issues do not stop with the lack of spaces. Disabled victims, who are statistically higher risk, face an infamous lack of provision. Despite one third of Refuge’s women having a disability, only 1 in 10 refuge spaces in the UK are accessible, according to the BBC.

It’s equally miserable for BME women. In July The Independent reported the potential closure of a group of specialist refuges after their funding was axed. London’s Black Women’s Project had five domestic-violence refuges in Newham in East London which house survivors from across the UK. At the time they were set to close all their refuges after losing government grants. 

While writing this article I called their urgent helpline. I got no answer.

This is especially worrying given that women who identified with Mixed/Multiple ethnicities were more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months (10.1%) than any other ethnic group, according to the ONS.

Refuge, who are the leading organisation against domestic violence, say there is a need for specialist centres where more ethno-specific care can be given. It also protects victims against racist abuse. Add to this the fact that “many survivors from (BAMER) backgrounds can face cultural and community pressures that may make it more difficult…to escape”.

Both the current, and previous, Prime Minister have instigated legislation to increase the availability of refuge services, but there is no provision for increasing underfunded specialist services for BME and disabled women.

A Women’s Aid report in 2018 has underpinned attempts to move a new Domestic Abuse Bill through the legislature. Some of the standout issues were the lack of specialist refuges, as well as specialist services within them. They reported that only:

  • 3% of refuge services have a specialist mental health support worker
  • 9% have a specialist drug use worker
  • 9% have a specialist alcohol use worker

Given the trauma they are dealing with, there is a serious absence of opportunity for mental and physical rehabilitation. Without psychological support, women are more likely to return to the abuser, or another abusive relationship.

Although women experience higher rates of repeated victimisation and are much more likely to be seriously hurt or killed than male victims of domestic abuse (Women’s Aid), it is also true that one third of reported victims are male. This has led to claims that there is insufficient provision for male victims, especially in London where there are currently no dedicated beds, according to The Independent.

Another issue is that many refuges are unable to accept the teenage sons of victims, even those as young as 12, and especially anyone over 16; in line with creating a safe space for women. This leaves many victims with no option but to return to the abuse, worse to let their son return to an abusive relative and break up an already broken family. One more sad footnote in a horror story.

Those with NRFP status (No Recourse to Public Funds) can expect the least opportunity to escape abuse. This includes those with a spouse visa, student visa, limited leave, and leave to remain within a five year completion window. Women’s Aid found that During 2017–18 only 5.8% of vacancies could consider women who had ‘no recourse to public funds’.

Interest in addressing these details will remain slow while the system stretches.

Lack of funding hasn’t just hit the smaller services. Civil Society reported that “Refuge employees complained about working conditions at the charity”. This has lead to a review of the Refuge governance structures.

This also comes at a time when their 16 year helpline partnership with Women’s Aid came to an end, following a separate bid for national funding last year. This means Refuge will take on the National Domestic Abuse Helpline going forward.

Unfortunately Women’s Aid weren’t able to comment on the separate bidding strategy.

Instead they have created a Live Chat Service, which marks a step forward for digital abuse support, especially when many victims find it hard to make phone calls near an abuser.

System Changes

The current delivery relies on public funding through the housing benefit system and grants from local government. In their 2018 report, Women’s Aid recommended a National Oversight Mechanism that will allow an independent body to monitor how well local government is responding to the needs of residents and ensure there is enough specialist provision, whilst continuing to ensure public money is spent efficiently. 

“The national oversight mechanism (NOM) can plug the gap in national accountability for the commissioning, funding and delivery of refuge services, and help provide assurances around how public funds are being spent through housing benefit.” Women’s Aid 

The Home Affairs Committee has since made several recommendations to the government:

  1. It is unacceptable that women fleeing violence and other forms of abuse are often unable to access any form of emergency accommodation. 
  1. This urgent problem should be addressed by placing a statutory obligation upon local authorities in England and Wales to provide emergency refuge places and associated specialist services. 
  1. We recommend that the Government’s review of refuge and other domestic abuse support services should document and report what specialist provision is currently available, and where there are gaps. This should specifically identify the services available to, and required by, BAME victims of abuse.

Theresa May responded last July with her vow to end the “postcode lottery” for victims and their children, by making councils legally obliged to provide refuge space. This was followed by Boris Johnson’s pledge to re-introduce the domestic abuse legislation into the Queen’s speech, with a new definition identifying economic abuse and controlling non-physical behaviour (previously overlooked by police until recent landmark court cases).

The 2019 election delayed this process, however, a debate last Tuesday has reaffirmed the importance of passing the new legislation as quickly as possible. Labour MP Chris Elmore emphasised research during the 2018 World Cup that has shown domestic abuse incidents increase during major sporting events.

The outlook for current victims is worrying. Although the government is making progress on legislation, it cannot work fast enough for the women that will be killed this week, and the lifelong trauma inflicted on children that will experience abuse today. With immediate funding and better structural organisation, as recommended by Women’s Aid, there is an opportunity to lessen the impacts of these crimes.

The Freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247

Crown Prosecution Service Definition: “Domestic abuse, or domestic violence, is defined across Government as any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality.” 

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