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Domestic abuse survivors are being let down by the system when they need it most

A new report documents pregnant women being forced to sleep rough – while others are consistently turned away from safety, back into the hands of their abusers

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By Zoë Beaty on

Women who are fleeing domestic abuse are being repeatedly and gravely let down by the system which is supposed to protect them, a detailed new report says. In what forms a harrowing insight into the treatment of survivors of violence in England, Women’s Aid’s research shows the true impact of cuts to refuge funding – and a bureaucratic system which fails to properly listen to, or provide for, those in need. 

They found pregnant women and child survivors are being turned away from safety and left to sleep rough. Others are denied homeless applications altogether, often simply because of their immigration status. And, the research found, a system which prioritises women who have involved the police in their abuse, regardless of the extent of danger, is leaving some of the most vulnerable without support. 

The report, which was compiled as part of the No Woman Turned Away (NWTA) project, in which Women’s Aid spent a year working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, shed light on a support system already under vast pressure. While it’s been widely reported that funding for refuges is perilously low – England is almost 2,000 refuge spaces short of the recommended amount, according to the Council of Europe, an international human-rights organisation – the way in which women are assessed for support is less well known. And it makes for worrying reading. 

Seventeen per cent of women were forced to call the police out during their search for safety, and eight per cent were physically harmed by the perpetrator they were trying to escape

From January 2016 to January 2017, 19 per cent of women seeking refuge were blocked from making a homeless application, despite legislation stating they should be prioritised. And 32 per cent were failed by social services, who did not help them find accommodation because the services either “did not believe they had experienced domestic abuse, or because they stated they did not meet the risk threshold for intervention”. Women were consistently denied access to emergency funds they were legally entitled to, the report said, and almost half of those were refused due to their European immigration status. 

And the criteria for deeming when a woman is at risk itself is flawed, the research found. Women are categorised as “high risk” – and worthy of funding – by protocols, when they have reported abuse to the police. Yet, given that the majority of women subjected to abuse do not involve the police at all, the procedure leaves many, many vulnerable women ostracised and unsupported. It also means that time-limited spaces are prioritised while long-term needs are neglected. Refuges are finding themselves having to make impossible decisions to turn women away. 

As a result, the research showed the very real danger that cuts and systemic failures are putting women in. In addition to the 11 per cent of survivors who were forced to sleep rough while searching for refuge, seven per cent gave up their search completely on finding they had nowhere to go and inadequate support, and went back to their abusers. Seventeen per cent of women were forced to call the police out during their search for safety, and eight per cent were physically harmed by the perpetrator they were trying to escape. 

In short, the system is letting women down, with life-threatening consequences. Today’s report recommends key measures to end this situation for women in England – including providing more refuge spaces, and specialist support for black and minority ethnic women; new long-term sustainable models of funding; and more training for professionals to ensure that they understand abuse and the needs of women they are dealing with.

“It is clear from this report that statutory agencies are putting obstacles in women’s way when they are fleeing for their lives," Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid, said in a statement following the report. "For every woman in this report, there are many who have simply stayed in an abusive relationship when they have been unable to find a refuge. This is completely unacceptable.

“When women are turned away from refuge, it’s easy to blame the refuges themselves. But in reality the distinction between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' is made elsewhere, forcing the refuge to make the appalling choice between taking a woman in, with no way of paying for her care, or turning her away.

“What is perhaps most clear from this report is that the combination of a risk-led approach to domestic abuse and the current model of funding and commissioning for refuges is putting increasing pressure on our already overstretched refuge providers, and leaving the women with the most severe needs without support and safety."

@zoe_beaty

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