IoS Christmas Appeal: All they want for Christmas? Freedom from fear

Thanks to Refuge, Sarah and her children have escaped a life of fear. Emily Dugan met them at the safe house that has given them a new start

When five-year-old Katy arrived at the refuge, the only toy she had with her was a little plastic horse. She was told to take just one toy when she left home in a hurry a couple of days before, with her mum Sarah and older brothers Charlie, seven, and Kevin, 11. They were running for their lives, and taking too many things would have drawn attention to their departure.

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For as long as she and her brothers could remember, their dad Gary had been scary. He would throw their mum across rooms, scream in her face and shout at them when they tried to play. Last summer they ran away. At the end of the school holidays they were meant to be staying with their grandparents for the weekend. Instead, their mum took them to a secret location, hundreds of miles from home, where their dad would never find them.

Even when they are not the intended victims, children are often caught up in the crossfire of abuse in the home. The domestic violence charity Refuge, which The Independent on Sunday is supporting for this year's Christmas appeal, will have 332 children staying in its safe houses this Christmas.

One in seven children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic violence at some point in their childhood, according to a major study last year by the NSPCC. In family households where domestic violence occurs, children are in the same or the next room in 90 per cent of all incidents and in more than half of known cases children are also directly abused, the research found.

At the heart of the refuge where Katy and her family are staying is a big shared sitting room with sofas and giant bean bags for the kids and – at the moment – a twinkling fir tree. The children's favourite game is stacking up all the enormous bean bags and jumping on them, which they do with gusto, ending up in a giggling heap. They never used to be so confident. "If it hadn't been for this place I wouldn't know what real life was," says their mum, Sarah, 30. "It's not until you get somewhere like this that you start noticing what was odd about your life before. I have normal kids now, but back then they were so withdrawn."

Katy used to be so frightened of arguments that she would attempt to defuse tense situations by stroking the arm or hand of whoever was shouting. "I thought my daughter was introverted naturally, but she isn't; here they've had the chance to have their own personalities. Within a week of being here she stopped needing to stroke you if she thought you were angry."

Sarah recalls the day they arrived. "When we got here I could finally breathe. I know that sounds silly, but I'd been jumping at my own shadow. It was the first place I'd had with just me and the kids and it was exciting to feel this was the start of how it would be for ever.

"The nicest thing was that one of the other women had kids of a similar age. The first night was great – the kids were playing normally with each other. They'd only ever been able to have friends round once or twice before because they'd been so tightly controlled. I was never allowed out with them to socialise and I'd never seen them play like that."

The refuge is an ordinary converted town house and Sarah says it felt like home very quickly. "I spent a lot of those first three weeks asking for help. I was never turned away or told I was being silly. The support is great and it's done in an informal way so you don't feel like you're institutionalised. It's a beautiful building, I fell in love with it. It's not one of those concrete monstrosities."

Their own house had not felt like a home for years. After years of being extremely controlling – not allowing Sarah access to her own money – two years ago Gary started to get violent.

Sarah recalls: "I went out with a friend one night for the first time in about six years. I came back and he screamed in my face and punched a hole in the wall. He was careful never to actually hit me, so instead he'd barge into me or throw me across the room. He'd wake me in the middle of the night, clapping his hands next to my ears, just so he could scream at me."

They had already broken up the year before, but he was still in the house every day keeping an eye on the children. One day she came home and found him in a fury with their middle son, Charlie. "I walked in and his face was right up in Charlie's, screaming. He had his fingers tight round the bottom of his jaw so he couldn't move his head away. I can't describe what it was like to be at the receiving end of one of his temper tantrums. I started keeping the kids away from him as much as I could after that."

Once she saw his fury directed at the children she started to fear for their safety and began to plan their escape with the help of Refuge. Now they are happily settled in the refuge and will soon be leaving for their own home and a new life in a new town. Last week the refuge had an early Christmas celebration, as many women and children will try to meet their wider families in safe locations on Christmas Day. One of the support workers dressed up as Father Christmas, organised games and handed out gifts to the children.

Katy, who still has her lucky horse, was given another toy friend: a furry dog that walks and barks. "She's completely in love with it," says Sarah. "She's always wanted a puppy. We had to sleep with it in her bed barking all night but she's happy."

Charlie got a kit to make his own glowing bouncy ball and a car that fires out of a chute, and Kevin was so proud of his mini game of table football and Lego car that he hid them under the bed and only gets them out when he's on his own.

"They loved that party. None of that had to be done, but it's things like that which make lives happier," Sarah says. "It's not just the big stuff like helping to find a solicitor or sorting out your housing benefit that Refuge do – they take care of the human touches too, like making sure Christmas feels like Christmas."

Adele, a domestic violence worker at another of Refuge's safe houses in Warwickshire, says the charity tries to do the same in all its refuges: "We try as much as possible to make the refuge like a home for families. At Christmas we find out where there's carol singing or ice skating and organise trips. A lot of them – especially when they're waiting for housing – feel it's a new beginning."

For Sarah and her children it will be enough just to have a Christmas without someone screaming at them. When asked what he is most looking forward to this Christmas, her son Charlie has one very simple answer: "not being shouted at".

Names have been changed to protect identities

The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: http://refuge.org.uk/independent-on-sunday-appeal/

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