During my career, I have worked with many people – men and women – who have lost loved ones to domestic violence. One of those people is Sharon de Souza, whose daughter Cassie was murdered by her estranged husband in 2008. The bravery of people like Sharon never ceases to inspire me. In the face of such terrible loss, they continue to campaign against the crime that robbed them of their daughter, sister or mother. They speak out for the dead, in order to protect the living.
As well as providing services which offer women the chance to escape abuse, Refuge raises public awareness of the horrific death toll taken by domestic violence – the fact that two women are killed every single week in England and Wales by current or former partners. It is easy to talk about statistics, but we must remember that those statistics aren't just meaningless numbers and figures – they represent real women, women who had families and hopes and dreams. Women like Cassie, who left behind two small children.
Homicide is the darkest side of domestic violence. Every day, Refuge works with women and children who are at extremely high risk of serious injury or death. Almost 50 per cent of the women we have supported in our services in the past year received threats to kill, and almost 50 per cent have had their abuser try to strangle, choke, suffocate or drown them. Research shows both of these experiences can indicate that a woman may be at heightened risk of homicide.
But there is light. At Refuge, we train our staff to respond to crisis situations. Every day we work hard to keep vulnerable women and children safe, to reduce their risk, to ward off factors that could increase their exposure to serious injury – or worse. Our independent advocates are highly skilled at supporting women to navigate the complex and frightening legal system, helping to secure measures such as restraining orders – and making sure they are enforced. Our practitioners monitor women's risk levels closely: risk is dynamic, and the smallest change in circumstances can elevate danger. We know how to spot the warning signs, and we know how to respond to them.
Our services work. Over the past year, 45 per cent of our clients reported a complete cessation of all types of abuse on leaving our services; 60 per cent reported feeling safer after using our services. The stark truth is that, without Refuge, more women would suffer Cassie's fate. Funding cuts to domestic violence services mean this is a very frightening reality.
Keeping women safe is not just something we do within our services. This work also extends out into wider society, where we seek to improve the way police, social services and other agencies respond to victims of abuse. These are, after all, the agencies that are often the first port of call for a desperate, terrified woman. It is vital that key professionals know how to identify warning signs and respond appropriately. The consequences of failure can be deadly.
This is why, after their loss, some families seek to highlight or challenge the authorities' failure to protect their loved ones – and to ensure those failures are not repeated. I work personally with families and individuals to progress domestic homicide reviews, inquests and statutory investigations.
It has been a long, uphill battle for Sharon to secure an inquest into the death of her daughter, and I have worked with her over the past five years to provide practical and emotional support. We hope the inquest will shed light on the circumstances surrounding Cassie's death and ensure lessons can be learned to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.
Cassie's death must be not in vain. You can help to ensure this by pledging your support for Refuge's work. If you truly want to make a difference this Christmas, please donate a few pounds in an effort to keep vulnerable women and children safe – to keep them alive.
Sandra Horley is the CEO of Refuge
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/