Developing an ETHICAL response to service provision for domestic violence against women

This research on women’s domestic violence journeys aims to underpin an ETHICAL response, highlighting seven key elements of an effective service provision: Eligibility, Type, Holistic, Independence, Capacity, Accessibility, Location.

  • Eligibility
    • rights and needs-based – a service infrastructure designed around women and children rather than forcing women and children to navigate a fragmented and ill-suited infrastructure.
    • no location or risk-assessed criteria or rationing.
    • not excluding women and children due to legal status – such as migration status, criminal convictions or debt – with any proceedings being put on hold until support and security have been provided.
  • Type
    • A range of types of services for a range of needs, including:
      • Women’s Refuge accommodation + support
      • Other accommodation-based support
      • Non-accommodation services – one-to-one support
    • Specialisms – around cultural, health needs, higher support needs.
    • Note that core service needs not addressed in this formula include: Peer support, children’s support, advocacy through complex and hostile systems.
  • Holistic
    • Services as only a part of wider co-ordinated and multi-agency responses so that women and children can journey through at their pace and need – involving and not involving the services and support they choose.
    • Providing support on abuse issues in the context of other issues women and children may be experiencing over time.
  • Independence
    • Recognising the pervasive nature of coercive control within abusive relationships, the interactions and relationships of services with women and children must not replicate coercion, control, or limitations on freedom or autonomy.
    • Service provision must operate with independence from statutory authorities (even if receiving funds from statutory authorities), including not sharing personal information inappropriately.
  • Capacity
    • Sufficient for the level of expressed need – at the point of need.
    • Including an expected level of vacancy/voids/free capacity, so that service provision does not exploit or exhaust the workers or ration the availability of support.
    • Flexibility – able to respond when needed – recognising that women have to seek help when they can and may be unable to wait on a ‘waiting list’.
    • Evidence-based – not reducing, developing or changing services unless there is clear evidence of needs.
  • Accessibility
    • Services must be constantly vigilant about barriers to accessibility – where women and children who deserve and would benefit from a service are unable to access it.
    • This may be due to issues of Eligibility, Capacity, or Location; but may additionally be about addressing aspects of specialist support, legal status, and the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of service providers.
  • Location
    • Women experience domestic abuse everywhere, so the location of services must enable both staying put and journeys – including return journeys where appropriate.
    • All types of places – so that you can go as far as you need/ stay as near as you can.
    • The location of help-seeking should not necessarily cement the location of longer-term resettlement.
    • About fundamental eligibility as a survivor of abuse – violence against women as a human rights violation – to go and be wherever is best.

Technical Paper on a formula for the Type and Capacity of services in England

The elements of service provision characterised as Eligibility, Holistic, Independence, Accessibility are based on principles, and are evidence-based from past learning, research literature, human rights law, and experience of decades of domestic abuse service provision. These are discussed in other blog posts, briefing papers and publications available on this website.

A technical paper on developing a formula for the Type and Capacity of domestic abuse services in England has just been published and is available here. The minimum required capacity of three types of services is estimated as:

Accommodation – A minimum of 5,369 family bedspaces

  • 4,497 should be ‘Women’s Refuge’ spaces
  • 872 ‘Other’ types of support accommodation

Non-accommodation – A minimum of 1,084 fte (full-time-equivalent) community-based specialist support workers (separate roles from ‘advice’; or risk-based ‘advocacy’) rising to a minimum of 1,543 fte workers to be able to support women with additional needs beyond the domestic abuse

Staying Put – the problems of joint tenancies

Women experiencing domestic abuse should be able to stay put in their homes – whilst safely continuing their lives and connections with friends, family, work and education.

That’s obvious.

Tens of thousands of women and children relocate due to domestic abuse – but for many others, they try to stay put.

However, even if they could safely do this, they are often caught in the trap of a joint tenancy with the perpetrator of the abuse.

