IoS Christmas Appeal: For too many, violence in the home is a matter of life and death

Two women die every week from violence in the home. Providing safe havens and advocacy for women at risk are key areas of Refuge's work. Emily Dugan reports on the horrors visited upon one young woman who failed to reach her refuge in time

Cassie Hasanovic thought she had finally escaped her violent husband when she got into her mum's car on 29 July 2008. The 24-year-old mother of two had been staying at her mum's house in Bognor Regis, but, as death threats from her estranged husband, Hajrudin Hasanovic, intensified, she decided that her only option was to go to a refuge.

The domestic violence charity Refuge, which The Independent on Sunday is supporting for this year's Christmas appeal, had found her a safe house. But Mrs Hasanovic was so frightened of her children's father – who had repeatedly broken non-molestation orders and was classified by the police as "high risk" to her – that she asked for a police escort to take her there. None was given. Instead, she gathered up her toddler sons, and her mother, Sharon de Souza, got ready to drive the three of them down herself.

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As Mrs de Souza turned the key in the ignition, Mr Hasanovic appeared out of nowhere, wrenching the door handle off the car and dragging her daughter out of the back seat, across their son's lap and on to the street. Then, in full view of her watching mother and sons, he stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife.

Every week, two women like Cassie Hasanovic die at the hands of a current or former partner. A place in a refuge had been her only hope of survival, and though Cassie never made it there, her mother now devotes her time to campaigning on behalf of Refuge, so that other women can get the protection that her daughter should have had.

Mrs de Souza, now 51, said: "Cassie was very relieved, feeling that she would be safe when she got to this refuge. It's terribly tragic that she didn't make the journey, because we hadn't even set off when it happened. She was just so desperate to get to the refuge, where she felt that she would be safe, and she would get so much help and support and guidance through the court system. She said, 'I just need to have some peace. He won't be able to get to me there; he won't know where I am'."

The charity has 42 refuges around the country, housing some 300 women and more than 300 children at any one time – vital safe havens for families living in fear of a parent who has become dangerous. Just over 47 per cent of women who accessed Refuge's services this year said their partner had tried to strangle, suffocate, choke or drown them.

Jane Keeper, director of operations at Refuge, said: "All day and night, every day, Refuge's staff are helping women who are terrified. We know that, at the point they ring us, for half of the women we help the perpetrator has said he will kill them; and the women believe he will carry out that threat. When a woman is taking the courageous step to leave a violent man, protecting her every step of the way needs to be the highest priority. She has reason to be scared: about three-quarters of all murders in domestic violence cases are because the woman is trying to leave."

Ms Keeper says that, thanks to high demand and budget cuts, Refuge often finds itself in the painful position of having to turn away desperate families. "To find an empty refuge space is hard – they are gold dust at the moment", she said. "There are never enough services and we need to protect them. Sometimes we are obliged to put frightened women into a council B&B for the night, where they're not going to feel safe and where they may be sitting alone without support."

Mrs Hasanovic never made it to safety, but her mother hopes her legacy will be better protection for women making that perilous escape. In autumn 2013, an inquest will be opened into her death to determine whether police and other services failed in their duty to protect her.

Mr Hasanovic was found guilty of his wife's murder in 2009 and is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence, but Mrs de Souza still wants answers as to why police were not able to prevent her daughter's murder.

She said: "My daughter lost her life, and she had already been assessed as 'high risk'. She was under police protection, but she's no longer with us, so I do feel they could have done so much more. The ideal for me would be that there'll be justice for my daughter, and the system will integrate what is learnt from these inquests. For me, it's about the laws changing so that women are kept safe. There are laws in place, but when they're failing, when people are dying, they have to be looked at.

When Mrs Hasanovic separated from her husband, she originally moved to Australia with the children to get away from him. She was forced to return to the UK when he took her to court for custody of their children, then aged two and four. Since her daughter's death, Mrs de Souza has moved to Australia and is bringing up her daughter's two sons there.

"They're very resilient," she said. "They're remarkable little boys, but obviously they've lost their mummy and their father as well, because he's in jail, so that's something they'll have to live with for the rest of their lives. It's very difficult for them, especially around Christmas and birthdays, and Mother's Day and Father's Day. It's something that will stay with them for ever."

Gwent Police's Chief Constable Carmel Napier, who is the lead on domestic violence for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "These tragic deaths should not happen. That's absolutely not acceptable and the processes we are putting in place – such as having specialist domestic abuse officers on duty 24/7, which we are trialling in Gwent – will make sure that the right thing is done."

The case of Mrs Hasanovic is not an isolated one: police forces are frequently criticised for failing to protect victims. But according to Chief Constable Napier, the police are aware of the scale of the problem and are trying to reform. She said: "Two women a week, one man every 17 days, and an increasing number of children are being murdered as a result of domestic abuse. On sheer demand, it's 8-10 per cent of every police service request. Much has been done to move things forward by the police, such as domestic violence protection orders and notices, which are being piloted by three forces at the moment. But refuge capacity capability and resilience is really important for that key emergency provision where a victim is not safe in their own home."

For Mrs de Souza, lobbying to keep families safe from violence has become a personal mission. "It was very, very sad that this happened to my daughter, and very, very sad that this is still going on," she said. "There are still people living in their house with somebody they're very frightened of. It is why I do all that I can to support Refuge and I'm hoping that people who read this will support The Independent on Sunday Christmas appeal, and give generously."

If you are a victim of domestic abuse – or think you know someone who is –and want support, please go to www.refuge.org.uk or call the Refuge and Women's Aid free 24-hour joint helpline on 0808-2000 247

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

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