Research from domestic abuse charity Women's Aid released earlier this week warned that more than half of all refuges in England could be forced to close their doors or scale back their services if the government’s proposed plans for supported housing funding go ahead.
As many as 600 beds in refuges across England could be at risk, the charity said.
One survivor, who fled to a refuge with her 6-month-old baby after her violent ex-partner tried to strangle her, told BuzzFeed News that "without a shadow of a doubt, more women will die" if those crucial spaces are lost. Her warning was echoed by those who work in the sector, who said they're already turning vulnerable women and children away in droves. The service, they say, is already stretched.
Refuges are vital, specialist charities including Refuge and Women's Aid say, because women are at greatest risk of being killed at the point of separation, or after leaving a violent partner.
According to Counting Dead Women, 106 UK women and girls were killed between January and September 2017. Further research from BuzzFeed News has found that at least a dozen more women have been killed by men in October and November.
In almost half of the cases, the woman's current or former partner was alleged to be linked to her death, while many more were killed by other male relatives.
Laura* fell pregnant at the age of 20 and suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her former partner before she managed to escape.
"He started abusing me mentally," she told BuzzFeed News. "He was much older than I was and I got pregnant quite quickly into the relationship. When he realised I was pregnant and I wasn't going to go anywhere it became systematic abuse. It was all about control for him, money was a massive factor. He knew he could control me because it was his house, his money, his car."
Laura said she stopped going out, was not able to work, and became isolated from her friends. "As the pregnancy got further along it became pushing and shoving," she said, "and mind games became a massive thing. He became more and more violent after I gave birth"
"It was my birthday weekend, and we were supposed to be going for a meal," she said. Her then partner said he was going out drinking with a friend in the evening, but promised to take her for lunch. "I walked to the pub and stood outside for three hours in the rain," she said.
"I couldn't feed my daughter because I had no money to go in the pub and buy a drink. I texted him saying 'I'm going to take her back, she's going to be wet through and I need to change her nappy', and he said, 'stay there.'"
She said he then turned up at the pub, "picked her up out of my arms, and threw her into the pushchair. And I knew this was going to be it."
When they got home, she said, he threw a four-pint milk carton at her, and she threw it back "as a reflex".
"It exploded," she said, "and then he strangled me. It was only when he shifted his weight to put more pressure on that I kneed him in the balls. I grabbed my daughter and ran, and we never went back.
"I had no shoes, no keys, no money. I went to a neighbour and phoned my mum, and she said, 'Phone the police.'" When the police came and arrested her ex-partner she was allowed half an hour back in the house to collect her things.
"I just packed baby clothes and nappies," she said. "I left 98% of my belongings."
Laura said she couldn't return to her family home as her ex-partner would know where to find her, and she didn't want to put her mum and brother at risk. With no spaces available in a refuge, she was given a place in a homeless hostel instead, which she said was "dire".
"They were like little bungalows," she said, "and mine was next to a drug dealer. There was a lot of coming and going. It was just the most frightening experience, and I pulled the bed in front of the door. Every time I saw a car I thought, Oh my god, he's here, and I'd just have to hold my breath. The comings and goings were awful."
A week later Laura was offered a place in a Women's Aid refuge, which she credits with changing her life.
They helped her to apply for benefits, which she had never claimed before, and provided her with food and clothes for herself and her daughter during the 10-week wait for government support to come through. The refuge also provided her with counselling to help recover from the trauma, helped her register for a GP, and had professionals like benefits advisers come into the refuge so she did not have to go out and could feel safe.
"It was utterly, mind-blowingly different to the homeless hostel," she said. "They were really amazing, they went above and beyond."
She stayed at the refuge for almost eight months before moving on. "They got me into a house in a village near my family, and they helped me secure nursery provision for my daughter. Just as they helped with the transition into the area, they helped with the transition out, and I still had counselling sessions after I left the refuge. For a few months after I left they were still on the end of the phone if I needed them."
Laura said that if refuges are forced to close or scale back their support, "without a shadow of a doubt, more women will die".
"There will be more mental health issues, more children affected by the environment they're brought up in," she added.
Describing the story of one woman who she met in the refuge, she said: "I know that in the past she had left her husband on four occasions and been unsuccessful. It was only on the fifth time there was a space available 250 miles away, and it was only then that she actually made a start with her life and didn't go back.
"As a society we're telling women this isn't acceptable."
