The Women Fighting To Save Other Women From Domestic Violence. 4/10/2016

Published by BUZZFEED

In an unnamed town an unspecified distance by train from London, on a
nondescript road with nameless shops, sits an ordinary-looking home
with no distinctive features. A number of cars are parked outside and
the blinds remain shut, revealing no identifiable information as to
what’s inside. The home is numbered, but the address cannot be shared –
it cannot be written down with the names of the occupants, and the only
time it’s permissible to share it is when an ambulance is called. Even
then, the address is erased from hospital records immediately and
replaced with a PO Box address instead.

The locals don’t know
the names of the women and children they see coming in and out of the
property. The school bus cannot pick up the kids from the address;
instead, it collects them at the end of the road. CCTV is set up around
the perimeters, and alarmed gates fence off the garden.

The
building is a women’s refuge, and these are the lengths it has to go to
to protect the people who live there – to keep survivors of domestic
violence safe from the abusive partners they’ve escaped. If names and
locations were to be shared, women and children could be tracked down
and killed.

Refuges like this one are scattered through towns and
cities across the UK. You can’t google where a women’s refuge is – only
charities can direct you there. The setup is similar to that of witness
protection: Women who are fleeing violent partners are whisked out of
their homes, leaving behind jobs, schools, and the communities they’ve
grown to know, and housed in a refuge on the other side of the country.
They keep their names but change their phone numbers and email
addresses, and are advised not to contact people they knew in their old
neighbourhood, or to ever return.

The stringent efforts the refuge
goes to to keep the women safe are clear. There have only been “a
handful of times” in the last three years when the location of the
refuge has been inadvertently revealed by social workers or through
court documents and women have had to be taken in the night and moved to
a new location. One women recently had to be turned away from this
particular refuge because she’d called it from her abusive boyfriend’s
phone. The refuge manager says that if he “put two and two together” and
saw the area code for her calls after she fled, he would be able to
track her down, and they couldn’t risk her being found. She was located
elsewhere instead.

Nothing is ever done from this address,” one employee says.

But
in recent weeks, refuges have been dealing with a different sort of
threat – government spending cuts that threaten their very existence and
the essential services they provide.

Women’s charities warned in
September that the government’s plan to cap housing benefit in the
social sector would put two-thirds of refuges across the UK at risk of
closure. Women’s Aid said 67% of the refuges operating in England would
be forced to close if they were not exempted from the reform – for some,
housing benefit covers 90% of their costs.

The proposal sparked
an outcry from charities and MPs, prompting Theresa May to address the
concerns and insist in parliament that refuges would be kept safe under
her watch.

“On the issue of domestic violence, we should
across this house be doing all we can to stop these terrible crimes
taking place and provide support to the victims and survivors of this
crime,” May said in the House of Commons last month.
“That’s why we are working on exempting refuges from the cap.” The
Department for Work and Pensions deferred the proposed reforms until
2018, giving refuges a temporary lifeline until they’re reviewed in two
years’ time.

Despite May’s assurance, the threat of closure of
women’s refuges is still looming over those working on the ground. A
number of refuges have been hanging on by a thread, and staff continue
to call for sustainable, long-term funding to be provided in order to
protect those fleeing domestic violence when they are most at risk – the
most dangerous point of an abusive relationship is when women attempt
to leave.

So BuzzFeed News visited this refuge in southeast
England to speak to staff about how, despite the threat of cuts, job
losses, and uncertainty for the future, they are looking for ways to
continue to support survivors of domestic violence. All names have been
changed to protect the workers and the women they help.

The refuge itself houses eight families, with up to 21 children; most
residents are mother-children pairings, although some women arrive
alone, too. They are not legally bound to stay in the premises, and it
is not an institution. Men are not allowed to enter the premises. The
refuge gives the feel of a large, well-kept student home rather than
that of a place for escapees. The rooms are warm and clean, and a few
toys are scattered on the floor in a living space that leads on to a
garden where a rainbow-coloured apparatus is played on by the children.
The women cook for themselves in the shared kitchen, and the staff –
dressed in normal clothes so as to give the feel of a more “relaxed”
environment – are friendly. Recently a disabled-access lift and
easy-access bathroom were built to accommodate disabled domestic
violence survivors.

Women arrive to the refuge, from across
the UK, in a state of shock. They have left their partners after months
or years of emotional and physical abuse. Often, they have had little
time to collect personal items before fleeing, and arrive with almost no
possessions.

The women all share stories of survival, and the
pattern of events that led them to the refuge are the same: She noticed
her ex-partner became increasingly controlling; he moved closer to their
home; he would comment on her appearance and weight, wearing down any
self-esteem they once had; he pestered her to quit her job so he could
provide for her, forcing her to rely on him with no financial
independence. Little by little, the behaviour would escalate into severe
forms of financial, physical, and mental abuse.

They also all had
a “last straw” moment: when the abuse was directed at their child, or
when the child was kidnapped and wasn’t returned to her until she
obtained a court order. One woman couldn’t report her abusive partner to
the police because she was warned that if she alerted the authorities
of the abuse but didn’t have the correct Home Office forms, she’d be
deported.

