In an unnamed town an unspecified distance by train from London, on a nondescript road with nameless shops, sits an ordinary-looking home with no distinctive features. A number of cars are parked outside and the blinds remain shut, revealing no identifiable information as to what’s inside. The home is numbered, but the address cannot be shared – it cannot be written down with the names of the occupants, and the only time it’s permissible to share it is when an ambulance is called. Even then, the address is erased from hospital records immediately and replaced with a PO Box address instead.
The locals don’t know the names of the women and children they see coming in and out of the property. The school bus cannot pick up the kids from the address; instead, it collects them at the end of the road. CCTV is set up around the perimeters, and alarmed gates fence off the garden.
The building is a women's refuge, and these are the lengths it has to go to to protect the people who live there – to keep survivors of domestic violence safe from the abusive partners they’ve escaped. If names and locations were to be shared, women and children could be tracked down and killed.
Refuges like this one are scattered through towns and cities across the UK. You can’t google where a women’s refuge is – only charities can direct you there. The setup is similar to that of witness protection: Women who are fleeing violent partners are whisked out of their homes, leaving behind jobs, schools, and the communities they’ve grown to know, and housed in a refuge on the other side of the country. They keep their names but change their phone numbers and email addresses, and are advised not to contact people they knew in their old neighbourhood, or to ever return.
The stringent efforts the refuge goes to to keep the women safe are clear. There have only been “a handful of times” in the last three years when the location of the refuge has been inadvertently revealed by social workers or through court documents and women have had to be taken in the night and moved to a new location. One women recently had to be turned away from this particular refuge because she'd called it from her abusive boyfriend's phone. The refuge manager says that if he "put two and two together" and saw the area code for her calls after she fled, he would be able to track her down, and they couldn’t risk her being found. She was located elsewhere instead.
“Nothing is ever done from this address,” one employee says.
But in recent weeks, refuges have been dealing with a different sort of threat – government spending cuts that threaten their very existence and the essential services they provide.
Women’s charities warned in September that the government's plan to cap housing benefit in the social sector would put two-thirds of refuges across the UK at risk of closure. Women’s Aid said 67% of the refuges operating in England would be forced to close if they were not exempted from the reform – for some, housing benefit covers 90% of their costs.
The proposal sparked an outcry from charities and MPs, prompting Theresa May to address the concerns and insist in parliament that refuges would be kept safe under her watch.
“On the issue of domestic violence, we should across this house be doing all we can to stop these terrible crimes taking place and provide support to the victims and survivors of this crime,” May said in the House of Commons last month. “That’s why we are working on exempting refuges from the cap.” The Department for Work and Pensions deferred the proposed reforms until 2018, giving refuges a temporary lifeline until they're reviewed in two years' time.
Despite May's assurance, the threat of closure of women's refuges is still looming over those working on the ground. A number of refuges have been hanging on by a thread, and staff continue to call for sustainable, long-term funding to be provided in order to protect those fleeing domestic violence when they are most at risk – the most dangerous point of an abusive relationship is when women attempt to leave.
So BuzzFeed News visited this refuge in southeast England to speak to staff about how, despite the threat of cuts, job losses, and uncertainty for the future, they are looking for ways to continue to support survivors of domestic violence. All names have been changed to protect the workers and the women they help.
The refuge itself houses eight families, with up to 21 children; most residents are mother-children pairings, although some women arrive alone, too. They are not legally bound to stay in the premises, and it is not an institution. Men are not allowed to enter the premises. The refuge gives the feel of a large, well-kept student home rather than that of a place for escapees. The rooms are warm and clean, and a few toys are scattered on the floor in a living space that leads on to a garden where a rainbow-coloured apparatus is played on by the children. The women cook for themselves in the shared kitchen, and the staff – dressed in normal clothes so as to give the feel of a more "relaxed" environment – are friendly. Recently a disabled-access lift and easy-access bathroom were built to accommodate disabled domestic violence survivors.
Women arrive to the refuge, from across the UK, in a state of shock. They have left their partners after months or years of emotional and physical abuse. Often, they have had little time to collect personal items before fleeing, and arrive with almost no possessions.
The women all share stories of survival, and the pattern of events that led them to the refuge are the same: She noticed her ex-partner became increasingly controlling; he moved closer to their home; he would comment on her appearance and weight, wearing down any self-esteem they once had; he pestered her to quit her job so he could provide for her, forcing her to rely on him with no financial independence. Little by little, the behaviour would escalate into severe forms of financial, physical, and mental abuse.
They also all had a “last straw” moment: when the abuse was directed at their child, or when the child was kidnapped and wasn't returned to her until she obtained a court order. One woman couldn’t report her abusive partner to the police because she was warned that if she alerted the authorities of the abuse but didn't have the correct Home Office forms, she’d be deported.
