(Ed: This post was contributed by an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate)
During this week, there will be events to raise awareness of domestic violence and abuse. It’s a topic that many people find difficult to talk about, perhaps because they have been personally affected, or because the thought of abuse between people who should be able to trust each other is too uncomfortable to think about. If you have read this far, I hope that you keep reading. Statistics indicate that domestic violence isn’t something that happens to someone else, widely quoted numbers are 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be a victim of domestic abuse during their lifetime. Two women per week and 20 men per year are killed by their partner or a former partner and there are thought to be around 12 people murdered each year in so-called “honour” based killings.
I write this piece from the perspective of a worker who provides specialist support to victims of domestic violence and abuse who are at the highest risk of serious harm or being killed. I work with both men and women and I work with over a hundred people each year. In this piece I want to talk about the importance of having somewhere safe to call home with a particular emphasis on the issues affecting victims of domestic violence and abuse. I am struck by how many of the people that I work with have grown up in difficult situations, either as care leavers, experiencing domestic violence as children, have previously been homeless, have enduring mental health problems and/or issues with alcohol and substance misuse.
Having a safe place to live is one of our most important and fundamental needs. Those familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will know that “safety” is on the 2nd tier of the pyramid. In high risk domestic abuse situations even the most basic physiological needs on the base of the pyramid can be compromised due to the extremely controlling behaviour of an abuser. We have to work with our clients to shore up the foundation layers of the pyramid before a domestic abuse victim can move onto becoming a survivor who is able to build self-esteem and fulfil potential in other areas.
All clients tell us of fears and anxieties that are centred upon where they live. For some, housing can become a significant barrier to leaving an abusive situation (there are of course many others but the discussion of these is beyond the scope of this piece). Victims may feel that they will not be able to access confidential help in applying for social housing, the abuser may have put the tenancy or registered the home in their name only, there may be debts and rent arrears that can be barriers to moving on. Housing cost is a significant issue and victims worry about how they would afford to pay for housing and running of a household on their own. Some victims will feel that it is just too hard “to start all over again” even though they are clearly at risk of further harm by remaining where they are. The sense of despair can arise through self-esteem being eroded by an abuser and there is much work that we have to do on re-enablement and empowering people.
With a shortage of available social housing it can take a long time to be re-housed even if it is possible to successfully demonstrate that a move should be prioritised due to the victim needing to move for their own safety. It is the view of many victims and some professionals that housing staff can be sceptical in accepting that a person is genuinely in danger by remaining in their current property and that a move is necessary. Due to the lack of social housing stock, private sector rent may have to be considered as an option, some local authorities have schemes that guarantee the deposit and will loan the first month’s rent. However, many lettings agencies don’t accept tenants on these schemes and tenants can feel vulnerable as they could in theory have to move on every 6 months.
Some victims will need emergency accommodation and will spend time in a refuge. For many, the “R word” induces fear and will be dismissed as an option for many women. Many women will feel that refuge is only an option for those who have reached “rock bottom” and many women feel that they have not yet reached that point. It is important when working with domestic abuse victims to sensitively but honestly discuss the risks that are relevant to that victim. Some victims will minimise abuse and it is sometimes difficult to objectively assess risk when living amongst conflict. There are some excellent refuges offering clean, comfortable accommodation with first rate support, in contrast, there are refuges with lesser reputations that as a worker I have concerns about placing my clients in. However, they will at least be a safer place and this is the message that I hope to convey to my clients.
For the first time in this piece I have not used gender-neutral wording – this is because there is practically zero refuge provision for male victims of domestic abuse, which limits options when working with male victims. The heavy gender bias towards services for female victims can also act as a barrier in itself for male victims seeking any help. It is unfortunate that many of the women who are in the greatest need of refuge space are excluded due to some refuges stating that they cannot support women with “high support needs”. High support needs can include a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. In my experience of supporting high risk victims, the vast majority of clients have such a diagnosis. It is unsurprising that domestic abuse victims experience these common reactions to extreme life events. Another group of clients who will be excluded from the majority of refuges are those with substance misuse. These are amongst some of the most vulnerable victims and there is little appreciation amongst some refuge workers that some women will have drug or alcohol misuse as a coping mechanism for the abuse or were made to misuse substances by their abuser.
Another solution for short term housing is for victims to stay with friends or family pending a more permanent housing move. Isolation from friends and family tends to happen fairly early on in an abusive relationship; by the time that a person is wanting to leave, links to previous support networks may have become severed. Staying with friends and family may not be seen as an option for a lot of victims, who can feel ashamed to ask for support after not being in touch for a long time. For some, staying with a friend or relative can offer a lot of support and the familiarity can be comforting. However, the location of a friend or family member is often known to the perpetrator of abuse leading to the victim being located at the address.
