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

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

An infrastructure for women’s human rights

Imagine a world where there were enough refuge spaces for women and children escaping domestic violence.  Where these refuges were situated all around the country – in all types of places – so that women could go to the right type of place for their needs.

  • Not too close – first and foremost you need safety
  • Not too familiar – the abuser might try and track you down
  • Not too far – so that you don’t feel that you have been forced into exile
  • Not too strange – the kind of place where you can start again

Imagine a world where you could escape if you needed to – and therefore also knew that you could try and stay put (using legal protection and services’ support if necessary) if you wanted to…. because there would always be a safety net if that didn’t work.

Imagine a support system that gave top priority to your rights and needs – that was there to serve you.

A basic infrastructure that you have a fundamental right to access – when and where you need it.

Not the current fragmentation – where local areas can decide whether or not to provide services – and restrict the services they provide to local women and children.  Where you have to keep on proving that you really need help, and prove where you have come from – as if you are asking for some special favour rather than simply your rights…

If we really believe that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms[1] then every state should ensure that women can easily access their right to escape violence.  Every state should provide a comprehensive, fully-functioning infrastructure for women’s human rights.




[1] UN General Assembly. 1993. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993. United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a48r104.htm

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

Are you local?

Because specialist services on domestic abuse, and housing rights and provision, are devolved by the UK Government, there is no consistent response across the country.  There are different responses between the UK nations, and between local authorities – even within the same region.

On top of everything else you have to face if you relocate to escape a violence partner, you have to find out what it means to have left your local area and journeyed somewhere else.

Statutory services in your new area will ask – Are you local?

– and, if you are not, then you may find yourself or your children at the back of the queue for services – or even not eligible at all.

This is particularly the case if you need homelessness help – if you want to try and go to social housing.  By law, local authorities have to determine if you have a “Local Connection”, and – if not – whether you have a good enough reason for now being in their area and seeking help.

Tens of thousands of women and children are forced to relocate due to domestic abuse – and many cross local authority boundaries and seek help in an unknown place.  But this means that they often have no “Local Connection” – the lack of connection is often vital for them to feel and be safe.  However, the research in this project has shown that most local authorities have a similar number of women and children leaving as the number who arrive to seek help[1] – so the authorities are not unfairly affected.  They are only helping women and children to the same extent as their women and children are being helped elsewhere.

So it’s good to see the Scottish Government consulting[2] on easing the “Local Connection” legislation, recognising that “Choice may lead to better outcomes than a strict interpretation of the legislative test.”  They see the importance for resettlement if people who have been forced to move from their local area are able to go to their kind of place to start again: that “People experiencing homelessness are best placed to make the judgement as to the geographical area which best meets these needs.”


[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] https://www.gov.scot/publications/consultation-local-connection-intentionality-provisions-homelessness-legislation/

More than just safety

Women’s refuges were first developed in the 1970s as part of a wider feminist movement.  They were set up to help women and children by providing a roof over their heads when they needed to escape male violence.  So, a safe place to stay was central over forty years ago – and is still vital today[1].

But women’s refuges provide more than just safety.  The refuge movement also had the goals of challenging male violence and changing women’s position in society; as well as helping individual women.  It’s important to remember these roots, and a project on the early history of refuges in the East of England and in East London has been interviewing the pioneers of the 1970s to provide an oral history archive of women’s experiences[2]

Refuges in the UK have developed and changed over the decades, and refuges on a range of different models have been set up around the world.  There have been positive and negative changes; such as improvements in the quality of accommodation, but also constraints on length of stay.  Many refuges in the UK were originally run by volunteers – often women who themselves had experienced domestic abuse in the past – and have seen increases and decreases in funding for paid workers over the years.  A feminist ethos of mutual self-help has sometimes been replaced by a more social service ethos of professional staff helping ‘service users’. 

So there are many different ways of running a refuge, and a recent article as part of this journeyscapes research highlights how the practices of workers and residents help create a dynamic space for so much more than safety[3].

It is important both to remember the history, and to take the insights forward to face the current threats to women’s refuges.


[1] To find a place in a refuge call the free: National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 2000 247 (24 hours)

[2] https://www.youcantbeatawoman.co.uk/

[3] Janet C. Bowstead (2019): Spaces of safety and more-than-safety in women’s refuges in England, Gender, Place & Culture, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1541871

Do we need another law?

Governments often find it easier to pass another law which claims to tackle a complex issue, rather than implement the laws that are already in place.  And rather than develop and sustain the services and social infrastructure that are needed to make a real difference.

It looks like this is happening again in the UK.  In February 2017 the UK Government – Theresa May herself – claimed “I believe that the plans I have announced today have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse”[1].

In March 2018 Theresa May pledged to “bring forward new legislation as part of my longstanding commitment to end domestic abuse”[2].

But the proposed Bill focuses yet again on the criminal justice system, with new definitions and the possibility of longer sentences for convicted perpetrators.  It doesn’t focus on developing a society that prevents abuse and supports survivors.  Many women who experience abuse go nowhere near the criminal justice system – often these are the tens of thousands of women (and children) who relocate every year in the UK.

If the Government wants to change the options and life chances of these women and children, it needs to ensure sustained funding for the specialist services all around the country that enable woman and children to rebuild their lives after abuse.  We do not need a new law for that – we need everything from lessons on healthy relationships in schools, to refuges all around the country for women to escape to, to holistic and timely practical and emotional support.

This would need effective action[3] by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, by the Department for Education, by the Department of Health and Social Care, by the Department for Work and Pensions – not a new law.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/theresa-may-domestic-violence-abuse-act-laws-consultation

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/08/theresa-may-domestic-violence-bill-women

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/24/brexit-theresa-may-domestic-abuse-bill-universal-credit