News

The independence of voluntary sector services

Women escaping abuse often contact a range of organisations and services.  Some help – Some don’t.

Different women might find particular services more accessible – more understanding of their needs and concerns.  Each woman’s journey to escape domestic abuse is unique, and only some include formal services in their help-seeking. 

The key focus for any responses should be to respect women’s rights and needs – and listen to their experiences.  And independent voluntary sector services can be key in this – especially specialist ‘by and for’ services.

These might crucially be women-only services – and services by and for particular minoritised communities.

Black and ethnic minoritised women are significantly more likely to be referred to services by voluntary sector agencies – and less likely to be referred by statutory sector agencies – than White British women[1].  When referrals are made by statutory agencies, Police are more likely to refer Asian Pakistani women, Housing more likely to refer Black African women and Social Services more likely to refer Asian Bangladeshi women. 

And Black and ethnic minoritised women are significantly more likely to access services run by the independent voluntary sector – especially women’s refuges – than White British women.  This might reflect different help-seeking patterns, as well as the availability and suitability of different services.  In terms of distance travelled, and length of time in support services, it is difficult to generalise about different ethnic groups as there is so much variety within groups.

There is more detail in a briefing paper from this research.

The differences and the similarities between women do show how vital the independent and specialist voluntary sector is for women’s domestic violence journeys.  So that all women can make the journeys they need and receive the support and understanding they deserve.


[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

There is always a way ahead

Women who have relocated due to domestic abuse talk about their multi-faceted journeys: emotional, practical and geographical journeys.  Often, during the journeys, they do not know what the next stage will be – or what they need to prepare themselves and their children to face.

Women in the creative groupwork for this research produced images and captions for women they imagined making such journeys in the future – wanting to encourage women in their journeys from abuse to freedom.  The posters were then put on display in the women’s refuges and centre where the women met.

One of the participatory photography groups in London produced this poster of a path in a local park – leading to the blue sky and sunshine ahead.  The original image was then made into a mosaic of hundreds of their photographs: the idea of combining everyone’s contribution into one image, and one strong message:

There is always a way ahead

© 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: https://www.womensjourneyscapes.net

Children on the move – what about their schooling?

After over a year of concern about the disruption to children’s schooling, it’s important to remember other issues that also affect children’s education – like their forced displacement due to domestic abuse[1].

If mothers can seek help and support without having to relocate – by staying put – then children may be able to stay at school, and stay in contact with friends, teachers and other support to help them deal with their experiences of abuse.  But this may not be possible.

Around half of the women accessing services due to domestic violence have children with them, and over two-thirds are forced to relocate to seek help.  Even if this is within the same local authority, children will often still have to change schools due to distance or safety concerns.


Though rates of help-seeking do vary somewhat during the year (see the graph below), with lower numbers in December, the patterns are very similar for women with and without children; and with school-age or pre-school children – as shown by the second graph below which shows the proportions through the year.

It’s clear that women often have very little choice about when and where they seek help – both because of the threat of the abuser, and the lack of service options.  This includes the fact that many mothers of school-age children cannot avoid relocating during term-time, and children often face a further wait to get into a new school – and still longer to settle and begin to catch up.

Tracy talks about how the disruption to schooling has affected her son:

It has all affected them so much; especially the older one – schoolwise.  And the way I was – he was really affected emotionally as well – seeing me crying and unhappy, and all these changes, and coming to a new place from the old place.

For my son – changing schools – you know, it confuses children from one place to another.  It’s like – he’s changed three times.

Tracy & son (age 12), daughter (age 3)

Mothers have to seek help when and where they can – so it’s clear that it is vital to support children to resettle.  They may be literally safe – especially if they go elsewhere – but needing support to get their lives back on track.  This will include both the practicalities of getting back into school, but also the wider support to undo the harm of a disrupted education.

[1] This is based on a presentation at the forthcoming RGS-IBG Annual Conference: https://www.rgs.org/research/annual-international-conference/

Older women escaping abuse – similarities and differences

Each woman’s journey to escape domestic abuse is unique, and only some include formal services in their help-seeking.  The key focus for any responses should be to respect women’s rights and needs – and listen to their experiences.

But it can be useful to generalise – to some extent – to recognise shared experiences and similarities and differences.  Especially if it is clear that particular groups of women are less likely to use particular types of services – or less likely to seek formal help (or more likely to be turned away if they do).

Older women can often seem to be missing from the experiences of service providers.  Older women do access services – the oldest in the data used in this research was 102.  But older women do seek formal service help in lower numbers.

