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As Helen's Trial Begins, Refuges for Real-Life Helens Are In Crisis Again

05/09/2016 00:07 | Updated 05 September 2016
Jim Rankin via Getty Images

As the trial of Helen Titchener begins, if her plight makes you afraid for real-life survivors of domestic abuse - so it should. And if it makes you think and hope that those real-life women have a way to escape, then you should be even more afraid. I'm here to tell you that their escape route is in danger of being shut down.

As actors Louiza Patikas (Helen) and Timothy Watson (Rob) have portrayed so compellingly in The Archers, the level of control a domestic abuse perpetrator can exert over his victim, over time, is total. Yet, it is also often invisible to those around her, even those who care most - or even to herself.

And as The Archers has also shown, women are then in extreme danger, both from the perpetrator himself, and (as The Archers has not shied away from showing) from a culture and system of professional agencies which, at every turn fail, to understand the nature and impact of coercive control - the heart of the web of abuse.

As Helen's trial begins, the thoughts of millions of listeners are with real-life victims of domestic abuse, willing that the support which Helen never finally called upon will be there for others. And, right now, it is. Getting support is hard - but support is available.

Fleeing to a refuge is harder still, but it can be the only safe way for a woman and her children to find freedom and recover. As a society, we rely on the fact that a network of refuges is out there, often secret, under the radar but able to care for women and children in extreme crisis and help them rebuild their lives. Such is the secrecy that, if there is a refuge in your street, you may well not know it, and you probably wouldn't know if it closed down. But if you needed to, you would find it - and Women's Aid would help you.

But refuges are in desperate danger. We thought it had got as bad as it could get, but we were wrong. When many local authorities began to take advantage of the removal of any ring-fencing of refuge funding to close them down, we at Women's Aid, with the support of survivors, local services and supporters, protested loudly with our SOS campaign, and the government listened. Ministers - particularly at the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office - have understood the stark truth: without refuges women will die. Over the last two years, they have found £13million to support refuges - and a further £20million fund is about to be launched.

So it seems almost beyond belief that refuges now face a new and even worse crisis, and that it's a crisis of the government's making, which could undo all its good work.

As part of its welfare reforms the government, is capping housing benefit - and housing benefit, on average, forms more than half of a refuge's annual income. The benefits system is complex, but the crisis is simple: if refuges are not made exempt from the cap, new research by Women's Aid shows that more than two thirds (67%) will close. And almost all of them (87%) will have to cut the number of women and children they can help.

Think back to the Archers episode where Helen stabbed Rob, out of fear for her son. She was planning to leave, and Rob knew it. In real-life, that is the situation most likely to lead to the killing or serious injury of an abused woman. Think of a woman like Helen: confused, controlled, blaming herself, terribly afraid. Imagine her decision to leave had not be thwarted by Rob himself - but by the fact that there was simply nowhere to go.

We can't let that happen to more women and children. The government can't let it happen, and we already know ministers understand exactly why. They must exempt refuges from the cap on housing benefit. And they must commit to finding a long-term, stable funding system for refuges. Let's make the week of Helen's trial the week when refuges won freedom from their continual funding crises - once and for all.

Support Women's Aid SOS campaign to save refuges from closure - for all the real-life Helens out there.

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