Last week a report into domestic abuse services highlighted a story seldom told, the very high level of need amongst women fleeing violence and abuse and the huge gaps there are in meeting this need.
The survey run by Women's Aid found around a third of women in refuges are getting mental health support and one in ten misuse drugs and alcohol. But these figures underestimate how widespread these issues are amongst women who have suffered abuse as many are turned away from support exactly because they have these kind of issues. On just one day in 2015, the survey found that 92 women and 75 children were turned away by domestic abuse services. At least 10% of those because the service was unable to meet their level of need due to a lack of capacity, specialism or resources.
The links between experiences of violence and abuse, mental health issues and problems with drugs and alcohol are well established. For women with the most complex needs, experiences of abuse and violence often begin in childhood; are deeply traumatising and have long-lasting and profound impacts. It is not hard to see that these experiences can lead to feelings of betrayal, guilt, powerlessness, low self-esteem and poor health and well-being. Some women turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping and blocking out feelings and memories. These women need support to help them rebuild their lives but there is desperately little out there.
Women's Aid highlight that there are only 41 services with drug workers, 38 services with alcohol workers and 85 services with mental health support staff out of a total of 363 domestic abuse services. Capacity is simply not enough to meet need.
Some women end up in other services, such as homeless hostels or drug treatment services. These tend to be male dominated environments (with 75% of service users being men); are often unable to meet women's particular needs and are sometimes intimidating or even unsafe spaces for vulnerable women to be. So, too often, women are left between a rock and a hard place with domestic abuse services unable to meet their high level of needs, and services designed for those with high levels of need unable to meet their needs as women.
And when women can't access support, they end up in trapped in abusive relationships or in precarious situations at risk of further harm and exploitation -on our streets, in our prisons, involved in prostitution or worse.
We have to do better than this. There are some great specialist services out there but we need more that can respond to women with the most complex needs, and these must be effectively commissioned and funded. And where women come into contact with any services, we mustn't miss opportunities to ask questions and intervene. There should be no wrong door when women look for help. Especially when those women are amongst the most vulnerable in society.