Searching and Waiting

Many women have nowhere to go when they try to escape domestic abuse – if they try to get to specialist support services, like refuges, they can face a dangerous period of searching and waiting for help.  Some are turned away from statutory services that should offer them help – including housing and social services – and they may also find refuges full, or unable to meet their needs.

 

The women and children who do get to formal support services have often already been on the move – staying in temporary arrangements such as with family or friends, or sleeping rough.

 

It was only after finally being able to get to a refuge that Cathy could reflect on the months of precarious stays with friends, on the street and returning to her abusive partner:

 

‘I didn’t want to go home; but I didn’t have anywhere to go. So some of the things I did was crazy – like sleeping in parks … what the hell was I thinking? Walking on streets in the early hours of the morning – two, three o’clock. I ask myself now – what was I doing?’ [Cathy – age 46 – no children]

 

Of those women who do manage to find a place in a support service, many are not moving directly from the abusive relationship, but are already on the move.  In the period up to 2009, over 40% were previously in other temporary accommodation – half of these were staying with family or friends.  Whilst this may indicate cramped living conditions, it may also indicate danger if a women is escaping a partner or husband who knows her so well.

 

I thought hed always find me; and that hed be violent towards my family if I did go because Ive tried many times before. And when the police came they said you can go back to your parents; and I said to them no, theres no way, because he always finds me. [The police said] You should go to a friendbut I said I dont want to put this on any of my friends. [Violet – age 35 with a 6 year old boy]

 

Research just published by Women’s Aid[1] highlights this period of searching and waiting for women who need to relocate.  Even with the intensive help of caseworkers, only a quarter of the women supported by the project were accommodated in a suitable refuge space; often after a period of 1-2 weeks or longer.  Some slept rough whilst searching and waiting; and others stayed put with the abuser, and experienced further abuse and injuries.  The conclusions are that women are being turned away and sent back to abuse when they seek help.

 

[1] https://www.womensaid.org.uk/pregnant-women-child-survivors-left-sleeping-rough-current-system-fails/

How do women hear about refuges?

If you have been to a domestic violence refuge yourself, or you know someone who has, you may have a clear sense of what a ‘refuge’ is and the kind of help provided there.  Similarly, if you work in public services – in housing, health, social work or the police, for example – you may be familiar with referring women and their children to a refuge.  After all, there have been domestic violence refuges for women and children in the UK since the 1970s, and a recent presentation to the UN Human Rights Council described refuges (‘shelters’) as “survival tools which protect women whose lives are at risk” and “human rights obligations” “not optional extras”[1].

But many people have no idea that anyone would help them if they experience abuse – and have no idea what a domestic violence refuge is.

Cathy was from the UK but spent much of her adult life in the USA, so when she returned to the UK did not know about her options when her partner became violent.

‘I’d already made my decision years ago to go; but I always ended up going back – not because I liked him, but because I had nowhere to go.’

She didn’t find out about refuges from formal public information, but from a chance conversation while she was sleeping rough and keeping warm in a late-night restaurant.

‘I was in McDonald’s in Marble Arch, and I was just talking to a person in there – just a regular customer – and she said – why don’t you call the Domestic Violence shelter?’

When a Housing Officer told Gloria he would refer her and her baby to a refuge, he didn’t think to explain to her what a ‘refuge’ was.

‘I said ‘refuge’?  I have no idea what you are talking about – explain to me what a refuge is – because I say to them – you’re sending me to prison?  Did I commit something that I don’t understand?’

Many women and children are so isolated in an abusive relationship that they do not know about refuges.  It’s vital for everyone to think about how they could ensure that women hear about refuges if they need them – think about having leaflets and the freephone number (0808 2000 247) available anywhere where a woman might first find out about her right to escape abuse.

[1] Press release 12 June 2017 ‘States must provide shelters as “survival tool” for women victims of violence – UN expert’ http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21724&LangID=E

Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session35/Pages/ListReports.aspx

Moving – and Moving On

The metaphor of ‘moving on’ is more often used in policy and practice responses to domestic violence than thinking about the actual journeys of women and children moving all around the country.

 

Women often experience their literal journeys as unsettling and disorientating; and therefore feel that they will not really know where they are going with their lives until they can stop literally going places.

 

“I was just feeling like – you still don’t know where you are going, what you are doing, you know.  I was just – until before I was like – I don’t know what I’m doing; you know you feel embarrassed sometimes – moving all your stuff, you know; and with children and all that.  It was like – oh, what am I doing, what am I doing?  Where am I going?  It’s not easy.  You don’t know really – it’s only like that I left but I don’t know where I’m going.”

[Julien Rosa – age 24 with 3 and 7 year old boys]

 

They feel that they need to stop moving, to be able to get their lives back on course.

 

“In a way I feel quite drained and really tired; I can’t wait to just get in to a new place and just sit – not physically, but mentally.  To be able to just –[sigh]- it’s done; and just wake up and be all like – this is it – I’m going, I’m moving – not just plodding, plodding, plodding.”      