Inside, a collective of women – many of whom are often
survivors of domestic violence themselves – run the day-to-day
operation: They apply for funding, organise the children’s schooling,
and provide emotional and practical support.

“It’s very
difficult to explain refuge life,” Hannah, who has worked at the refuge
for three years, tells BuzzFeed News. “I don’t think you’d ever
understand the extent of it unless you worked here every day. A lot of
women arrive with just the clothes on their back – no clothing for the
children, no nappies, no belongings. They often have anxiety, or are
extremely fearful. They essentially have to start their lives again.”

Day-to-day,
Hannah, a qualified therapist specialising in bonding and group
therapy, serves as a point of call for the survivors. Her work starts
“as soon as they step through the door”. The immediate task is to make
the house “feel like their home”, so the women are given cutlery, pots,
toys, bedding, and toiletries, paid for by the “transition fund” that
the staff raise money for every year.

Her work, Hannah says, is rewarding. “We get to see a family come in completely broken, and then leave happy and safe.”

Beyond
the emotional support and offer of a safe new home, the domestic
violence survivors also look to Hannah and the other staff to help them
regain control of their lives. The staff perform a multitude of roles
that spill outside their initial remit as employees of the refuge: One
colleague files the school applications for the children, another seeks
funding for child minders, another introduces the women to local
charities and welfare.

The refuge staff are also pushing the
women’s cases forward to police authorities and the Crown Prosecution
Service in an attempt to secure stronger conviction rates of domestic
violence. Where police and court efforts fall short, refuges like this
one fill in the gaps and become the only viable option for women who
want to keep themselves and their children alive. Despite facing severe
financial cuts and uncertainty, it is the refuge employees fighting for
justice for the women, many of whom have lost hope in the authorities
ability to convict the abusive partners.

The task is far from easy.

“Sometimes
we have a police officer who is brilliant, who support the client fully
and give us more we can ask for and more,” Hannah says. “But we also
have to often deal with police who do not realise the extent of domestic
violence, the patterns, and face trouble getting rid of the stigma that
comes with it.”

Hannah and the other employees serve as the
intermediary point of call between the women and authorities, a buffer
to put in calls to police to chase up court documents and complaints. A
“large chunk of time” is spent chasing police reports and talking
through cases and complaints with police officers over the phone – time
she and the other staff wish they could spend with the women and their
children.

“Just recently I had to go above a police officer to
their sergeant because I felt a response he gave to one of our clients
was disgusting,” she says. “There’s no safeguarding in place for the
women, and her safety was not paramount, nor were her family’s, so we
have to protect them.”

The refuge staff say they are
constantly in talks with police and the CPS for the sake of women who
“don’t have the confidence to fight” their cases against abusive
partners. They find it difficult to encourage the women to pursue cases
when prosecution rates are so low, inspiring little hope in the
survivors of abuse.

“I sometimes think police expect that when
they tell the women no further action will be taken, that they will
accept it,” Hannah says. “What they don’t realise is that there are
people like us who are there with the women to step in and say, ‘No,
hold on a minute, you have enough evidence, you should be using this
law, or that law, this is clearly what’s been going on.’ I feel like I’m
constantly learning and searching for facts on the internet that says
this law means this and this law stands for that, and then I quote it to
them.”

Hannah and the team are self-taught “experts” in the laws
surrounding domestic violence: She says that when she and her team quote
back to police officers the law they’ve researched – “the other day I
told an officer about the coercive control law and that it was
introduced last December, and he realised I knew what I was talking
about” – officers listen and often “rethink” their response.

“It’s likely they just don’t have full understanding or training,” she says.

The relationship Hannah has with police was already strained before
her employment at the refuge. For seven years she was in a relationship
with an abusive partner, and she faced her own battle with getting the
support she needed. Her shared story with the domestic violence
survivors – and her deep understanding of their emotional and practical
needs taken from her own personal experience – was a large driving force
behind why she decided to take a job in the refuge. Her ex-partner may
“own” a large part of her past, she says, but she can take back control
of her future, and wants to help the other women do the same.

“My
ex-partner subjected me to physical and emotional torture,” she says.
“He smashed things over my head. He stole my credit card. He would
mentally abuse me so I couldn’t eat.”

Her ex-partner would
consistently use threats of suicide – he told her that if she left him,
he would kill himself. He attempted suicide five times in their
relationship, and so the threats would “work” for years. In 2013, he
physically assaulted her so badly she thought she “was about to die”,
and so she moved back home. He threatened suicide again – and this time,
hanged himself. In his suicide note, he placed blame on Hannah. It is
uncommon for domestic abusers to follow through with threats of suicide.
But Hannah then spent several years torturing herself with guilt,
despite knowing that if she stayed with him she’d likely have lost her
life.

