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Cross-border support

Three little words could determine the fate of thousands of women and children experiencing domestic abuse.

And not in a good way…

Three little words – sent out by National Government – but interpreted by Local Government – will affect whether or not women and children can escape domestic violence.

Cross-border support.

The three words are slipped in – almost as if they were an afterthought – in the Home Office information on the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020.

A statutory duty will be placed on Local Authorities in England to “Assess the need for accommodation-based domestic abuse support for all victims in their area, including those who require cross-border support”[1].

There are at least three major problems with this:

  1. Specialist accommodation-based domestic abuse services are mostly used by non-local women and children.  Whilst other types of support services and temporary accommodation may be frequently accessed by local women who need to leave their previous accommodation, refuges are distinctively – and vitally – accessed by women and children who cannot remain local because of the risks they face.

Pie charts of Help-seeking strategies to Women’s Refuges and Other accommodation services[2]

  • The proposed duty could therefore easily have the effect of undermining and reducing the provision of women’s refuges, and switching local authority funding to other accommodation – including non-specialist, low-support, mixed accommodation.
  1. Many women and children affected by domestic abuse seek help from non-accommodation services.  However, the proposed duty is silent on this; ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of women and children need specialist one-to-one and group support in their local area because of the violence they have experienced.  There have been urgent calls for the Government to address this major gap, but no response as yet[3].
  • The proposed accommodation duty could therefore easily have the effect of cutting these vital non-accommodation services by switching local authority funding to the only services they will now have to provide.
  1. Local Authorities are not well-placed to assess the need for accommodation-based domestic abuse support in their area because cross-border support isn’t a minor role for these services; it is the key option they provide for women and children experiencing threats, abuse and violence.  Most women who go to these services do not go via their Local Authority at all – they cross borders as part of secret journeys, frequently facilitated by voluntary sector agencies that they trust to keep their relocation secret; and not referred by statutory agencies.  For every cross-border statutory referral, that a Local Authority might know about and assess, there are more than double these which do not come to the notice of a statutory agency.

Graph of self-referrals and referrals and the three help-seeking strategies[2]

Simply put, Local Authorities know very little about women’s cross-border help-seeking, and they have a perverse incentive to under-estimate it in their needs assessment of what services they will provide.

If the National Government really wants to “help transform the response to domestic abuse, helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need”[4], it must take national responsibility for assessment, funding and provision of specialist services for women and children who have to cross borders due to domestic violence; and it must require Local Authorities to provide the range and capacity of services needed by women and children who stay put or remain local.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-factsheets/local-authority-support-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse-and-their-children-within-safe-accommodation-factsheet

[2] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data from 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

[3] https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2021/02/02/our-joint-call-on-the-government-to-include-a-statutory-duty-on-local-authorities-to-fund-community-based-services-in-the-domestic-abuse-bill/

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-factsheets/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-overarching-factsheet

London’s Churning, London’s Churning

Women’s domestic violence help-seeking strategies are often thought of and responded to in place.  Both statutory and voluntary sector services work within administrative boundaries; with the Local Authority, or sometimes the County, as the key scale of planning and providing services. 

But domestic abuse causes displacement.

Even important tools to help women – such as Bright Sky[1] – start by asking women to “Enter location, postcode or address”.  They say:

Bright Sky is here for you. Our directory of services can help you find local support.

This can help women who are trying to stay put or remain local – so are looking for help close to home. 

But many other women will be seeking help not in a specific place, but simply thinking – any place but here!

Whilst individual women will be keeping their location and relocation secret – to keep themselves and their children safe from the abuser – they need services and authorities to have a greater understanding of the journeys that are going on. 

It affects access and eligibility for services – it affects the kind of support needed.

Policies and practices can also make things worse – giving women little control over where they go, and whether they are able to resettle long term.

It can be much harder for women and children to ‘move-on’ after abuse, because of the amount of actual moving they are doing…

Service providers tend to be familiar with their local area, but have little sense of the extent to which women and children may be moving through their area due to domestic abuse.

But linking administrative data that used to be collected by services[2] shows both the distances travelled by women and children, and the multiple stages of thousands of journeys.

This graph of London domestic violence journeys shows some of the turbulence of displacement due to domestic abuse:

journeys to access service support – and journeys after services

This analysis is just data on women in London who accessed services, and shows the massive churn going on as women seek help where they can. 