Perpetrators may use the joint tenancy as another tool of abuse. They may have originally used coercion to get themselves onto the tenancy, which the woman had in her sole name before. They may threaten to terminate the tenancy and/or continue to maintain control by refusing to remove themselves voluntarily from the tenancy. They may use their name on the tenancy as a means of continuing post-separation abuse – claiming that they could move back into the home. Survivors of abuse may find themselves trapped by the power of the perpetrator threatening to keep/end/keep/end the tenancy – never being free from the control and abuse.

The Government says in its Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan that it has the aim of “bringing victims and survivors more security if the right option for them is remaining in their own home”[1] but there are legal changes urgently needed to make this a reality for women with joint tenancies.

Currently, the legal procedures may be expensive and/or complicated[2] – with survivors often not knowing their options or rights, and finding themselves facing eviction, or being forced to relocate, with all the losses and uncertainties that follow from that.

A real option of staying put is needed.

To provide this, an alternative legal procedure has been proposed[3] – it was raised during the development of the Domestic Abuse Bill; though it was not included by the Government in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It would provide a simplified legal mechanism for the transfer of a tenancy in the family court if a survivor of domestic abuse shares a joint secured or social tenancy with the perpetrator. It would recognise the tenancy rights within a joint tenancy, but provide a proportionate response to be able to promote the safety, stability, and housing security of the survivor.

Now it is being proposed again in response to the Government’s consultation on the impacts of joint tenancies on victims of domestic abuse. The consultation[4] is open until 10th May 2022 – asking landlords, lawyers and individuals about what is currently happening, and what the Government should do about it. We’ll have to see how the Government responds this time….

Women fleeing domestic abuse are fleeing a human rights violation: they should be able to stay put, stay as near as they can, or travel as far as they need without any detriment to their lives.


[1] HM Government (March 2022) ‘Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1064427/E02735263_Tackling_Domestic_Abuse_CP_639_Accessible.pdf

[2] National Group briefing on Joint Tenancies and Survivors of Domestic Abuse (2021) https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/media/11058/domestic-abuse-bill-joint-tenancies-qa.pdf

[3] National Group response to MHCLG’s New Deal for renting (2019), https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/what-we-do/national-policy-practice-group/our-national-group-responses-to-government-consultations/

[4] Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (15 February 2022) ‘Consultation on the impacts of joint tenancies on victims of domestic abuse’ https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-the-impacts-of-joint-tenancies-on-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Drawbridges and Moats – the problems of local connection

Despite decades of recognition that domestic abuse forces journeys across local authority boundaries, and the further evidence of the scale of such journeys from this research, so many aspects of the system of services and support remain fragmented down to the local authority scale.

Local authorities can tend to operate as closed systems – like they are surrounded by moats to cut them off from everything else. As soon as you cross that boundary, everything changes – your rights to services, your place on waiting lists, your housing, schooling, college access, and so much else.

Government has further reinforced these boundaries – deepened these moats – by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 devolving needs assessments and strategies for safe accommodation to the local authority scale.

Yet tens of thousands of women and children have to move to a different local authority due to the violence and abuse.

And the problem isn’t just at the crisis point of seeking emergency accommodation – it continues when women try to find housing where they can resettle longer term, and find themselves caught out by residency requirements that they cannot fulfil. The drawbridge that let them cross to another place in emergency, is pulled up again when they try to apply for social housing, and they are turned away.

In 2018 statutory guidance was issued[1] because – to quote – “The government believes that victims fleeing domestic abuse should be given as much assistance as possible to ensure they are able to re-build their lives away from abuse and harm.”

But this clearly isn’t working.

Now the Government has realised that “domestic abuse victims are being denied social housing allocations in some areas because they have no local connection to an area” and identifies the need “to consider further measures beyond statutory guidance”[2]. The proposed solution for England is “to introduce regulations so that local authorities would be prevented from applying a local connection or residency test to victims who have been forced to flee to another local authority district in order to escape domestic abuse.”

But it wants to find out whether this is a good idea.

So there is a consultation at present[2] – until 10th May 2022 – asking local authorities and individuals about what is currently happening, and what the Government should do about it.