Some victims will wish to remain in their own home and will take steps to improve their security. This can involve removal of the perpetrator if they are living there (using a legal order called an Occupation Order) removal from the tenancy (again a court order is required) and “target hardening” by improving security at the property, changing locks, installing fire detection equipment etc. There are charities who provide free of charge services to improve home security to certain vulnerable groups including victims of domestic abuse. A “sanctuary room” can be made in the victim’s home, however these can cost many thousands of pounds to install and in reality it is extremely rare that these will be funded. The decision to remain in the home can be multi-factorial but a reason I often hear is “why should I move? It re-victimises me!”. It can be a way of taking back some control and empowering the victim. The majority of victims however make the decision not to stay in the property. Some people feel that they are a “sitting target” and that the perpetrator will know the vulnerabilities of the property. The majority of people wanting to move want to because the property constantly reminds them of the abuse, a very understandable reaction, after all we wouldn’t usually want to live in what has become a “crime scene”.
“Go Orders” (Domestic Violence Prevention Orders) were due to be piloted this autumn, but were abandoned with the introduction of the coalition government. These orders would remove the perpetrator of domestic violence for 28 days and would not need the involvement of the victim. I really do feel that Go Orders would have been a positive move to allow support services the opportunity to access and work with victims to make changes. Making an order that does not require the consent of the victim may seem a draconian step, however I feel that this is necessary in some cases as it removes the responsibility from the victim to take positive action when they are at their most vulnerable. As the victim is not the applicant for the Go Order (the applicant is the Police) the perpetrator cannot “blame” the victim for taking action against them. It is very often the fear of escalation that prevents victims from making change; however, simply maintaining the status quo is not an option in a lot of cases and it is absolutely necessary for change to happen in order to keep the adult victim and their children safe.
Getting a more permanent place to live isn’t necessarily a magic wand. The majority of high risk domestic abuse victims have multiple support needs in the same way other vulnerable and marginalised people do, which can make independent living a challenge. Before the transition from domestic abuse victim to survivor occurs, people may need intensive support in order to manage their tenancy. Many survivors tell me that it is helpful to have a co-ordinated and individual support plan which ties together the support from different agencies and it is hoped that the importance of such an approach is valued when decisions about funding are made. Many survivors may have been subject to financial abuse and often need to re-learn skills such as budgeting, dealing with paperwork and applying for services in their own name. Exercising choice can be a challenge for some survivors if they were subject to extreme control from an abuser previously. I am frequently told by survivors that they can find it overwhelming and difficult to make choices on what to some of us seem like easy decisions such as deciding on menus for the week and what ingredients to shop for, what shops to go to, what to watch on television and what to wear. New found freedom can be challenging and confusing as well as exhilarating and liberating. Those working in the field of addiction will be very familiar with Diclemente and Proschaska’s “Cycle of Change” and will know that the “Maintenance” phase of the cycle can be the most difficult phase of the cycle as new behaviours and change need to be sustained. I find this a useful model for working with domestic abuse victims.
Many high risk victims tell me that they never feel truly able to relax and feel safe in their home. This happens in situations where the victim has remained in their home, the abuser has been removed and home security has been improved and also where the victim has relocated and the new location is unknown to the perpetrator. It is possible that eternal vigilance and concern for personal safety has been identified as a successful survival strategy that has kept the survivor safe and that not wanting to let your guard down is felt as a necessary and useful strategy. The negative impact on children of witnessing abuse of others is very well known and it is apparent to me that many of my clients cannot ever remember feeling completely safe at any point in their lives, with many of them having grown up in homes where they witnessed domestic abuse. Early negative experiences have the potential to normalise abuse and violence and model expectations of how relationships should be. I am pleased to see that this potential impact is now taken very seriously, however there is little specialist practical and emotional support for children who have witnessed domestic abuse.
Although working with high risk domestic violence victims is very challenging work, it is very rewarding to see the impact that improvements in personal safety can produce especially when services work in a co-ordinated way to support victims. For the majority of victims, risk is significantly reduced within a relatively short period after separation from the abuser. Although relocating a victim and their children to a safer place to live is usually seen as the first and most important step on the road to long term safety, we need to remember that it is also necessary to address the impact of long term abuse on the victim and provide support with other areas of need in order to reach the long term goal of sustaining an independent life free from abuse.
This piece has been written by the author in a personal capacity and the views expressed herein are the own personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s employer. In order to protect the confidentiality of clients, the name of the author does not appear here.
If you would like support and help with domestic abuse, please contact the following organisations. If you are in immediate danger, always dial 999.
Victim Support – provides emotional and practical support to all victims and those affected by domestic violence and abuse 0845 30 30 900
Broken Rainbow – support for LGBT victims of domestic violence 0300 999 5428
National Centre for Domestic Violence – for assistance with legal remedies 0844 8044 999
Women’s Aid – for female victims of domestic abuse can assist with finding refuge space 0808 2000 247
Respect – for male victims of domestic abuse 0808 801 0327
Honour Network Helpline – for victims of so called honour based violence and forced marriage 0800 5999 247
Action on Elder Abuse 0808 808 8141
The Hide Out (web resource)
Childline 0800 1111