It then took a turn for worse: His family and friends also
blamed her for his suicide, despite having witnessed his domestic
violence first hand. There were 21 recorded instances of abuse from them
– she received death threats, was beaten twice outside her home, and
was forced to change her car three times. At one point, Hannah had to
have a police officer taken off her case because of a conflict of
interest: She found out the officer meant to be pursuing her case was
friends with the mother of the abusive partner on Facebook. The officer
would often “like” and comment on the mother’s slanderous posts against
Hannah.

“The police kept telling me ‘she’s a grieving mother’,”
she says. “They took no action despite the countless evidence I provided
– fingerprints, voicemails. Even after he had died, he was still
somehow abusing me from his grave.”

The staff may serve as a
lifeline to the domestic violence survivors – but the survivors serve as
a lifeline to Hannah and the other staff too. Taking employment at the
refuge became Hannah’s refuge from “years of torturous hell”.

“Working
in this refuge has been a huge part of coming out the other side,” she
says. “My passion is to help the women here, and let them know it will
get better, because I know what it’s like to have your confidence and
self-worth shattered in an abusive relationship. I felt things during
that time I didn’t know I could feel – pure pain, when you sob so hard
that your body physically burns, because you’re crying because you can’t
make sense of it … to anger, asking myself why did I allow myself to be
treated that way. I am now constantly thinking, How can I help these women escape that?

When ministers and officials decided refuges were to be exempted from
housing benefit changes that would have seen two-thirds of them close,
the decision was widely celebrated by women’s charities and campaigners –
but still, the threat of closure is omnipresent within the refuge.

“It
was a success,” Charlotte, the head of the refuge, tells BuzzFeed News.
“It was a stay of execution, if you will. But we don’t know what the
long-term result of that will be.”

She’s noticed a “dramatic”
shift in funding security for the refuge and domestic violence services
in the last five years. Her refuge has survived several successive
funding cuts, and it’s “battle after battle” to hold on to the refuge’s
funding. “Every year, our jobs become disputable,” one of Charlotte’s
team members says.

Charlotte now faces a unique dilemma: the need
to fundraise and raise awareness of their refuge and their work, but to
also not raise too much attention so they don’t give away the refuge location.

“Funding
is a constant nightmare – nothing is guaranteed now,” Charlotte says.
“Part of reason we campaign is to protect our funding. We’re lucky, as
locals support us and if they cut our money there would be a backlash,
but that’s not the same across the UK.”

She adds: “The staff here
are always trying to prepare for what’s coming. Even with the housing
benefit reforms, it felt like they wanted to shove it all through in one
go, like they’re trying to sneak things through, and we’ve got to be on
the ball to let that not happen.”

But it’s not only the
refuge properties that are at risk. For many of the women who have fled
violence, the property they’ve been forced to flee is still occupied by
their abusive partner. Laura, a 24-year-old mother of a 4-year-old girl,
says her abusive partner’s financial control was crippling – and that
he used their property as a mechanism of control.

“It began little
by little,” Laura says. “At first, he would say things like, ‘If it
wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be eating that food.’ I’d be hungry, and I
needed to eat, but I didn’t want him to think I needed him for food.
Later, the same thing then happened with our house. When he forced me to
quit my job, we put together to pay for the house deposit – he told me
if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have a deposit for our home.”

A
second woman, Gloria, at the refuge faced a similar problem. Her
ex-partner used to physically assault and mentally abuse her and her two
daughters. Several years later, she separated from him. But he later
persuaded her he had stopped drinking, that he was seeking professional
help and no longer abusive. Believing him, he convinced her to buy a
home together.

“As soon as we bought it,” Gloria says, “he changed
to being abusive. He told his friends, ‘Now we have this home, I can do
whatever I want.’ I was locked in – and he just got worse and worse.”

Today,
her abusive ex – whom she later filed a restraining order against –
still lives in the property. The refuge staff say this problem is
common, and that they are struggling to find a pro bono lawyer to help
her reclaim the property. Solace Women’s Aid
says domestic violence can often be the immediate cause of homelessness
for many women, and has found that the majority of perpetrators of
domestic abuse remain in the family home while “survivors and their
children are forced to move frequently between temporary and often
unsuitable housing”.

In the meantime, Charlotte and women’s
charities are campaigning to make refuge provision a statutory
responsibility for local authorities – they fear that without obligation
for local authorities to fund refuge spaces, there will be more
closures.

“The problem is local authorities do not see refuges as a
local problem because the women come from all over the UK,” Charlotte
says. “A local councillor recently asked me, ‘What do I say to my
constituents when they question our support for a refuge because it’s
not local women we’re supporting?’, so it’s a relief when we sometimes
hear others say, ‘Well, it’s a reciprocal arrangement, our local women
will go to a refuge somewhere else in the country, and others will come
our ones here.’”

The staff at the refuge want to plan for the
future and expand, but say that without security and a stable footing,
it’s “almost impossible”.

 

“We could do so much, and we already do
so much, but we need security,” Charlotte says. “It seems obvious for
local authorities to step up. Refuges are vital, and, simply put,
Without them, more women will die.”