Women fleeing domestic abuse are fleeing a human rights violation: they should be able to stay as near as they can, or travel as far as they need, without being forced any further, and without any detriment to their lives.

But many of the consultation questions are not concerned with enabling rights and support, but are concerned that any change should be strictly limited. Proposed limits include that exemption from ‘local connection’ only applies for a limited time period “after the victim has fled domestic abuse” or that the social housing is only being considered “for reasons connected with that abuse”. The consultation asks about limiting it in terms of the current accommodation (eg. refuge, temporary accommodation, private rented), in terms of moving to England from the rest of the UK, and in terms of the kind of evidence of domestic abuse that local authorities require.

The consultation recognises the tensions between neighbouring authorities currently providing different levels of services, and pleads “We wish to see local authorities working together with neighbouring authorities”.

But nothing is proposed to make this happen.

Yet again, Government is not considering the larger scale over which tens of thousands of women and children travel – and is not taking national responsibilities – but is hoping that local authorities will make boundary-crossing work a bit better for a limited number, within limited circumstances.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/improving-access-to-social-housing-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Statutory guidance: Improving access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse

Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 10 November 2018

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-local-connection-requirements-for-social-housing-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Consultation on local connection requirements for social housing for victims of domestic abuse

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 15 February 2022

When is a ‘refuge’ not a refuge?

There has never been sufficient accommodation for women and children who need to go elsewhere due to abuse: for somewhere safe, secret and supportive away from the abuser.

Women’s refuges provide both the (temporary) accommodation in places all around the country and the holistic specialist and peer support that is recognised as needed to begin recovery from abuse. Refuges provide much more than just safety[1].

But there has never been enough refuge space for women and children.

Space has become even tighter in the last decade, due to both the closure of some services, and the fact that women are often staying longer in refuges as they wait for some more-settled housing. Other forms of temporary accommodation are filling the gap between the acute need, and the lack of provision, and there is increasing concern about what these types of accommodation really provide. They are known as ‘exempt accommodation’ because they are exempt – like women’s refuges – from the usual Housing Benefit rules that limit rents, due to offering additional support.

However – do they really offer the support that is needed? A Commons Select Committee of Parliament is currently carrying out an inquiry to find out what is going on – prompted by concerns about “unscrupulous landlords failing to provide the support and care that vulnerable tenants need”. In contrast to the quality standards developed with and by women survivors and women’s organisations, there is widespread concern that other providers are unregulated and drive down standards to increase profits.

So, what is a refuge?

The Government has stated key factors that are necessary for a refuge, such as “a planned programme of therapeutic and practical support from staff”, that the “address will not be publicly available”, that it will be “single gender or single sex accommodation”, that “the service will enable peer support from other refuge residents”, and that the “duration of support to be based on needs and not pre-set timescales”. However, there has been a sharp increase in providers who may claim to provide refuge accommodation, but do not meet these minimum standards. And yet they are currently using the status of ‘exempt accommodation’ to claim high levels of public money under Housing Benefit regulations.

The short timescale of the inquiry call for evidence may mean that there are few responses. Indeed, there were only 133 responses to the Government consultation on the whole issue of ‘safe accommodation’ under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. However, there are due to be further public evidence hearings, and it is vital that the Select Committee identifies the rules and regulations needed so that the accommodation women and children have to flee to due to abuse really provides them with what they need.

For women and children’s support and safety, they need and deserve specialist and supportive services – including genuine refuges if they have been forced to relocate.


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2019. “Spaces of Safety and More-than-Safety in Women’s Refuges in England.” Gender, Place and Culture 26 (1): 75–90. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1541871.

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.

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: https://www.womensjourneyscapes.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Womens-Journeyscapes-Briefing-paper-6-May-2020.pdf

The long and winding road

How many twists and turns do women have to make to escape abusive partners?

Only each woman herself would be able to map the road she has travelled – and often she still won’t know if there are more journeys to make.