They also are more likely to have additional needs and barriers:

  • More likely to have physical health problems
  • More likely to have mental health problems
  • More likely to be disabled

And some of these issues may be due to experiencing years of abuse.

There is more detail in a briefing paper from this research.

Some older women will have been experiencing abuse for a very long time before seeking help – like Elizabeth in this research, who planned to leave when her son was independent – and she did when her son left home for university:

“I just thought – I can’t take it any longer.  You know – I’ve stood it for twenty-three years for my son.”

Many older women will not have legally-dependent children, but that is not to say that their children’s needs and concerns don’t continue to affect them, and give ongoing opportunities for the abuser to continue to control the situation.  As Elizabeth said:

“I couldn’t go to my son’s graduation – which upset me in a way; but then, that was my choice, because I didn’t want to see him [husband].  I couldn’t bear to see him.  I’ve seen some of the pictures – that are on the internet – of my husband; and I just had to turn away when I saw him, because it sends the shivers up my spine.”

Though older women may relocate to a refuge, like Elizabeth did; they are significantly more likely to stay put when they seek help, and less likely to go to a different local authority.  But when they do go elsewhere, there is no significant difference from younger women in the average distance travelled.

Older women should not be assumed to be more dependent and needy – in fact, they are more likely to self-refer to services than younger women.   But they are also more likely to have longer engagement with services – being significantly more likely to stay in a service for 9 months or more.  There are only a few services which specifically respond to the needs of older women – like The Silver Project – and there is a toolkit to help professionals improve their responses so older women have a real chance of freedom.

Elizabeth said:

“I knew I was making the right move.  I was worried about my son obviously; and I was worried about the future.  But I thought – it can’t be as bad as what I’m leaving” “ I feel so much better in myself now – than I have done in years; it’s been a great weight off my shoulders.”

Safety isn’t Static

At every twist and turn of women’s journeys away from abuse they are balancing the threats and risks against them with their own needs and plans and options.  It is a constantly changing assessment, as she tries to assess what she needs and wants, against what she can find to help her.

Meanwhile, as she interacts with services and professionals, they may be carrying out formal assessments of her — and her children’s — safety and other needs.

However, current “Risk Assessment” tools are often not dynamic enough to deal with all these moving parts.

One aspect that is often under-recognised by service assessments and responses is how women’s location strategies — whether she is trying to stay put, remain local or go elsewhere — interact with their needs.  The diagram below shows how levels of key needs for safety, wellbeing and resettlement vary according to the strategies women use.

Wellbeing is a constant need—women and children’s wellbeing will have been harmed by the abuse, and can be rebuilt by their own emotional labour, and supported by peer and specialist support in different contexts.

Other needs, however, interact strongly with the strategy a woman is attempting at any one time. If she is attempting to Stay Put, her safety needs will be very high, but her resettlement needs are low, as she and her children are staying in a familiar place. However, if she goes to an unknown and maybe distant place, her safety needs are massively reduced (and she will become ineligible for any risk-based support services) but her resettlement needs are greatly increased as she is literally safe but deeply displaced in a new area.

This shows the folly and injustice of eligibility criteria based solely on assessing level of risk—excluding women and children who are most in need of resettlement support.  Women’s and children’s recovery will therefore take so much longer, with all the personal and economic costs, if they are left literally safe but isolated and stuck in terms of moving on from the abuse.

The interplay of different needs and strategies indicates the importance of holistic and dynamic responses to domestic violence, which build on women’s own responses and rights.  A new open-access article published from this research includes much more detail[1].


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2021. “Stay Put; Remain Local; Go Elsewhere: Three Strategies of Women’s Domestic Violence Help Seeking.” Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence 6 (3): 4. doi:10.23860/dignity.2021.06.03.04. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol6/iss3/4/

Transport yourself to a better place

Women’s experiences and voices are vital in this research – their understandings and insights into their journeys. 

As part of the project, participatory photography was carried out with groups of women in three areas of London: two groups in women’s refuges where women would soon be on the move again, and one at a women’s centre with women who were beginning to resettle. 

Over weekly sessions, participants used their photography and captions to communicate their experiences, producing images, maps and collages for themselves, for the group, for display in women’s services, and for wider presentation through the research.