Inside, a collective of women – many of whom are often survivors of domestic violence themselves – run the day-to-day operation: They apply for funding, organise the children's schooling, and provide emotional and practical support.
“It’s very difficult to explain refuge life,” Hannah, who has worked at the refuge for three years, tells BuzzFeed News. “I don’t think you’d ever understand the extent of it unless you worked here every day. A lot of women arrive with just the clothes on their back – no clothing for the children, no nappies, no belongings. They often have anxiety, or are extremely fearful. They essentially have to start their lives again.”
Day-to-day, Hannah, a qualified therapist specialising in bonding and group therapy, serves as a point of call for the survivors. Her work starts “as soon as they step through the door". The immediate task is to make the house "feel like their home", so the women are given cutlery, pots, toys, bedding, and toiletries, paid for by the "transition fund" that the staff raise money for every year.
Her work, Hannah says, is rewarding. “We get to see a family come in completely broken, and then leave happy and safe.”
Beyond the emotional support and offer of a safe new home, the domestic violence survivors also look to Hannah and the other staff to help them regain control of their lives. The staff perform a multitude of roles that spill outside their initial remit as employees of the refuge: One colleague files the school applications for the children, another seeks funding for child minders, another introduces the women to local charities and welfare.
The refuge staff are also pushing the women’s cases forward to police authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service in an attempt to secure stronger conviction rates of domestic violence. Where police and court efforts fall short, refuges like this one fill in the gaps and become the only viable option for women who want to keep themselves and their children alive. Despite facing severe financial cuts and uncertainty, it is the refuge employees fighting for justice for the women, many of whom have lost hope in the authorities ability to convict the abusive partners.
The task is far from easy.
“Sometimes we have a police officer who is brilliant, who support the client fully and give us more we can ask for and more,” Hannah says. “But we also have to often deal with police who do not realise the extent of domestic violence, the patterns, and face trouble getting rid of the stigma that comes with it.”
Hannah and the other employees serve as the intermediary point of call between the women and authorities, a buffer to put in calls to police to chase up court documents and complaints. A “large chunk of time” is spent chasing police reports and talking through cases and complaints with police officers over the phone – time she and the other staff wish they could spend with the women and their children.
“Just recently I had to go above a police officer to their sergeant because I felt a response he gave to one of our clients was disgusting," she says. "There’s no safeguarding in place for the women, and her safety was not paramount, nor were her family’s, so we have to protect them.”
The refuge staff say they are constantly in talks with police and the CPS for the sake of women who “don’t have the confidence to fight” their cases against abusive partners. They find it difficult to encourage the women to pursue cases when prosecution rates are so low, inspiring little hope in the survivors of abuse.
“I sometimes think police expect that when they tell the women no further action will be taken, that they will accept it," Hannah says. "What they don’t realise is that there are people like us who are there with the women to step in and say, ‘No, hold on a minute, you have enough evidence, you should be using this law, or that law, this is clearly what’s been going on.’ I feel like I’m constantly learning and searching for facts on the internet that says this law means this and this law stands for that, and then I quote it to them."
Hannah and the team are self-taught "experts" in the laws surrounding domestic violence: She says that when she and her team quote back to police officers the law they’ve researched – “the other day I told an officer about the coercive control law and that it was introduced last December, and he realised I knew what I was talking about” – officers listen and often “rethink” their response.
"It’s likely they just don’t have full understanding or training," she says.
The relationship Hannah has with police was already strained before her employment at the refuge. For seven years she was in a relationship with an abusive partner, and she faced her own battle with getting the support she needed. Her shared story with the domestic violence survivors – and her deep understanding of their emotional and practical needs taken from her own personal experience – was a large driving force behind why she decided to take a job in the refuge. Her ex-partner may “own” a large part of her past, she says, but she can take back control of her future, and wants to help the other women do the same.
“My ex-partner subjected me to physical and emotional torture," she says. "He smashed things over my head. He stole my credit card. He would mentally abuse me so I couldn’t eat.”
Her ex-partner would consistently use threats of suicide – he told her that if she left him, he would kill himself. He attempted suicide five times in their relationship, and so the threats would "work" for years. In 2013, he physically assaulted her so badly she thought she “was about to die”, and so she moved back home. He threatened suicide again – and this time, hanged himself. In his suicide note, he placed blame on Hannah. It is uncommon for domestic abusers to follow through with threats of suicide. But Hannah then spent several years torturing herself with guilt, despite knowing that if she stayed with him she’d likely have lost her life.
