The isolation of a mass migration

Isolation is one of the tactics often used by controlling and abusive men: keeping women away from friends, family and other sources of information and support. It is one of the ways of stopping her thinking of escape – and stopping her finding out how to.

Abusive men may try and tell their partners who they can or cannot see – or try and keep track of texts, calls emails… But they may also just make it so uncomfortable for friends and family to call round, or meet up – or may move women to a new area to increase the isolation.

The flow of women – often with children – accessing support services due to domestic violence shows a mass migration in England. Women travelling from every local authority area, and ending up in every local authority area.

But it doesn’t often feel like a mass migration for each woman at the time – she may feel like she’s the only one fleeing abuse, and completely isolated and alone.

The middle point of the flow diagram shows women accessing services – this might be the first time she meets other women escaping abuse: the first time she feels that she’s not on her own. Support services may be the first time of not being so isolated – of realising that you are not to blame for the abuse – of not being so alone.

The administrative data of domestic violence journeys show a mass migration – but women and children themselves can feel so isolated – especially if they do not get the support they need and deserve.

For a poster of the flow diagram, fill in the contact form.

Perverse incentives in (not) assessing need

How do you assess the need for domestic abuse support in a Local Authority area?

It is well-known how hidden domestic abuse is – that many women keep their experiences secret and never seek formal help. Others do seek help, but are turned away. Others do not disclose the violence or abuse until they are safely away from where the perpetrator might find them.

But over and above all that… assessing need in an area depends on what the word ‘in’ means…

  • Is it the women and children already in an area?
    • but what about the many forced to move away because of the abuse…
  • Is it the women and children coming into an area to seek help?
  • Is it both?

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 requires Local Authorities (Counties and Unitary Authorities – and London as a whole) to “assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the need for accommodation-based support in its area”[1].

But how can they do that?

To take the example of one year of help-seeking to services and one local authority – Cambridgeshire:


The local authority should be able to count the number of women who manage to access formal services – women’s refuges and other types of accommodation – due to domestic abuse;  and include that in their ‘needs assessment’. But that depends – of course – on them providing services in the first place…

And the majority – it can be noted – do not actually come from Cambridgeshire…

And then, what about Cambridgeshire women and children? – where do they go to access services?

Well, some ‘remain local’ – remain within Cambridgeshire – but many (and the vast majority of those needing women’s refuges) go elsewhere[1]

So, should Cambridgeshire be including these as well in its ‘needs assessment’? – maybe if it provided more services they would have been able to stay in the County… maybe they wouldn’t…

Certainly, Cambridgeshire is very unlikely to have any data on all those who ‘go elsewhere’ as the whole point is that they are escaping the abuse – they are not going to wait and inform the authorities of their plans.

So, any local authority – like Cambridgeshire – is only going to be able to count those who come into its area if it already provides services for them to come to; and is unlikely to have any idea of the numbers of its women and children who flee elsewhere.

With the best will in the world, a very partial needs assessment is all that is possible… and there is a perverse incentive to reduce or limit service provision, so that there is less expressed need in your area – and therefore less ‘need’ to provide services for…

Is this what local authorities are currently doing?  Given that the ‘needs assessments’ are not made public, it’s impossible to know…

But it’s clear that if you wanted to design a system to fail to meet domestic abuse accommodation needs, then this would be a good way to do it….


[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

[1] Domestic Abuse Act 2021 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/17/section/57/enacted

The Opportunity to Allow, Enable or Assist

Leaving abuse is a process – not an event – and often involves points of interaction with agencies, professionals, family, friends, employers, or even strangers.

Each interaction provides an opportunity.

Every woman has been dealing with the reality and consequences of domestic abuse from before she has any contact with services; and will be doing so for long afterwards. But the impact of these interactions on the journey can be crucial.

Women are experts in their own lives, and are passing through a complicated and fragmented system which may or may not help them. At each encounter with family, friends, services, professionals, or strangers she may need

  • to be allowed to continue her journey – pursue her strategies – and not be blocked
  • to be enabled in practical or emotional ways – with information and input – and not be blanked
  • to be actively assisted by services, support and resources – formally or informally – and not have her strategies broken

The encounters and interactions need to build on where she is at – and what she wants and needs.

Whatever women need, they are still managing their own lives, and have the right to do so; and do not need a replication of the surveillance and control previously wielded by the perpetrator.

Therefore, it is crucial – whether you are friends or family; or professionals in statutory or voluntary organisations – to see the opportunity at the point of interaction. The opportunity to Allow, Enable or Assist women’s own strategies.

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/

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.

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 

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