15/08/2018 16:57 BST | Updated 16/08/2018 12:03 BST

Refuges Must Have A Guarantee They Will Not Have To Shut Their Doors

Every single one of the 10 victims I met on a recent visit said they would be dead, and so would their children, if it hadn’t been for refuges

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Someone I know has suffered domestic abuse, living in fear of speaking out.

“You don’t get the bite of the same cherry, love,” was reportedly the police advice this year to a victim about being scared to give a statement. My frustrations got the better of me knowing things were just not working, so I let loose as a member of the advisory panel to the Ministry of Justice on this very matter.

One of the results was taking a minister, the undersecretary of state Edward Argar, to see what is actually happening on the ground and in communities in terms of domestic abuse. 

I felt there was a disconnect between what was really going on and what the Government were putting in the new Domestic Abuse Bill set to be introduced in 2019. Our first stop was in the North West of England to a refuge I have over the years become very close to. I had been here many times before - a normal street, in a normal town, with a line of normal terrace houses.

The minister looked at me with a flicker of surprise when he saw where I had stopped. I explained that the refuge was inside the normal houses. Walking past you would never know it is even there.

I wanted to show him that a refuge isn’t just about emergency accommodation, it is about the work that the 24-hour expert staff do. They become effectively a lifeline for the most vulnerable. Every single one of the 10 victims we met said they would be dead, and so would their children, if it hadn’t been for them.

The refuge had given them hope and self-worth but not because they had got a bed that they would share with their children but because somebody understood them, didn’t judge them and genuinely cared.

Domestic abuse is trauma at its worst. Victims may have escaped the perpetrator but they live long inside a victim’s head and often still try and get to their victim. One told us: “My ex-husband is in prison but I have had to come to this refuge because he is using a phone in prison and getting his family and friends or anybody who wants to make a name for themselves to get me and my little girl. The police are doing nothing.” Perpetrators only need one thing and that is control. They have an incredible amount of power over their victim.

The refuge has developed a programme that teaches the victims what a domestic abuse relationship is. I have yet to meet a victim, and sadly I have met hundreds, that really understood that they were in an abusive relationship - one woman told us: “I thought it was normal, as I was being controlled. I had been with him since I was 16 for 40 years. He was older than me.” Some victims were scared to even look at us, let alone speak. One had brought in a friend to help be her voice.

According to Women’s Aid, 60% of total referrals to refuges were declined in 2016/17, with 90 women and 94 children turned away on just one day in 2017. These women and children have to go back to their abusive partner for further abuse or end up street homeless.

“We are not interested in putting a sticking plaster over this any more,” the CEO of the refuge said. I agreed and raised the issue I had already spent an hour talking to the minister about before we arrived. Where is the prevention? We met a woman who had been in this refuge as a child and was now in the same refuge as an adult.

This is common. There are no provisions nationally or locally for counselling for children of domestic abuse. This is something I am currently working on changing with the CEO of this refuge.

A victim told us she had three emails that day from the school about her son’s behaviour and detention. He is 13, his mum is in a refuge and he has been apart from her for six weeks now. This refuge also has a male worker who works with male victims of domestic abuse. He works out of a different site than the refuge to protect all victims.

We visited a second refuge, where the majority of victims they have through their doors come from an abusive childhood and with that, unstable mental health. I don’t think it is possible for any victim, especially children, to go through any kind of emotional and/or physical abuse and it not have an impact on their mental health. This is years of torment we are talking about.

Services like this base their work on what is needed for the victim. The staff noticed that for some victims upon leaving the refuge, the cold turkey approach can be isolating and cause setbacks so they developed a new housing pilot to help with the transition phase.

Refuges and the services they provide must have a guarantee that they will not have to shut their doors.

Without it, new proposals to improve the protection of victims through the Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill will be completely undermined and another waste of money and time.