Exit route

Frances Rickford investigates the prospects of mothers and
children who have suffered from domestic violence and reports on
moves to improve the provision of refuges

“Domestic violence is a crime”, “Enough is enough”, “Domestic
abuse – there’s no excuse” boom the campaign posters.
Violence in the home is being taken more seriously than ever across
the UK. Many government bodies and public agencies now have
detailed strategies on domestic violence, with more than 200
multi-agency forums on the issue according to Women’s Aid.
The government is consulting on changes to make it easier to remove
the perpetrator of domestic violence from the home, and so enable
women and children to avoid homelessness.1

But despite improvements in many services, life for most of the
children who have to flee their homes because of violence is still
full of fear and uncertainty.

Domestic violence accounts for around a quarter of all recorded
crime in England and Wales with an incident being reported to
police every minute, and studies have indicated that children are
living in a high proportion of violent homes. One study found that
in 90 per cent of instances of domestic violence, children were in
either the same or the next room. There is now abundant evidence
and that witnessing violence is seriously harmful to their
development, and that many men who are violent to their female
partners are also violent to children in the household.

The experience of those working in refuges is that women will
put up with violence from a male partner sometimes for many years
before they leave, and may also leave and return home many times.
When they do leave it is often during an emergency, when their
fears for their own or their children’s safety have reached
crisis point. Finding somewhere safe to go is the first priority,
but with a roof over their heads their troubles are still far from

Children too face the disruption and stress of being made
suddenly homeless, with the prospect of months of waiting before
they find a permanent new home. For children in asylum-seeking
families, the options are even fewer. Asylum

seekers experiencing domestic violence are ineligible for income
support or housing benefit.

The quality of the temporary accommodation that these families
find themselves in is still a lottery. Although far from ideal,
life for in a women’s refuge is likely to offer children a
lot more support than other forms of temporary accommodation.
Nearly all refuges for women escaping domestic violence run by
voluntary sector Women’s Aid groups have facilities for
children, including a play area and in about three-quarters, a
dedicated children’s support worker. Some also offer support
to teenagers, although nine out of 10 refuges operate an upper age
limit for admitting teenage boys – most commonly 16 but in some
cases 14 or 15. Most refuges also provide outreach support for
children – including older boys – who have moved on from the
refuge. But the funding of children’s support work in refuges
is precarious, with many posts funded on a temporary basis by the
lottery’s Community Fund, the Children’s Fund or BBC
Children in Need.

But for every homeless family in a refuge there are about
another six made homeless through domestic violence who are living
in some other sort of temporary accommodation including with
friends or relatives, in hostels, or in bed and breakfast hotels,
and these are far less likely to have access to support for
children, or even space for play.

How long families have to wait before they get a permanent home
depends on many factors including where they want to live and the
size of the family. Sandra McCormack, Family Support Worker at
Angus Women’s Aid, reports that a family with four children
would probably have to wait for a year before they were offered a
home, and a smaller family wanting to be rehoused in a desirable
area could also wait many months. Government research has suggested
that security in their new home is often the highest priority for
families who have experienced domestic violence, but because of
housing shortages they are most likely to be offered homes in
neighbourhoods perceived as unsafe.

For children, a long stay in any kind of temporary accommodation
often disrupts their education, and when families have to share
kitchens and even bathrooms for long periods, tensions build up.
However, as Cormack reports, close friendships between children,
and between their mothers are often forged in refuges. “Living
collectively with strangers isn’t very easy but women do
bond. Two women in this refuge have just gone away on holiday
together with their children.”

The government has now set aside £7m for local authorities
to fund an expansion of dedicated refuge provision, including self
contained move-on flats to help prepare families for living
independently. Under the Supporting People funding regime, local
authorities will also be able to commission support for families
once they have been rehoused to help them settle down and maintain
their new tenancies, as well as fund housing-related support to
families in temporary accommodation because of domestic

Things are undoubtedly improving. But until we reach the stage
where we can guarantee protection from domestic violence to women
and children without forcing them into months of homelessness and
instability, the damage to children will continue.

1 Home Office, Safety
and Justice: The Government’s Proposals on Domestic
, 2003


See The Provision of Accommodation and Support for
Households Experiencing Domestic Violence in England (Housing
Report 2002)
, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2002, www.housing.odpm.gov.uk/information/domestic/report/

‘Many are angry and confused’

Michelle Robson is education support worker for young people
aged 13 to 19 at Hull Women’s Aid. She supports those living
in the refuge and those who have moved on. Some may be escaping a
violent partner themselves, or they may have come with their
mother. Robson says: “Refuge life for teenagers is not always easy.
The whole family is likely to be sleeping in the same room, which
they’re not used to. They may also have moved far away from
their relations and friends and they often can’t bring much
of their stuff with them into the refuge, especially if they fled
in a crisis.

“Also we have rules here which they wouldn’t have at home.
For example, we have to restrict and monitor visitors in order to
keep the refuge a safe place to live – and that might mean a
restriction on friends coming to the door.

“Many of them are very confused and sometimes feel angry and
insecure – either because they want their parents to stay together,
or because maybe mum wants to go back home and they don’t
want her to. If mum does go back to the relationship for whatever
reason, inevitably the young person also returns too, whatever
their feelings. Young people often take on the role of

School attendance is a problem for many of the young people
Robson works with. “We try to maintain as much stability as
possible, but sometimes it is not safe for them to carry on going
to their old school. If they do stay at their existing school we do
safety planning with them.”

It’s much more difficult to get a new school place for a
teenager than it is for younger children, says Robson. And many are
reluctant to attend school because they feel they need to be on
hand to protect their mother – or at least to be aware of what is
happening at home. “Some teenagers have long periods of absence
from school and due to the nomadic lifestyle they can suffer social
exclusion. If long periods of absence are unavoidable we do
supplement their education in the refuge.”

But despite the difficulties Robson says most young people do
have positive experiences there. “It is good for them to talk about
their tensions and feelings in a safe place. Many have low
self-esteem and think they can’t succeed at anything. Part of
the work we do is to help young people feel more confident.”

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