Domestic violence refuge provision at crisis point, warn charities
Domestic violence refuges are being closed across the country in a crisis that is putting support for the most vulnerable women and children back 40 years, leading charities have warned.
Specialist safe houses for women and children – which were forged out of the feminist movement in the 1970s – are being forced to shut by some local authorities because they do not take in male victims.
In other areas, refuges are facing closure in favour of preventive work and support in the community or being replaced with accommodation provided by housing associations.
The threat comes from a competitive tendering process being adopted by local authorities, which charities say is weighted towards larger housing associations and businesses and ignores the lessons of four decades about the need to provide specialist, therapeutic support in refuges for women forced to flee for their lives.
The home secretary, Theresa May, recently told a meeting of women's groups in London that there was a great deal of ignorance about the way domestic violence services were commissioned by local authorities. But she has repeatedly refused calls to ringfence funding nationally for women's refuges.
Key concerns raised by women's groups include:
• The breakdown of the national network of refuges through local authorities imposing limits on the numbers of non-local women able to stay in them.
• Time limits on length of stay.
• Funding cuts because refuges do not take men.
• Refuges being shut without alternative accommodation being provided.
The Last Resident: a film about domestic violence by Syndrome Pictures.
In a snapshot of what is happening in England and Wales, the Guardian found that refuges have closed, or are under threat of closure, in Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, Sheffield, Nottingham, Somerset, Leeds, Leicestershire and Coventry. Coventry and Wolverhampton are examples of cities where a new focus on providing accommodation for male victims has led to funding being cut for traditional women's refuges.
The change in focus has been devastating for the Haven in Coventry, a charity which has run the city's women's refuges for 43 years, but is fighting for survival after its service was decommissioned by the council in favour of self-contained accommodation units and new accommodation for male victims.
The Wolverhampton Haven, which has run the refuges for 41 years, is having its funding from the city cut by £300,000 and – as it struggles to maintain services – has been forced to reserve some of its places for men, even though it has had no male referrals to the accommodation so far.
Sandra Horley, chief executive of the charity Refuge, said: "We are at crisis point. Refuge provision is under serious threat as a result of ongoing cuts to local funding and poor commissioning practices."
Rachael Slack and her son Auden were murdered in their own home in 2010 by former partner Andrew Cairns, who had a history of mental health problems. Photograph: Refuge/PA
The country was in danger of "returning to the days of Cathy Come Home", Horley said, referring to the BBC TV play that triggered public outrage at homelessness in the mid-1960s.
"Without adequate refuge provision, women experiencing domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets or remain with their abuser and risk further violence or even worse. Refuges are so much more than a roof over a head. Lives are transformed – specialist refuge workers support women to stay safe, access health services, legal advocacy and provide immigration advice.
"Refuges also provide peer support – women are able to share their experiences and understand what they have been through. They realise, often for the first time, they are not alone, and they are not to blame for the abuse. Empowering women and children to overcome trauma and rebuild their lives is highly specialist, intensive work – it takes longer than a few weeks."
Horley called for an urgent review of the commissioning process across the country and criticised the focus on male victims as deeply flawed.
"The vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women," she said. "Of those who experience four or more incidents … 89% are women."
The closures come despite three parliamentary inquiries, in 1975, 1992 and 2008, concluding that the provision of national refuges must be the priority for any government tackling domestic violence.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid, said a dearth of experience on commissioning bodies was putting the system back to when the first domestic violence refuge in the world opened, in Chiswick, west London, in 1971.
"There are areas where there aren't any refuges, other areas are specifying beds must be for local women only and some areas are commissioning so-called refuges which are not refuges," she said. "We thought we had won the argument that refuges need to be a national network but we are having arguments of 40 years ago all over again. There has to be a national network and national funding to support it."
Specialist refuges that take in victims of violence in forced marriages and of female genital mutilation have been particularly affected. This comes as the home affairs select committee report on FGM has called for better services, including refuges, for those at risk.
In Sheffield, the Ashiana refuge for black and minority ethnic women victims has shut after 30 years.
Rachel Mullan-Feroze, of the charity, said: "These women have very specialist needs and need specialist refuges. They have been trafficked, or involved in forced marriages, are victims of FGM, or so-called 'honour' crime. Many of them have unsettled immigration status and all the evidence shows they suffer more severe and enduring violence because they are stuck between abuse and destitution."
But one of the biggest housing association providers in the UK, Home Group, said none of its 23 refuges had been closed.
Rachael Byrne, director of care and support at the association, said: "Local authorities have the unenviable task of coping with shrinking budgets and increased demand for services. We've developed more flexible services, which include floating support for survivors of domestic violence, [many of whom] tell us they do not want or need to upturn their lives by moving into a refuge."
Casey Brittle, 21, was beaten to death by her violent ex-partner after police failed to intervene 11 times, according to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Photograph: IPCC/PA
Norman Baker, the crime prevention minister, said: "Decisions regarding the funding of local refuges are matters for local councils. We are helping local councils by drawing together best practice on commissioning."
'I fear what is happening now will mean more women will die'
Chris Collier is almost wistful as she remembers the place of safety for victims of domestic violence which she dedicated so much of her life to.
"Ours was a fabulous refuge," she says. "We had room to take in 100 women and even more children each year. We had a playroom that was Ofsted registered, we had a lovely garden for the children to play in, and we had women on duty 24/7, so it was really safe.
"A refuge shows women they are not alone, and that is a great support system which might persist after a woman has left the refuge. I fear what is happening now will mean more women will die."
Maria Stubbings, from Chelmsford, Essex, was strangled by former boyfriend Marc Chivers in 2008 less than a year after he was freed from prison. Photograph: Essex police/PA
After almost 40 years Collier's refuge in Exeter closed in April when the county council decommissioned its services, along with north Devon's second refuge in Barnstaple.
