'Women are panicked': How domestic abuse refuges are struggling with the turmoil of coronavirus

'I worry these women and children will return to dangerous situations,' says chief executive of refuge which houses woman at risk of murder

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Wednesday 25 March 2020 18:17 GMT
Ms Kneer says she is anxious about staff being blocked from going inside the refuge and not being able to distribute food, toilet paper and other essential supplies in the event of a coronavirus lockdown
Ms Kneer says she is anxious about staff being blocked from going inside the refuge and not being able to distribute food, toilet paper and other essential supplies in the event of a coronavirus lockdown (Alamy)

“Women say they are thinking of their abusive ex-partner because of coronavirus,” Charlotte Kneer, who runs a domestic abuse shelter on the outskirts of London, says. “It is the familiar. Even though it is abusive. Familiar is still familiar. I worry these women and children will return to dangerous situations.”

Ms Kneer, chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge in Surrey, tells The Independent running the service in the wake of the coronavirus crisis is not only proving to be “the stuff nightmares are made of” but the pandemic could be a “death knell” in a life-saving sector which has already been decimated by government cuts.

Issues Ms Kneer is grappling with around the clock span from ensuring women remain safe in the face of staff shortages caused by social distancing rules, to logistical difficulties in self-isolating domestic abuse victims with coronavirus symptoms in a communal space. She is also faced with the stress of keeping those in the refuge with underlying medical conditions, who are at higher risk of more serious complications from coronavirus, safe.

“Everyone in the UK and the world is frightened because of coronavirus,” Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose violent partner was jailed for seven years in 2011, says. “And the women in the refuge are scared. When you are in a refuge, you are completely isolated from your friends and family. All the women here have got phones and TVs in their rooms and get a constant stream of news. It can be scarier watching the news because they are cut off from society.”

Ms Kneer, who says most women in the refuge would be at risk of murder in their own homes, is anxious about staff being blocked from going inside the refuge and not being able to distribute food, toilet paper or other essential supplies in the event of a coronavirus lockdown.

She adds: “Women could call their abusive ex-partners and say come and get me. We need to be there to maintain a high level of support so they don’t expose themselves to risk with their perpetrator. Women are even thinking about the man they have left and worrying if he is going to be okay. Women have told me they are really frightened there will be no staff on site because of the coronavirus crisis.

“Every week in the UK, two women are murdered by a current or former partner. It is important not to forget domestic abuse against women is its own pandemic and we must keep domestic abuse services up and running in the face of the coronavirus meltdown.”

Ms Kneer explained they were implementing rules enforcing social distancing in the refuge but it was incredibly emotionally gruelling for women self-isolating remaining inside their bedrooms with multiple children.

She said the refuge, at a secure secret location, is running a skeleton service with staff working remotely except for one member of staff remaining on the site during working hours – adding that there is a 24-hour on-call service and trauma support by video call.

“I am worried about access to food and women going hungry,” Ms Kneer adds. “We don’t know if food banks will continue to operate and all of our women use foodbanks. I am also worried about supermarket shelves being empty. All of the women are worried about how they will afford face masks, thermometers and gloves, but we have been supplying them.”

The frontline worker voiced fears that refuge services could require additional financial support due to not getting the same level of rental income if they are forced to stop taking referrals during the lockdown.

“We still need to pay rent but if we haven’t got residents we can’t pay rent,” she says. “It could be a potential death knell for refuges as a worst case scenario. I am anxious about the future of my refuge and of all refuges. Refuges were already struggling. I would ask all organisations which give grants to refuges ensure they don’t withdraw funding if we temporarily aren’t able to run as comprehensive a service as usual due to coronavirus.”

Cuts have meant there is already a chronic shortage of bed spaces in refuges, with local authority spending on refuges cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017, forcing several to close their doors in recent years.

Ms Kneer, who called for the government to do more work on contingency plans for refuges in response to coronavirus, criticised suggestions from “well-meaning people” for hotels and B&Bs to be turned into refuges for domestic abuse survivors.

Such plans could be incredibly dangerous due to victims not being in a secure location, she said.

Statistics show women are at the greatest risk at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner; some 55 per cent of the women murdered by their ex in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87 per cent in the first year.

A woman will try to leave a violent partner an average of seven times before eventually managing to flee.

Jane Gregory, founder of Salford Survivor Project, which helps domestic abuse victims in Salford, Greater Manchester, said they are often forced to accommodate women in hotels because government austerity measures mean there are no places in refuges and temporary housing is generally full.

Ms Gregory said this was still the case in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak but it was now increasingly difficult to house women because the local authority office is closed so everything is done via phone.

“It is ringing out,” she adds. “As you can imagine, it is constantly busy. I’m really, really frightened for some of these women. A number of women are panicked and we feel really, really helpless. Our hands are tied by the chaos of coronavirus.”

Ms Gregory said she expected domestic abuse would soar during the course of the pandemic – predicting even families who do not generally argue to have worse rows under social distancing rules.

“People have got no money, no jobs, the schools are closed, children are indoors,” she adds. “People are worried they are going to get sick. Anxieties are bubbling to surface. A woman whose husband rapes her every night who is stuck in a house 24/7 with someone who is abusive will not even be able to ring us because he is there.”

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Jane Keeper, director of operations at Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, says: “The situation we face is undoubtedly challenging. Refuge is working round the clock to ensure its services remain open and that they remain safe. This is our priority.

We know that periods of isolation may aggravate pre-existing behaviours in abusive partners and we are working hard to respond.

“We also know that it will be challenging for victims of domestic abuse to ask for support during social distancing. That is why we are working tirelessly to ensure the national domestic abuse helpline, run by Refuge, remains open, and that we share important information via our website www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk, which provides women with a variety of ways in which they can access support. Women’s lives depend on it.”

The comments come after charities recently told The Independent they were offering online support to domestic abuse victims forced to isolate with their partners after concerns violence could soar under social isolation measures brought in to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

Frontline service providers warned self-isolation can be a dangerous time for women trapped inside with their abuser whose behaviour may be aggravated by the chaos and uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic.

Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

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