Many London women (just over 20% in these data) seek help from services outside London; but safely linking the data shows that some of these women do actually manage to return to London afterwards.  And, of course, excluded from this graph are the women who come into London to seek help from London services – however, it is important to know that the numbers are lower than for London women seeking help elsewhere. Overall, it shows the displacement of women and children throughout London due to domestic violence: the massive churn going on under the surface which is often under-recognised by both services and policies.


[1] https://www.bright-sky.org.uk/

[2] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data fromDepartment 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

Christmas is a time for families

Women experiencing domestic violence seek help all year round; whether it is advice and support to be able to stay put; or relocating to access services locally or further away.

Many factors affect the timing of seeking help.

Individual women may seek help at a time of extreme danger – or at a time of opportunity: it may be when a woman hears about support services or refuges, or is encouraged to believe that someone will help her.

Women are often not just seeking help for themselves – over half the women accessing services over an eight year period in England had children with them[1].

Women may or may not have an option about when and where to seek help – and if they try and access a service they may not find any space at a refuge, or may be put on a waiting list for an advice and support worker.

However, there is one clear pattern in women’s help-seeking month by month:


Whether women are staying put and seeking support, remaining local within the same Local Authority area, or travelling across boundaries to go elsewhere, the numbers dip in December.

Christmas in the UK is often celebrated as a time for families – with the restrictions this year being highlighted as preventing the kind of December that so many people expect. 

However, help-seeking due to violence and abuse highlights another side of many women and children’s experiences in families – with December as a time of not wanting or not being able to seek help; and January as a time of reaching out or relocating for support.

Even so, thousands of women and children will be seeking help in December – with thousands more to come in January.

[1] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data fromDepartment 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

My kind of town

Women in all kinds of areas experience domestic abuse.  They may seek help and support informally – or from services.

Many stay put – and need services and authorities to do their job to tackle the perpetrator: to hold him to account.

Others move – but remain local – seeking the safety from relocation, but keeping as close as they can to key – and familiar – support and work, school and other services.

But thousands of women and children have to go elsewhere – as the only way to become safe and start again with their lives.

Often women have little choice about where they can go – they might simply want the most unlikely place: a place where the perpetrator won’t think to look.  And, if they need to access services – such as refuges – they have to go wherever there is a vacancy.

But it is striking that women tend to go to the same kind of place[1].  If they can’t find a refuge place in a similar type of area, they may be able to return to that type of area further on down their journey.  So women from urban areas tend to stay in urban areas; and rural women tend to stay in the kind of area they are familiar with.

Analysis of different stages of nearly 20,000 woman-journeys to access services, and afterwards, shows the flows from the six Rural-Urban categories in England[2].

Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data from 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

It is clear that the majority of women and children are from Major Urban areas – because this is also by far the largest category of local authority in England for the whole population – as the graph below shows[1]

ONS. 2014. Mid-2011 Population Estimates: Single Year of Age and Sex for Local Authorities in England and Wales; Estimated Resident Population; Revised in Light of the 2011 Census. London: Office for National Statistics.

The flow diagram also shows significant patterns – the kinds of places where women access services; and where they go afterwards.

Their domestic violence journeys clearly tend to be to the same kind of area, so that even if rural women have to go to a more urban area to find service support, they can return to a rural area after the service.  And the most Urban areas are actually net leaving overall (from 8,472 women to 7,879 women; and 2,804 to 2,414); whereas the most Rural areas show a slight net arriving overall (from 1,947 to 2,341 and from 1,474 to 1,188).

It makes sense – women are trying to escape the violence, but they want to stay in their kind of town: the kind of place where they and their children can start again after abuse.


[1] ONS. 2014. Mid-2011 Population Estimates: Single Year of Age and Sex for Local Authorities in England and Wales; Estimated Resident Population; Revised in Light of the 2011 Census. London: Office for National Statistics.


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2015. “Forced Migration in the United Kingdom: Women’s Journeys to Escape Domestic Violence.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40 (3): 307–320. doi:10.1111/tran.12085.

[2] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data fromDepartment 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 

Night or Day I can go where I want

Women who have relocated due to domestic abuse talk about escaping from the abuser’s control and being able to make their own choices and decisions – in major issues, and in the day-to-day.

One of the participatory photography groups in London produced this poster collage of their local walks.

© Image by women who have relocated due to domestic abuse – from the research project “Women on the move: the journeyscapes of domestic violence”. For further details see: www.womensjourneyscapes.net

The complexity of women’s journeys

Services in a particular area of the country often do not realise the extent of women’s journeys as they try to escape domestic violence.

Survivors themselves may have very good reason to keep their location – and relocation – secret as they try to escape an abuser who knows so much about them.