The same has happened in Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Dorset, Somerset, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds and Leicestershire, to name just a few. Specialist domestic violence refuges, which were born out of the women's movement 40 years ago are being decommissioned and closed in favour of accommodation provided by housing associations and others, or by nothing at all.
Local authorities are not obliged to put domestic violence services out to tender, but many are doing so increasingly in response to pressure on their budgets and in a desire to focus more prevention measures and early intervention work as part of a government strategy.
Domestic violence protection orders
In Devon the women's groups running the two refuges lost out to a Wiltshire-based firm, Splitz Support Services, which did not provide a refuge in its tendering bid and instead promoted the use of preventative measures like the government's new domestic violence protection orders.
Katie Summers, also known as Katie Boardman, who was stabbed to death by Brian Taylor at her home d in Farnworth, near Bolton, in 2008. Photograph: Greater Manchester police/PA
The orders exclude an alleged perpetrator from the women's home for between 48 hours and 28 days and are seen as a way of keeping a victim in her own home.
But Sue Wallis of North Devon Against Domestic Abuse says the orders did not always keep women safe. "We have had cases – including a woman from Wiltshire who was supported by Splitz – who was given one of these orders and the perpetrator came back within 48 hours and broke her back.
"So we have evidence that its not always the answer, it can help and it is another tool, but sometimes a woman needs to leave home quickly for her own safety."
Murdered in their own home
Specialists point out that high-profile cases of women who have been murdered by violent men in recent years have almost all taken place in the women's home – including Rachael Slack and her toddler son, Auden; Maria Stubbings; Casey Brittle; Katie Summers; Clare Wood; and Christine Chambers and her two-year-old daughter, Shania. This is further evidence, specialists add, for continued need for a national network of women's refuges as a place of safety.
Sandra Rudd, president of Chester Women's Aid, believes preventative work with perpetrators is a "complete waste of time" and has not been proven to work.
"I feel we have gone back 30 years. Domestic violence is much more prevalent now than it has ever been yet they are cutting back the places and not only that they are stopping women coming in from other areas. If you flee you need to flee often from your area, from the perpetrator and from his friends. If you stop women from outside using your refuge, then other areas will do the same and the whole network breaks down."
Rudd's refuge in Chester is to close in September, along with those in Ellesmere Port and Northwich, which provided accommodation for 17 women and their children.
Modernising old-fashioned services
Cheshire West and Chester council says it is "modernising old fashioned" services. It plans to replace the refuges with a "hub" offering eight places, and four units in the community for male and female victims. It is not known when this will open.
Access to women from outside the area has been capped at 20%, and the period of time families can stay limited to 12 weeks.
Councillor Brenda Dowding, executive member for adult social care and health at the council, says: "We are trying to move away from reactive services to get more proactive, to see if we can prevent the abuse or at least stop it at the point it is detected. When people have gone into refuges they have been there for quite a long time, and that is not desirable because they can become institutionalised."
Other local authorities which have decommissioned longstanding women's refuges in favour of accommodation provided by housing associations include:
• Leeds, which cut funding for the refuge run by Leeds Women's Aid for 40 years and capped the number of non-local women at 20%
•Wigan, which has a target of six weeks on the period women can stay in its one- and two-bedroom flats
• Nottingham, where the refuge for south Asian and minority ethnic women was closed
Clare Wood's murder in 2009 led to 'Clare's law', a scheme which allows women to check police records to see if a partner has a violent past. Photograph: Greater Manchester police/PA
• Leicester where a housing association won the tender against the local specialist service which had existed since the 1970s
• Somerset, where Taunton Women's Aid were prevented from bidding to run a refuge it owned and managed for 15 years because it did not have enough resources under the tender criteria.
Problems with tendered support
Evidence from Somerset, however, suggests there can be problems with the handover to housing associations which could put women at more risk. The Taunton contract with a housing association, Chapter 1, was terminated this year after an independent report and unannounced inspections exposed concerns about the way the refuge was being run.
The Guardian understands these included a worrying spike in the number of women who were returning to violent partners because they were not properly supported.
The shift away from providing refuges, traditionally seen as the last sanctuary for women at risk of serious violence or murder, is starkly illustrated in the words of Mike Bedford, domestic violence programme manager for Splitz Support Services.
"We provide domestic violence outreach services, children's services and perpetrator programmes," he says. "My personal view is we shouldn't need refuges anymore, we should be dealing with the cause, which are the men."
Operating in Devon and Wiltshire, Splitz has also won the contract to run domestic violence support provision in Gloucestershire, where three refuges closed as a result.
A spokeswoman for Gloucestershire county council says the contract awarded to Splitz bought support in the community rather than in refuges.
She added: "Where its appropriate its best to support people to stay in their own homes. Where that's not possible we provide a range of accommodation options including temporary accommodation with friends and family and emergency B&B accommodation with support. In the past refuges have not been able to provide support for all victims, particularly male victims."
Long-term care needed
Erin Pizzey, who open the world's first women's refuge in Chiswick, west London, in 1971, says: "The closing down of refuges over the last two years is a source of great worry for me. The majority of women coming into my refuge needed long-term therapeutic care with their children.
"My therapeutic model included long-term shared accommodation for vulnerable mothers and children. That is still needed."
In Barnstaple, with her funding stream cut, Sue Wallis is drawing on the fighting spirit exhibited by Pizzey four decades ago to try and keep her refuge open on its reserves, donations and a small grant from the district council.
"We have gone back to basics here to survive," she says. "Some of the mothers here are little more than children themselves, they have never been parented themselves. They need mothering so they can learn there is a future for themselves which is better than returning to a violent perpetrator. That is what a women's refuge is for."