Each woman’s journey to escape domestic abuse is unique, but there are shared characteristics that can be identified.
Understanding these shared aspects can help identify the barriers and challenges that face particular women or women in particular places or circumstances. That can highlight the kinds of help and support needed from different types of services – or the policies and practices that could be changed to assist women and children.
Domestic violence journeys can include stages of actual relocation, but also stages of staying put; and journeys can be short or long, and include crossing administrative boundaries.
The data from women who did access services show three distinct strategies when women seek help:
Stay Put – and seek help from support services
Remain Local – relocate to access support, but within the same Local Authority
Go Elsewhere – move to another Local Authority to seek help
The three strategies are not just distinctive in terms of where women and children go; they also involve different types of agencies. And these agencies therefore only know about some women’s strategies – which limits their understanding of what other women do.
For example, statutory agencies such as Police or Health are only involved for some women – and distinctively for women who are trying to Stay Put or Remain Local. Housing is particularly involved when women need to relocate but are Remaining Local.
However, voluntary agencies are much more likely to be contacted by women who need to Go Elsewhere – escaping to another area. And women self-refer for all three help-seeking strategies.
Different types of agencies – in different areas of the country – will only see a fraction of what women are weighing up in their strategies away from abuse.
Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”, there is much else that is needed to make it possible for anyone to escape domestic abuse and get somewhere safe. Let alone the practicalities and support needed in the longer term.
Just thinking about the journeys of escape – the essential journeys – when women and children need to escape domestic abuse, how do they actually travel?
Because the journeys are very secret, not much has been known; but a new article has just been published from this research about different means of transport.
Public transport is extremely important – especially for longer distances – as the graph shows; however two-thirds of the journey stages were by private transport.
And, in the sample of women interviewed for this research, the largest category of transport was the private car of friends or family.
So – at this time – it is not just a problem of that initial escape due to:
Increased surveillance from the abuser at home
Risk of being questioned about how essential your journey is
Difficulty accessing over-stretched support services and refuges
Less public transport
It is also a problem that you cannot connect in the same way with others – friends and family – who could help you with both the actual journey, but also to plan how to make the journey safer and reduce the losses for you and your children.
This might be the initial essential journey away from an abusive partner; but it will also be all the further literal and emotional stages of your journey after that first step.
Whenever we hear of cutbacks or closures to domestic violence services in a particular area, we hear campaigners and concerned local people ask “Where will local women and children go now – when they need to escape abuse?”
But if the service under threat is a women’s refuge, then local women and children will probably be the least affected.
Local women and children will most likely be going to a refuge elsewhere.
Cuts and closures of local support services affect local women and children. But – if they need the distinctive services of a refuge – chances are they would not have been able to stay in their local area anyway.
In general, when women relocate to access services because of domestic violence, it’s about half-and-half whether they stay in their own local authority area (“residential mobility”) or move to another local authority (“internal migration”).
But, this varies enormously between types of services. For support services that do not provide accommodation 80-90% of women are from the local area; and for non-refuge accommodation around two-thirds are similarly from the local area.
However, for women’s refuges, 70% of women have travelled from another area.
But – at present – they are generally planned and funded locally, which makes them particularly vulnerable to cutbacks. And local cuts do not primarily have a local impact – they affect women and children nationally. We are planning and funding refuges at the wrong scale.
Local women and children everywhere might need women’s refuges; but they need them not in their original local area.
 Bowstead JC. 2015. Why women’s domestic violence refuges are not local services. Critical Social Policy 35: 327–349
How far do women need to go to escape domestic violence?
Well, the question is not about the woman… it’s about the abuser.
For a life that is free from abuse – for a life where you can be yourself – women shouldn’t have to go anywhere at all. They should be able to stay put.
However, this is often not possible – if the abuser doesn’t change his behaviour, and if nothing is done to make him change. So tens of thousands of women and children have to relocate to escape abuse.
A new start in a new area can be really positive. But it can also be really difficult.
So it’s an important principle that women should be able to go as far as they need – but not be forced any further – and stay as near as they can – but not live in fear.
Evidence about women and children who go to services shows that just under half relocate within their local authority.
But just over half go further.
So, rather than thinking just about local authorities providing services, we need to widen our thinking – to a regional approach.
Over 80% of women stay within their region – around 90% for some regions of England.
So let’s think more about regions in planning and providing services.
 Analysis of data from Supporting People Programme of housing-related support services. Department for Communities and Local Government and University of St Andrews, Centre for Housing Research (2012) Supporting People Client Records and Outcomes, 2003/04-2010/11: Special Licence Access [computer file]. Colchester, Essex, UK Data Archive [distributor]. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7020-1>
Domestic violence and abuse is often very hidden, and people frequently ask for more evidence on the needs of women and children – and the needs of men.
Men do experience domestic abuse, but we have evidence of very different rates of abuse for men and women – and that men have different needs.
Administrative data collected by housing-related support services show:
Men seek support on a wide range of issues at an equal rate to women. But where domestic violence is the issue, men are a tiny minority – only 3.1%:
Men are equally likely as women to self-refer to services – to seek help themselves when they experience domestic abuse – but more likely than women to be referred by statutory agencies such as Housing and Criminal Justice. In contrast, women are more likely to be referred by voluntary agencies.
Needs are also different, with men less likely to have children with them, and more likely to have stayed put or stayed local when they seek help.
This kind of evidence can help people make the best decisions about support services – that the vast majority of domestic violence services should be provided for women – often accompanied by children – and that men’s needs are different as they are more likely to be staying put and staying local when they seek support.
 Department for Communities and Local Government and University of St Andrews, Centre for Housing Research (2012) Supporting People Client Records and Outcomes, 2003/04-2010/11: Special Licence Access [computer file]. Colchester, Essex, UK Data Archive [distributor]. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7020-1>
A focus on the responses of police and the law to domestic violence does not meet the needs of most women and children experiencing domestic violence.
For the women who have to relocate to escape a violent partner, it is not the police that are the main source of help. Police and criminal justice agencies made up only 10% of referrals to housing related support services over six years of data (110,849 cases in England). The largest categories of referrals were from Housing authorities and providers (24%) and Voluntary Agencies (24%), and 20% were self-referrals as women contacted services directly themselves.
Police referrals were even lower in London, making up just 5.2% of the referrals of London women and children to services; and Voluntary Agencies were much more important, making up over a third (35.6%) of referrals in London.
So women and children need much more than legal and police responses – and they particularly need the independent non-statutory agencies of the voluntary sector, and the information and assistance that enable them to refer themselves to the kind of support services they need.