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Refuge Provision – At Crisis Point?

6th August 2014

Why should she have to leave her home because of his violence?

Because she wants to stay alive is the answer, and she wants her children to stay alive too. The reality is that women experiencing domestic violence “choose”, every day, to flee to refuges because they can’t tolerate anymore the psychological and physical abuse they are experiencing. They are victims who have done their own risk assessment and they know that outreach work and extra security measures will not keep them safe and they want the things most of us take for granted simple things like the ability to sleep. Often women who go to a refuge haven’t had a good nights sleep in years. They are exhausted and terrified. They’ve often been woken from their sleep and raped repeatedly or they’ve been kept awake all night by their abuser interrogating them or just lain in bed terrified of his key in the door.

Perhaps some commissioners of services for victims of domestic violence from local councils across the country fail to ‘get’ domestic abuse. They commission ‘efficient’ forms of support, such as outreach preventative work and support in the community rather than what victims actually need. Although current commissioning has to stretch meagre funding in the current crisis, offering victims an hour or two a week of outreach support will not make them safe. The nature of domestic violence is a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviours intended to undermine the victim and it often takes a safe haven and substantial support for recovery

Commissioners of DV services buy into the stigma around refuges, they think they wouldn’t want to stay in a refuge so why would anyone else? They fail to value the expertise of domestic violence refuges, they fail to comprehend the isolation and trauma of victims and don’t understand how valuable peer support in refuges is and how vital feeling safe and learning to relax again is to victim’s recovery. No victim of domestic violence can relax in their home if we leave them unsupported with a perpetrator who knows where they are and can continue to stalk and terrorise them.

Statistically, by far the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship and when a women and her children are most likely to be killed is when she seeks help. It is crucial that she is able to leave her home and find a confidential place of safety away from the perpetrator. Without that women will be forced to return to the perpetrator just to ensure that she and her children are not homeless.

Commissioners are also increasingly stating in service specifications a ‘local women only’ rule. But perpetrators of domestic violence will go to extraordinary lengths to find their ex-partner and reassert their control over them, Women often have to move cross-country to get safely away. I am a trustee of Eaves which used to run refuges in Westminster and I was visiting once when a victim arrived, with her little boy, exhausted having fled from Burnley from a violent partner who swore that if he could not have her nobody would. From a policing perspective, the ability to quickly move people around the country via a network of refugees is invaluable. Preventing this movement, and effectively trapping women dangerously near to the perpetrator at an extremely dangerous time is unacceptable. We need to remember always that two women a week die at the hands of a current or ex-partner.

Commissioners thinking that family and friends can accommodate victims again shows a disturbing lack of knowledge of how abusive men behave. Northumbria Police have experience of perpetrators turning up at A&E threatening staff, threatening family members and friends, sending death threats by mobile phone for the victim to return home. Any suggestion that victims should use family and friends as a safe haven will be doomed to failure and could place those same family members in danger.

Refuges provide much more than a safe bed. They allow the police to work with survivors in a safe environment and in many circumstances a skilled refuge worker can encourage a victim to support a prosecution. Police services have strong links with their local refuges and find that if victim feels safer she is more likely to engage with them increasing successful prosecutions. In addition officers often see that victims find strength in numbers and the support of fellow survivors. Refuge workers skills are often invaluable and including working with the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference and officers in Northumbria can quote many example of the refuge workers working to keep victims safe, including attending the police station at 3am.

For some women their personal situation means that they need specialist skills and support before they are able to live independently and the refuge can provide this.

They may suffer from PTSD or other mental or physical health difficulties caused by the abuse. Their children may need support with similar problems. Women may need practical help and support to find work, manage money, or even make basic day-to-day decisions, as the perpetrator may have controlled these aspects of her life. It can take six months or so to help them to rebuild their lives.

For others the family situation can be a major contributor to the violence and abuse. What if the whole family is abusive? What if the woman was brought to the UK and forced into marriage. The family are complicit in the rapes and beating that she is experiencing and may even support the abuser or resort to violence themselves if she fails to comply with the abuse and seeks help and support.

For these women, outreach work is no protection. How can a short stay in non-specialist accommodation enable someone with mental or physical difficulties escape a cycle of abuse? How will support in the Community prevent you from being sent back to your country of origin to be murdered?

Recently, legislation has brought in Domestic Violence Protection Orders designed to exclude perpetrators to give victims of domestic violence a chance to think and to seek help and advice. In addition we have seen recent legislation making forced marriage illegal. Is there any point in creating protective measures for victims of domestic violence and putting new laws on the statute book to prosecute abusers if services are commissioned from people who do not understand domestic abuse and so there is nobody on the ground who trained to know anything about them?