The only provider of refuges for women fleeing domestic violence in Sunderland may be forced to close if the local council goes ahead with plans to stop providing funding, charity officials have warned.
Staff at Wearside Women in Need, which has worked with vulnerable women in the area for 35 years, are concerned that Sunderland may become the only major city in the UK with no refuge provision for survivors of domestic violence.
Sunderland Council recently consulted residents on changes to budgets for local authority services. The consultation states that, due to changes in funding from central government, the council must cut £74m from their local authority budget by 2020.
The council has said that no final decisions have been made on the 2017/2018 budget.
However, Claire Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, told The Independent that Sunderland Council had told the charity their funding of £568,000 a year would be entirely withdrawn from June 2017.
If the proposed cut goes ahead, the charity said that it would probably be forced to close.
It currently run four refuges, which can accommodate up to 173 women and 107 children.
As well as generic support, they run the only specialist refuge in the North East for black women, and provide accommodation for women with severe physical disabilities.
They also provide outreach and advocacy services, a 24-hour domestic violence helpline and specialist projects combatting female-genital mutilation and forced marriage.
Northumbria Police recorded 10,159 incidents of domestic abuse in 2014/2015, an increase of 62 per cent since 2007/2008.
Against this backdrop of increasing demand, Wearside Women in Need has already had their funding cut by 33 per cent since 2010.
Ms Phillipson said: “The impact of Sunderland’s cuts have already been fairly catastrophic. We’re stretched to the absolute limit.
"We had to close a specialist project for women with complex mental health needs. We stopped all specialist work with children, and in total we lost 13 staff.”
Survivors of domestic violence in Sunderland will now have to apply for refuge spaces in neighbouring local authorities.
However, with transfers from other areas usually approved on a case-by-case basis, women’s charities have warned that applicants from a different local authority are sometimes turned away.
Refuges across the country are already heavily over-subscribed; Women’s Aid found that, in 2015, refuges were forced to turn away two thirds of referrals.
“Reciprocal arrangements [for domestic violence survivors] are goodwill arrangements, and I fear that because of the additional pressure on services in the surrounding areas, the arrangements we currently have in the North-East will completely break down, leaving women in Sunderland with no place to go," Ms Philipson said.
On its Facebook page, Wearside Women in Need shared accounts from women who had sought the charity's help.
“The week before Christmas 2003, I stood on the town centre bridge, wanting to end my life. I was a failure as a wife, as a mother! That's what I was told by my husband of 15 [years] and I believed every word,” one said.
“I went back to my home, my abuser and my kids because I had to put on the perfect family day.. New Year's Day 2004, my 12-year-old son had the strength to do something I could not! He stood up and said ‘you're not hitting my Mam anymore’.
“He didn't hit me again, I walked out that day with only the clothes on my back and my children. I found Wearside Women in need. It hasn't been easy, but sometimes life isn't.”
Another wrote she had come to fear Christmas after “20 years of physical, emotional and mental abuse”.
“The drinking which led to the abuse and the torture was something I never thought I'd escape from,” she said.
“But 18 months ago I did just that, and with the help and support from WWIN and the refuge I have rebuilt my life, and I am now strong enough to move into my own home with my children.
“Most importantly, the refuges and the people who run them have made me realise that it wasn't me to blame for the abuse but it was ALL his doing. WWIN literally saved my life.”
The council will vote on changes to its revenue budget in February and March.
If they go ahead with the proposals, Ms Phillipson said the charity will consider seeking a judicial review of the council's decision.
“We will certainly be looking at legal challenges, because we think this sets such a dangerous precedent. If one council gets away with doing this, there’s a risk that others will follow suit, and we cannot allow that to happen," she said.
Sunderland Council told The Chronicle: “By 2019/2020 the council has to save £74m from the money available to spend on local priorities and services.
"This is on top of unprecedented cuts and cost pressures over the last six years which have seen £250m having to be saved.
“By 2020 we will have £590 less available to spend for each Sunderland household than we do currently in 2016.”
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