[Louise – age 28, with 7 year old girl]

 

All the moving means that women feel stuck – that their lives have been put on hold.

 

“I just think – where would I be now if I hadn’t moved – where would I be?  Because I’ve moved so many times – years have had to be put on hold because of it – and I didn’t want to start life this late.  Like going to college and things like that – it should have been done a long time ago.”

[Jenny – age 21, with a 3 year old girl]

 

It is when they finally become more settled that they feel they are able to start ‘moving on’.

 

“I’ve just been so lucky really – really have.  It’s just that – after years of hell – all of a sudden I’m in this place – and I don’t mean the flat – I mean this wonderful place; and it just feels amazing.  And I just think – feeling like that – helps you then to move on with other things as well.”

[Helen – age 52 with 3 adult children]

Becoming yourself again

An abusive partner strips away your identity.

 

“In the beginning, you compromise a lot – you change who you are – to be somebody that he wants you to be.  So, in the end you don’t have – you’re not yourself.”

[Gloria – age 41 with a 1 year old boy]

“You feel like you are wrong – for me I was thinking always that I was all wrong; I’m doing the wrong thing, when he says so.”

[Julien Rosa – age 24 with 3 and 7 year old boys]

 

In escaping the violence, women talk about rebuilding their sense of self.

 

“I’ve gone through quite a lot of transitions – it’s weird – maybe it’s just because you can be yourself.  I always wanted to dye my hair – so – why not? – I can now; wear what you want, eat what you want.”

[Violet – age 35 with a 6 year old boy]

“[I had] a couple of pieces of clothing I didn’t wear because my mind is still trying to figure out – what do I wear? – after being so long in isolation…  you tend to forget what your style was.  So you make mistakes and buy things and then think – no, this ain’t me – so you put it aside.”

[Cathy – age 46 – no children]

 

And in a safe place, they feel they are becoming themselves again.

 

“I’m still who I am – I’m just able to be who I am.  Because you kind of forget who that person is when you’re in a relationship like that.  So – I don’t feel I’ve changed; I think I’m just becoming who I am again.”

[Helen – age 52 with 3 adult children]

“I can be myself – I am so happy!  So much more happier than I was at home – the true me has actually come out – instead of hiding the person that I was – I’m the person I want to be.” 

[Aliya – age 24 – no children]

Mothering on the move

Over half the women making journeys to services have children with them – and their children are important in what they are thinking and doing.

 

Mothering on the move is not easy – women are trying to support their children to make sense of the abuse and to understand the need to relocate; at the same time as dealing with all the practical and emotional disruptions.

 

I said [to the Housing officer] – if I was on my own, I’d sleep in a tree; but it’s my little baby!  Why does he have to go through that?  

[Gloria – age 41 with a 1 year old boy]

 

For my son – changing schools – you know, it confuses children from one place to another.  It’s like – he’s changed three times […] in a short period of time; so it wasn’t something that I wanted to do to my children.

[Tracy – age 34 with a 12 year old boy and a 3 year old girl]

 

I think she [daughter] always feels that she ain’t going to be around her friends forever – she thinks she’s always going to be taken away from them.  That’s why I want to have her settled before she’s in a school – because it’s getting close now – and I just don’t want to have to move her.

[Jenny – age 21 with a 3 year old girl]

 

My daughter hates me, because she’s lost her friends – she’s got difficulties with social – she’s Asperger’s – so, of course, she’s made friends and all of a sudden she’s got to go as well – so she’s suffering.  And I wouldn’t let her out, so she says – I’m going to run away; because you won’t let me out – it’s wrong.  But I couldn’t explain to her – because he’s [ex partner] always nice to her – do you know what I mean.  In fact, sometimes, he’d try and get her on side against me.

[Maud – age 42 with an adult son and 14 year old girl]

 

However, in escaping the violence, mothers also talk about the positives as their children are able to feel safe and begin to recover; and they themselves are able to be the mother they would want to be.

 

I think what a better life we’ve got now, and he’s changed – he’s like a different child – all that anger’s gone; and the swearing and the pulling of the hair – he’s like a different person.  And the compliments that people say – oh, he’s an asset to you; isn’t he polite…  and when I was with his dad I’d never had that – never – because he was just so naughty.

I really do enjoy life, and I appreciate life – so you have got a bit of a second chance to make a relationship with your child.

[Violet – age 35 with a 6 year old boy]

 

It’s like last Mother’s Day she put her arms around me and give me a hug and said – you’re the best mum ever!  It’s the first time ever in my life she’s hugged me – because she doesn’t do hugs; they [children with Asperger’s] don’t like that – touching things. 

[Maud – age 42 with an adult son and 14 year old girl]

 

Now – the more often that I take him out – he’s getting used to it now; and I’m actually happy for him – his health and everything has just changed.  He used to be plugged with colds and coughs and all that, but now he’s a happy baby!

[Gloria – age 41 with a 1 year old boy]