Transport yourself to a better place © Amy/Cordelia/Daisy/Marilyn/Solace Women’s Aid/Janet Bowstead

In this poster, women took the slogan from a London bus as a metaphor for their own journeys from abuse to freedom.  As a mixture of London-born women, and women who had come to London, they took many photographs of their journeys around London on public and private transport, documenting their growing confidence and familiarity with different routes. 

Within the groups they also shared knowledge of places and journeys – taking photographs and developing maps of useful locations and services for other women they imagined coming after them.  Whilst recognising what they had lost, women also focused on what they could take with them, and on sharing messages of strength and hope to reach other women they imagined making similar forced journeys.  Captions to the photographs included “There is always a ‘Way Out’!” and emphasising in the image of traffic lights that “all the lights are green!”  Through the groupwork, women explored their experiences of displacement and resettlement, and brought their individual images together into collages to show their collaboration.

More images from the groups are in a recently published book chapter – the book will be launched at a free online event on Wednesday 23rd June 2021 at 4pm (BST)[1]

Some of the posters were also part of an online exhibition at the Im/mobile Lives in Turbulent Times conference:


[1] http://itd.territorial-identity.ro/evenimente/

Women’s struggle to be free

Women and children’s journeys to escape abuse are often complex and multi-stage.  From initially staying put, both the behaviour of the abuser and the support (or lack of support) of services and authorities may then force relocation.

Women’s help-seeking strategies may mean that they get the support and protection they need – involving a range of different services – or they might encounter closed doors, judgement and prejudice, lack of belief, misunderstanding, and service responses that make things worse.

This conference presentation video outlines the individuality of women’s domestic violence journey trajectories – as women try to get themselves and their children to a life free from abuse.

Video of conference presentation showing journey-graphs of women’s help-seeking strategies due to domestic violence revealing unique trajectories and ongoing housing insecurity.

The ongoing displacement is striking – both practically and emotionally – as is shown by the example of housing tenure, and ongoing housing insecurity.

These individual examples are taken from tens of thousands of domestic violence journeys – known and unknown to services and the state – and highlight the responsibilities on the state and those services to respond better: to journeyscape:

  • Through effective policies, laws, professional practice, and awareness
  • To build the infrastructure and map the terrain
  • To minimise the losses so women and children retain their rights and status
  • But not to determine the route that any woman takes

The principle should be that women – and their children – go as far as they need / stay as near as they can; and have a right to a life free from abuse.

The Scale of Services

Women and children forced to leave home due to domestic abuse need support and accommodation at the regional and national scale — not just the local scale. 

And they need more than just a temporary roof over their heads — they need the understanding and respect of specialist domestic violence support.  Such specialist support — of which women’s refuges are a key part — can never be taken for granted.

Refuges are under threat, not just from years of cuts to publicly-funded services, but from the very specific mismatch between the scale of funding and the scale of need.

Scale — in this case — is about geographical scale.

Women’s Refuges are still being planned and funded at the scale of local government; and yet it is primarily non-local women and children who need the refuge in any location.

The Domestic Abuse Bill proposes to keep this fundamental mismatch[1] — posing an existential threat to the future of women’s domestic violence refuges.

Local authorities are asked to assess the local need for accommodation services — without any recognition of the very different role of refuges compared to other accommodation services.  And then, as an afterthought, they will be asked to consider the need for cross-border support…

Does this mean their women — travelling elsewhere for support — or women from elsewhere coming into their area for support?  Or both?

Women’s strategy of relocating for safety shouldn’t be an afterthought.

This map shows just one year of women’s domestic violence journeys across borders to access formal services in England (so not any of the local services for local people)[2]:

One year of domestic violence journeys to services

What does all this cross-border travelling mean for any particular Local Authorities?

Let’s look at Brighton and Hove and East Sussex councils, which have just decided to stop funding their local specialist domestic violence organisation, Rise[3].

In one year, women and children come from different English regions and Scotland to access services in the two authorities.  But — and local authorities generally do not acknowledge this — more of their local women go elsewhere to access help.

One year of domestic violence journeys to services in Brighton & Hove and East Sussex
One year of domestic violence journeys from Brighton & Hove and East Sussex to services elsewhere

So Brighton & Hove and East Sussex need services in the rest of the country more than they actually support women and children from elsewhere.

Are councils really going to be able — or willing — to include all this in their needs assessments?

And — if they don’t — there isn’t going to be anywhere for women and children to go…


[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 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

[3] https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/19089879.rise-brighton-loses-13-million-seven-year-contract/

https://www.riseuk.org.uk/news/2021/latest-news-about-rises-funding



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