It is only by combining data from services across the country – and safely de-identifying them – that we can see the complexity of women’s journeys across months and years; and possibly hundreds of miles.

An example from one woman shows multiple moves[1]:

At the start of the record of accessing services due to domestic violence, “Mia” was 17.  She was staying with friends in Essex, and over the next two and a half years travelled between four places in Essex, three in Northamptonshire, and one each in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire (all shown in red on the map), staying in refuges, Bed and Breakfast, private rented, hostel, supported housing and with friends.  All the moves added up to over 300 miles (straight line distances).   The final administrative record is a move to a women’s refuge in Lincolnshire – so still not to settled accommodation.


Another woman’s journey – with her son – shows fewer moves, but longer distances [1]:

At the start of the record of accessing services due to domestic violence, “Karen” was 45 with an 8 year old son.  They were in a refuge in Gateshead, so already on the move due to domestic violence; and over the next two and a half years travelled between three places in Essex and two in the North East (all shown in red on the map), staying in refuges and with family.  All the moves added up to around 950 miles (straight line distances).  The final administrative record is a move out of a refuge in Essex to a local authority tenancy in Newcastle upon Tyne.

It all shows that the snapshot that any service sees – in a particular area of the country – is often only a small fragment of the complexity of any woman’s domestic violence journey.

[1] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data from 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 Question of Scale

Time and time again politicians, policy-makers and practitioners end up operating at the wrong scale.

A policy or service developed with the best intentions, becomes ineffective or even counterproductive when it is implemented either too locally – or not local enough.

Take the current issue of grading school results in the UK.  It may well be appropriate to moderate or standardise teacher assessments to be more closely aligned with what the grades would have been if pupils had taken exams.

But that moderation – even using an algorithm – could have been done at many different scales – the UK level, in the four nations, regionally – or at the scale of local government.

It’s a question of scale that has to be decided – and the decision has consequences.

Applying the moderation at the most local scale – individual schools – has belatedly been recognised as palpably unfair to individuals; and has been scrapped[1].

The scale was too local.

At the other extreme, a national “test and trace system” to identify and tackle COVID-19 infections was criticised as under-used and ineffectual.  Belatedly, again, it has been recognised as needing to be changed; and a more tailored, localised approach is being implemented[2]

The scale wasn’t local enough.

The cost in money and people’s lives from getting the scale wrong can be massive.

So when politicians, policy-makers and service commissioners think and talk of tackling domestic abuse, this is another issue that affects people across the whole country. 

It is vital that those in power make decisions and provide responses at the right scale: recognising what must be national – what local – and understand the serious consequences for getting this right or wrong.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53808233

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53723398

Moving On in a time of pandemic

Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”[1], there is much else that is needed to make it possible for all the different stages of escaping domestic abuse and getting somewhere safe. 

There is a risk that the focus on women and children escaping to a safe place implies that the escape phase is the only critical stage in domestic violence journeys.  But at each stage there are crucial concerns both about the options available; and who is in control of the decisions[2].

A new initiative[3] between housing providers and women’s refuges is trying to free up the next stage after an initial escape to a refuge.

The issue is that some housing providers have a number of homes that are currently empty as the usual nominations and lettings procedures were paused during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, refuges are increasingly full, and unable to support women in the refuge to move on to less temporary accommodation.

Move on from refuges is difficult enough at the best of times – women and children often face years of housing insecurity after leaving a refuge –  but now the problems are even more acute. 

And if women and children are staying longer than they need in refuges that both frustrates and stalls their journey, and means one fewer refuge space for someone else in acute need.  The average number of refuge vacancies in England during the first 7 weeks of lockdown was 97, compared with an average of 183 for the same period in 2019[3].

The initiative from the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) provides clear guidance to housing providers and refuges about how to make at least this part of the system work a little bit better at this time of acute and ongoing need.

It’s a window of opportunity – to free up space in different stages of the system for women and children who need support in moving on from abuse.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do

[2] Bowstead, Janet C. 2017. “Segmented Journeys, Fragmented Lives: Women’s Forced Migration to Escape Domestic Violence.” Journal of Gender-Based Violence 1 (1): 43–58. doi:10.1332/239868017X14912933953340.

[3] https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/media/10760/standing-together_housing-providers-refuges_final.pdf

Stay Put – Remain Local – Go Elsewhere

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.

More details in the briefing paper: http://www.womensjourneyscapes.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Womens-Journeyscapes-Briefing-paper-6-May-2020.pdf