According to an emergency Women’s Aid survey of refuge services in England, an estimated 588 bed spaces among those who responded will be lost under the government's plans, meaning 2,058 more women and 2,202 more children will be unable to access a place.
Only a third of the 270 refuges in England responded to the survey, meaning this loss of provision is likely to just be the tip of the iceberg.
Women's Aid released the findings as the government is due to launch its consultation on the domestic violence and abuse bill, which will aim to protect victims through a range of measures, including establishing a domestic violence and abuse commissioner and defining domestic abuse in law.
The government’s proposed supported housing funding model will remove refuges’ last secure form of funding – housing benefit – and devolve housing costs to local authorities to “fund services that meet the needs of their local areas”.
Under the new plans, rent money that would have in the past gone straight to domestic violence refuges would instead go to local authorities – effectively forcing refuges to compete for funding with other local services.
Refuges currently operate as a national network, and cannot be provided based on an assessment of local need alone: particularly because when women and their children flee domestic abuse, more than two thirds flee to a refuge outside of their local authority so
they can live without fear of being hunted down by their abuser.
Tracy, who manages a Women’s Aid refuge and has worked in the domestic abuse sector for more than 30 years, told BuzzFeed News that "women will die" if the proposed changes to funding go ahead. She asked BuzzFeed News not to reveal her full name or the location of the refuge.
She said: "[Refuges] offer safety initially, these are women that are running for their lives, at a final desperate point. Many of them say 'if he finds me, he'll kill me'. These women are scared, they're fearful for their lives, worn down and beaten. They're often doing it for the sake of their children.
"These women are black and blue, with scars, teeth knocked out. I've seen every kind of physical damage that can be done to a person. They're also emotionally damaged. Women are in shock, they're stressed.
"A woman turned up in a nightie yesterday from a police station, with two children and all of their belongings in a Tesco carrier bag. She had no money, no paperwork, no passport, no shoes."
Tracy said refuges offer women a place of safety, but also practical support, helping them find schools for their children, offering them mental health support, and supporting them with any drug and alcohol issues, as well as putting a roof over their head.
"We provide sanitary towels, toothbrushes, clothes, food, we provide them with a bed," she said. "We support them to claim for housing benefit so that they've got somewhere to live, we get their children back in school. We offer emotional support, career support, we link in to statutory services. We help them to get their lives back on track."
Last month her refuge, which has 29 beds – eight single spaces and the rest for women with children – had 42 referrals for a single space, meaning 41 women had to be turned away. "On average we probably get between seven and 15 referrals per space," she added.
Tracy said she fears councils would not continue to fund refuges as local authorities are already "stretched, making cuts left right and centre", adding that the government's proposal shows a "lack of understand of what refuges offer and how they work".
"Most of the women that come to refuges need to move away from the area," she said. "My area isn't going to fund a refuge to support women from other areas.
"We haven't got enough spaces as it is, so the thought of us losing funding or closing down... It puts women's lives at risk. Women will die. Women and children will die. They will be forced to stay in places where their lives are at risk."
She said cuts to refuges would also place an additional burden on mental health, drug and alcohol, and child protection services. "A whole range of things will increase if women feel trapped, if they have nowhere to go," she said.
Labour MP Jess Phillips, who worked at Women’s Aid before entering parliament, told BuzzFeed News "the effect will potentially end the safety net for women to move across boundaries", adding: "There is a real worry that local authorities will use the money to backfill spend on domestic violence they already commit [to], thus halving the amount of money dedicated to domestic violence."
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, added: “Demand for refuges already far outstrips supply, and the proposed funding model could be the breaking point. Refuges will be faced with the awful reality of either turning more women and children away or closing their doors forever.
“On average, two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. A refuge is not just a bed for a night; it is a lifeline for thousands of women and children. To ignore the advice of experts and put these vital services at risk would be a dangerous, and a potentially fatal move. 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 charity has created a petition urging the government to halt the changes, which by Thursday afternoon had already been signed by more than 30,000 people.
A government spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse is a devastating crime and we’re taking action to make sure that no victim is turned away from the support they need. We’ve already committed £40 million until 2020 and so far we have delivered support to 80 domestic abuse projects across England to provide more than 2,200 beds, helping over 19,000 people.
“We know there’s still more to do to, which is why we’ll be introducing a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to protect and support victims and their children, as well as bring perpetrators to justice. On top of this, we’ve also set out plans to give councils guaranteed funding to drive up standards of accommodation for vulnerable people.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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