Interviews with twenty women about their domestic violence journeys showed complex trajectories which could be over 2, 3, or more years; and involving nine or ten moves[1].  And women and their children could still be in temporary or insecure accommodation and anxious about when they would have to move again.

Analysis of the administrative data in this current research project[2] is revealing complex journeys of moves and stays – accessing different types of services across England.  It is only possible to link the data over a maximum of four years, and what is most striking is that these journeys seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. 

For example, a 22 year old woman, with no children, is recorded as having ten stays either in services or between accessing services; travelling over 600 miles within England in under 3 years.  But the first service record is in a women’s refuge – so she was already on the move due to domestic violence before this administrative record begins. 

A 39 year old woman, with a 3 year old daughter and a 1 year old son, was in a local authority tenancy at the start of the administrative record.  But over 800 miles later, in under year, she and her children had 7 stays in different types of accommodation, and the final recorded move is to stay with friends.  Even such complex trajectories are clearly only part of longer journeys away from abuse.

The administrative data only record what happened – we need to listen to women at every stage to understand which journeys are necessary, and which are more about a failure to provide the right support at that point in the road.


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2016. “Women on the Move: Theorising the Geographies of Domestic Violence Journeys in England.” Gender, Place and Culture 24 (1): 108–121. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2016.1251396.

[2] EUGEO. 2019. Re-Imagining Europe’s Future Society and Landscapes: EUGEO Congress 2019 Book of Abstracts. Galway, Ireland [Page 205] “Keep on running: women’s multiple moves in seeking security from domestic violence”. https://www.eugeo2019.eu/conference-schedule.

Still waiting for security

The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018 became law in May last year – but there is no sign of it actually coming into force.

The Act had support in all political parties – believing that no-one should have to prioritise their personal security in escaping abuse, over their longer-term housing security.

It should mean that anybody in England who leaves a secure social housing tenancy due to domestic abuse should receive the same security of tenure when they apply to a new local authority.

So what’s happened?

Well, it seems to be waiting for the Secretary of State to fill in the detail – to provide the regulations[1].

In the past year, since it became law, thousands of women will have left permanent housing tenancies to escape domestic abuse.

Did they lose those tenancies?  Did they keep the security of a permanent tenancy?

The simple answer is, we don’t know.

There is now a new Secretary of State[2] – the second since the Bill was first introduced – and we’re still waiting…


[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/11/section/2/enacted

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/ministers/secretary-of-state-for-housing-communities-and-local-government

Is it ‘some’ or ‘many’?

The Government’s consultation[1] about the accommodation needs of domestic abuse survivors provides a welcome focus on women’s and children’s needs in terms of support and refuge.  But in its proposal to place a statutory duty on only local (rather than national) government, it appears confused about the scale of the issue of relocation due to domestic abuse.

In the main part of the consultation document there is some acknowledgement of the needs of those who move across borders to access support:

“We recognise that in some cases, an appropriate response to supporting a victim and their children will be to help them move to another local area to access services and rebuild their lives.” [p22]

And the suggested Statutory Duty on local authorities would require them to:

“Assess the need and demand for accommodation-based support for all victims and their children, including those who require cross-border support.” [p17]

But this reminder has disappeared by the overview summary two pages later, which only says:

“Assess the need and demand for accommodation-based support for all victims and their children” [p19]

This makes the needs and rights of tens of thousands of women and children who cross local authority boundaries appear a bit of an afterthought.

And yet, in the Annex of “Priorities for Domestic Abuse Services” there is repeated recognition that:

“many victims of domestic abuse need to flee from their local area to access services and stay safe.” [p42]

And that local authorities are expected to commission services that:

 “Meet the needs of victims from within and outside the local area, recognising that many victims move from their local area to be safe.” [p43]

So – is it a marginal issue affecting some individuals; or does it affect many?

Of course, it affects many – tens of thousands – and this consultation (which ends on 2nd August 2019) is an important opportunity to wake up to that fact; and ensure that women and children who relocate across boundaries due to domestic abuse do not continue to disappear through the gaps in policy, service provision and rights.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/support-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse-in-safe-accommodation