More than 150 women a day are being turned away from domestic violence refuges as successive budget cuts push the system into “a state of crisis”, a new report indicates.
Increasing numbers of women fleeing violence in the home may be forced to return to their abusive partners or be pushed into homelessness because they cannot find shelters, the study suggests.
The Women’s Aid annual survey took a snapshot of refuges across England on a typical day earlier this year and found that 155 women with 103 children were turned away from the first refuge they approached for help.
Cuts to local authority budgets have depleted the help available at a time when demand is increasing, the report found. Almost a third of refuges that rely on local authority funding experienced budget cuts this year, according to research based on responses from almost 200 specialist victim services.
An estimated 1.2 million women and 800,000 men are victims of domestic abuse every year. Shelters which support them are now so short of money that almost half said they were running services without dedicated funding.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid said that specialist domestic violence services were “reaching a breaking point”. She added: “We cannot afford to lose the services we have spent 40 years building up; we cannot afford to lose the experience of those who work in the sector, and we cannot afford to lose the ties these services have to their communities.”
The charity said the big cuts risked removing a safety net for some of the country’s most vulnerable women and children. Ms Neate said: “The Government has an opportunity to significantly reduce the number of women and children hurt and killed by violent partners by ensuring adequate funding for the sector.
“However, this opportunity must be taken in the immediate future. If it is not, the safety net for women experiencing domestic violence in England will fall through, leaving even more women and children to be harmed and killed.”
The research was based on responses from almost 200 specialist victim services across the country on a single day in June, meaning it is likely there will have been days where the numbers turned away were even higher.
At least 9,577 women and 10,117 children were given emergency homes in a refuge over the last year, according to figures from organisations which responded to the survey. The number of women staying in refuges who were affected by mental health issues was 47 per cent, an increase of more than 10 per cent on last year.
Nicola Graham-Kevan, an expert in partner violence at the University of Central Lancashire, said: “In the economic downturn... you’re going to have increased family stress and joblessness, so you’d expect there would be an increase in need. Yet undoubtedly there’s been a decrease in funding because local authorities have had their budgets cut.”
Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary, said: “This report from Women’s Aid is a damning verdict on Theresa May’s lack of strategy for domestic violence victims, as specialist and community outreach services have been heavily cut back and Women’s Aid warn that more women are remaining in abusive situations as a result.”
Ann Lucas, the Local Government Association’s spokeswoman on domestic violence, said: “Council budgets will have reduced by 43 per cent by 2015-16 and with £20bn worth of savings having to be found. Despite this, two-thirds of councils have maintained funding services for victims of domestic abuse this year.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: "Domestic violence shatters lives and we need to do everything possible to prevent this dreadful crime.
"This government has ring-fenced nearly £40 million of funding for specialist local support services and national helplines to help people escape abusive situations. We have also rolled out Clare's Law, domestic violence protection orders and extended the definition of domestic abuse to include 16 and 17 year-olds.”
Case study: Jessica’s story
Jessica*, 30, and her four children from south Buckinghamshire, had to stay in a refuge in Birmingham after fleeing her violent husband as there were no places locally. It was New Year’s Eve two years ago,” she said. “I had broken up with my ex-husband but he used to hang around outside the house, almost stalking me. My friend’s boyfriend had taken me home. My ex-husband came in and tried to force me to take an overdose in front of the children. He had tried to strangle me before and I knew we needed to find a safe place.
“The nearest place was in Birmingham. It was amazing, but it was so far from home that I nearly lost my job. I was training to be a midwife and I had to stop my course and my children missed school for three weeks. Having to travel so far disrupts your life and means you’re completely cut off from your friends.”
* Her name has been changed to protect her identity