The front page of The Guardian on Monday clearly outlines the huge threat to domestic violence services across the country that we are currently facing. The argument made by many of the councils making the cuts, and the generic services taking over provision, is that it doesn't matter if refuges close as they are moving towards 'more efficient' forms of support.
Such arguments are commonly heard by our member refuge services across the country, as tender documents are laid out by councils proposing a complete stripping back of the vital services they have worked for years to build. 'More efficient', 'more modern', 'more proactive' are phrases commonly used by commissioners, when it appears that the commissioners actually mean 'cheaper'. This trend is leading to a loss of lifesaving specialist service provision, and it will ultimately lead to more vulnerable women and children being killed.
As Clare Phillipson, Director of Wearside Women in Need said "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, 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. Most women who come to us haven't had a good nights sleep in years. They are exhausted and terrified. They've often been woken from their sleep and beaten and raped repeatedly or they've been kept awake all night by their abuser interrogating them or just laying terrified in bed waiting for his key in the door."
It seems remarkable that we should still need to make a case for a national network of refuges for women and children fleeing domestic violence, but it is clear that we do.
Statistically, leaving a perpetrator of domestic violence is by far the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, when a women and her children are most likely to be killed. It is crucial therefore, that in these cases, a woman is able to leave her home and find a confidential place of safety away from the perpetrator. In some cases the perpetrator will own the family home or rent it in his name. This means that the woman is made homeless by leaving, and she will need proper support and safe accommodation until she is able to rebuild her life. A lack of this basic need for a safe place to stay does and will lead women to return to the perpetrator just to ensure that she and her children are not homeless. Because perpetrators of domestic violence will often 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. Domestic violence services with 'local women only' rules prevent this movement, and effectively trap women by keeping them dangerously near to the perpetrator at an extremely dangerous time, with the phrase "if I can't have you, no one will" heard time and time again. The fact that two women a week die at the hands of a current or ex-partner show that this is not an empty threat.
Many women who escape to refuges will need a great deal of support before they are able to live independently. 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 a woman's life completely. Many women will need access to services for around six months to help them to rebuild their lives, which have been turned upside down by the abuse. If women are limited to 12 weeks or even less as they are in Chester, they may not feel able to cope and may even consider returning to their previous home and the perpetrator if they don't believe they can support themselves and their children independently.
The Criminal Justice System views refuge provision as essential in their work in protecting women experiencing domestic violence. Vera Baird, PPC for Northumbria, says of refuge provision: "There is an ever-increasing need for refuge support, not a diminishing one, as we work to make the police more responsive to domestic abuse so that victims develop the confidence to get help. Our local refuges are full to overflowing though they move people on as soon as they are ready. Everyone should work through perpetrator programmes; give outreach support to victims who cannot or do not want to leave their homes and use every mechanism to exclude violent partners and that is exactly what a range of services do but the bedrock need to make women and children safe who are faced with abuse, is to be able to get them away to a confidential refuge from where they can make decisions and regain their freedom and self respect."
Following demand from our membership of domestic violence services, Women's Aid, in partnership with Women's Aid Federation of Northern Ireland, Scottish Women's Aid, and Welsh Women's Aid, set up UKRefugesOnline, the secure national database which hosts information on refuge services and the spaces they have available. This means that women can quickly be referred to places of safety across the country by our member organisations or by the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Women's Aid and Refuge). 40 years of experience working in domestic violence has shown us that a truly national network of services offering full support and accommodation is essential to the safety and wellbeing of women fleeing violence. The loss of that network would be a tragedy, leading to the loss of many more women and children's lives in years to come.