Around 200 women and children fleeing from domestic abuse are turned away from refuges each day in England, figures show, as charities warn new government policy risks pushing services to “breaking point”.
A survey of refuges across the country shows 94 women and 90 children who had fled abuse were turned away on just one day this year. The true figures are likely to be considerably higher due to the fact that 168 services responded out of a total of 276.
Charity Women’s Aid, which obtained the data, is now warning that government plans to place councils in charge of funding for emergency accommodation will force refuges to reduce provision at a time when demand is far exceeding supply.
Women and children who are turned away from refuges can seek help from their local council, but with budgets stretched, they often face long waits for any form of emergency accommodation. This can leave mothers faced with the choice of homelessness or returning to the abusive partner.
Some are placed in hostels as they wait for accommodation, which often also house former prisoners and reportedly have a severe lack of sanitation and security.
The survey shows that more than half of residents in refuges are children. Women’s Aid said many survivors report that their children are experiencing anxiety and behavioural issues and problems at school as a result of witnessing domestic abuse, with one saying her son began self-harming.
Twenty-six under-14s are known to have been killed alongside their mother in femicide killings last year, according to new data from the forthcoming Femicide Census report – demonstrating the potentially deadly consequences domestic abuse can have if support isn’t available.
Freya, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was repeatedly turned away from refuges with her children, aged two and five, after fleeing an abusive partner.
She had been with her partner for a year when she and her children moved in with him in a home hundreds of miles from where they were living in London. But within six months, he began targeting her with abuse, which began as coercive and controlling behaviour and rapidly escalated into physical and at times sexual violence.
“He’d throw me down the stairs, push me into walls, pick me up and throw me around, and then always argue that he didn’t punch me so wasn’t assaulting me. This quickly progressed into sexual violence as well,” Freya told The Independent.
“I would always try to shield the kids from it and he was very aware of that. One of his methods of abuse would be screaming and shouting for hours at night and then prevent me from going into the bedroom the kids were sleeping in, even if they were awake and crying.”
Freya called the police five times before she left her abusive partner. But when they came to the house she says the officers just gave him a “pat on the back” and told him to “calm down” before leaving, without referring Freya and the children to any support service.
“The lack of response by police compounded my feelings of hopelessness. It confirmed his rhetoric that no one would believe the abuse and that we wouldn’t be helped,” she explains.
A month and a half after the abuse began, Freya fled the house with her children. Escaping in the middle of the night to be driven to London in a friend’s car, she left without her ID, and her children didn’t even have shoes on their feet. “We were literally fleeing for our lives,” she says.
She tried to get into refuges multiple times, but was constantly told capacity was full and there were no spaces available. She then approached the local council for emergency accommodation, but was initially turned her away for not having sufficient ID.
“They wanted six months’ worth of bank statements and a birth certificate for me and my children. They wanted proof that my children were mine. At one point I was even asked to provide a letter from my abuser to state that he had abused us and that we should no longer remain with him,” she says.
After two months sofa surfing with friends, the family was eventually placed in a hostel by the council, where they were living among former criminals. The sanitation was poor, with Freya saying she had to ”scrub the walls down with bleach” because they had faeces and blood on them.
A total of eight months after she escaped her abusive partner, Freya and her children were placed in a temporary home by the council. But she says they were lucky.
“I knew women who had been in hostels for more than a year, with babies, or having had birth there. These women are fleeing for their lives or are street homeless, and don’t necessarily have any access to their bank accounts of financial needs to support themselves," Freya says.
“It’s forcing people into means to gather money, which when you don’t have any ID or method of being paid in cash, it forces women into exploitation and dangerous working. I was very lucky because I had friends to support me, but there were many women there who don't."
"Unfortunately the majority of women who can't get into a refuge end up going back to their abusers, because they face further abuses and exploitation in just trying to survive. When your ex is trying to get you back, you either face deprivation or exploitation, or returning to the abuse — and at least that’s familiar.”
The Women’s Aid figures come after the Government announced an overhaul of supported housing, which would see councils take charge of ring-fenced funding for short-term and emergency accommodation such as refuges.
Campaigners warned that funding would “dismantle” life-saving refuges and create a “postcode lottery” of funding for vital services, undermining Theresa May’s pledge to do more to help women fleeing violent partners.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “It is completely unacceptable that refuges had no choice but to turn 94 women and 90 children away on just one day this year.
“Demand for refuges currently far outstrips supply. The Government’s new funding model for refuges could be the breaking point for these life-saving services which have already been operating for far too long on short-term, shoestring budgets.
“We urge the Government to protect refuges not only for women escaping abuse but for their children too. Only by creating a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges can we ensure that every woman and child can safely escape domestic abuse.”
The Government has promised to transform the national approach to tackling domestic abuse through their landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, declaring that the state “will do everything it can to both support [survivors] and their children”.
But a recent Ofsted report stated that “far too little” was being done to prevent domestic abuse or repair the damage it causes afterwards, and accused the Government of failing to implement a long-term strategy to tackle the issue.
A Government spokesperson said: “Domestic violence and abuse is a devastating crime that shatters the lives of victims and families. The action we have taken to tackle domestic abuse includes introducing a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour and rolling out Clare’s law and domestic violence protection orders on a national basis.
"We are encouraged that ONS stats published this week show that the police recorded 4246 offences of controlling or coercive behaviour in 2016/17. And while bed spaces have increased by 10% since 2010 we are committed to ensuring anyone facing the threat of domestic abuse has somewhere to turn to.
"That is why the Government is providing £100 million of dedicated funding for tackling violence against women and girls. This includes a £20 million fund to support refuges and other accommodation-based services, providing 2,200 additional bed spaces."
The spokesperson added that the Home Office would also publish a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, saying it would protect and support victims, recognise the life-long impact domestic abuse has on children and make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse.
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