It then took a turn for worse: His family and friends also blamed her for his suicide, despite having witnessed his domestic violence first hand. There were 21 recorded instances of abuse from them – she received death threats, was beaten twice outside her home, and was forced to change her car three times. At one point, Hannah had to have a police officer taken off her case because of a conflict of interest: She found out the officer meant to be pursuing her case was friends with the mother of the abusive partner on Facebook. The officer would often "like" and comment on the mother's slanderous posts against Hannah.
"The police kept telling me 'she’s a grieving mother'," she says. "They took no action despite the countless evidence I provided – fingerprints, voicemails. Even after he had died, he was still somehow abusing me from his grave.”
The staff may serve as a lifeline to the domestic violence survivors – but the survivors serve as a lifeline to Hannah and the other staff too. Taking employment at the refuge became Hannah’s refuge from "years of torturous hell".
“Working in this refuge has been a huge part of coming out the other side," she says. "My passion is to help the women here, and let them know it will get better, because I know what it's like to have your confidence and self-worth shattered in an abusive relationship. I felt things during that time I didn’t know I could feel – pure pain, when you sob so hard that your body physically burns, because you’re crying because you can’t make sense of it ... to anger, asking myself why did I allow myself to be treated that way. I am now constantly thinking, How can I help these women escape that?”
When ministers and officials decided refuges were to be exempted from housing benefit changes that would have seen two-thirds of them close, the decision was widely celebrated by women's charities and campaigners – but still, the threat of closure is omnipresent within the refuge.
“It was a success,” Charlotte, the head of the refuge, tells BuzzFeed News. “It was a stay of execution, if you will. But we don’t know what the long-term result of that will be.”
She's noticed a “dramatic” shift in funding security for the refuge and domestic violence services in the last five years. Her refuge has survived several successive funding cuts, and it’s “battle after battle” to hold on to the refuge’s funding. “Every year, our jobs become disputable,” one of Charlotte's team members says.
Charlotte now faces a unique dilemma: the need to fundraise and raise awareness of their refuge and their work, but to also not raise too much attention so they don’t give away the refuge location.
“Funding is a constant nightmare – nothing is guaranteed now," Charlotte says. "Part of reason we campaign is to protect our funding. We’re lucky, as locals support us and if they cut our money there would be a backlash, but that’s not the same across the UK."
She adds: "The staff here are always trying to prepare for what’s coming. Even with the housing benefit reforms, it felt like they wanted to shove it all through in one go, like they’re trying to sneak things through, and we’ve got to be on the ball to let that not happen."
But it’s not only the refuge properties that are at risk. For many of the women who have fled violence, the property they’ve been forced to flee is still occupied by their abusive partner. Laura, a 24-year-old mother of a 4-year-old girl, says her abusive partner’s financial control was crippling – and that he used their property as a mechanism of control.
“It began little by little," Laura says. "At first, he would say things like, ‘If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be eating that food.’ I'd be hungry, and I needed to eat, but I didn’t want him to think I needed him for food. Later, the same thing then happened with our house. When he forced me to quit my job, we put together to pay for the house deposit – he told me if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have a deposit for our home."
A second woman, Gloria, at the refuge faced a similar problem. Her ex-partner used to physically assault and mentally abuse her and her two daughters. Several years later, she separated from him. But he later persuaded her he had stopped drinking, that he was seeking professional help and no longer abusive. Believing him, he convinced her to buy a home together.
“As soon as we bought it," Gloria says, "he changed to being abusive. He told his friends, ‘Now we have this home, I can do whatever I want.’ I was locked in – and he just got worse and worse.”
Today, her abusive ex – whom she later filed a restraining order against – still lives in the property. The refuge staff say this problem is common, and that they are struggling to find a pro bono lawyer to help her reclaim the property. Solace Women's Aid says domestic violence can often be the immediate cause of homelessness for many women, and has found that the majority of perpetrators of domestic abuse remain in the family home while “survivors and their children are forced to move frequently between temporary and often unsuitable housing”.
In the meantime, Charlotte and women’s charities are campaigning to make refuge provision a statutory responsibility for local authorities – they fear that without obligation for local authorities to fund refuge spaces, there will be more closures.
“The problem is local authorities do not see refuges as a local problem because the women come from all over the UK," Charlotte says. "A local councillor recently asked me, ‘What do I say to my constituents when they question our support for a refuge because it’s not local women we’re supporting?’, so it’s a relief when we sometimes hear others say, ‘Well, it’s a reciprocal arrangement, our local women will go to a refuge somewhere else in the country, and others will come our ones here.'”
The staff at the refuge want to plan for the future and expand, but say that without security and a stable footing, it’s “almost impossible”.
“We could do so much, and we already do so much, but we need security,” Charlotte says. “It seems obvious for local authorities to step up. Refuges are vital, and, simply put, Without them, more women will die.”