Neil Merrick 21 January 2019

Supporting victims of domestic abuse

It is two years since Newcastle Council opened a purpose-built refuge for women who are victims of domestic abuse.

The refuge contains 14 flats for women and children and is part of an integrated domestic abuse service run by the council with independent charities.

Two years on, the service has received £600,000 from the Government - one of 63 projects to be granted money from a £22m fund operated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Joyce McCarthy, Newcastle’s deputy leader, is pleased about the extra money. The refuge is a better option than bedsits in the voluntary sector, which is where the council generally placed victims of domestic abuse prior to 2016.

‘We want people to have the best accommodation so that they’re valued,’ she says.

But Cllr McCarthy is also acutely aware that the funding recognises what appears to be a growing problem - women, and sometimes men, coming forward to say they are suffering abuse at home.

The Government promised a domestic abuse bill nearly 18 months ago and has pledged to create a domestic abuse commissioner. Neither has yet come to fruition, despite a consultation earlier this year, with the bill apparently delayed by Brexit.

In October, the House of Commons home affairs select committee recommended that providing refuges or other safe places should be a statutory duty on councils, alongside ringfenced national funding (though it did not say how much).

During 2016/17, 1.9 million people were victims of domestic abuse, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Cllr McCarthy says it would be ‘extremely helpful’ if providing protection was a statutory duty on councils as it would mean services were underpinned with adequate and ongoing funding.

The home affairs committee heard how austerity cuts have led to councils reducing or closing services for victims of domestic abuse. London Councils reported that about 64% of referrals to refuges in the capital are unsuccessful, while the charity Women’s Aid told MPs that 60% of referrals to its refuges are refused due to lack of bed spaces - equivalent to 94 women and 90 children every day.

Sian Hawkins, head of campaigns at Women’s Aid, an umbrella body for refuge providers, says increased reporting of domestic abuse may be down to greater public awareness and better police responses. But this increasingly means that demand outstrips supply.

While there are no precise figures, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates about one in six women’s refuges have closed since 2010. ‘We know local authorities have huge budget cuts to contend with,’ says Hawkins. ‘Difficult decisions have to be taken at local level and in some cases that means domestic abuse services have been cut.’

Helen Jones, spokesperson for safeguarding at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, says councils would welcome refuges and other safe places being made a statutory duty. ‘When local authorities are facing increasing pressure, it’s difficult to protect non-statutory services,’ she says. ‘Making it a statutory duty and having ring-fenced funding would help.’

Supporting victims of domestic abuse falls under a range of local government departments. Less than five per cent of safeguarding enquiries carried out by adult social care departments relate to domestic abuse - mainly those affecting elderly people or people with disabilities.

Nor is it clear that refuges are always the best solution. Many councils, along with the Government, say it is often better to help people remain in their home, providing it is safe.

In Hampshire, the Making Safe Project co-ordinated by Hart District Council was another recent beneficiary of the MHCLG’s fund, receiving £1.3m. Without the injection funding, the project faced closure, says Kirsty Jenkins, Hart’s head of community services.

The project, involving 11 district councils and Hampshire County Council, tries to keep women out of refuges by increasing security in their homes through what is known as ‘target hardening’. Since 2014, it has supported 637 clients.

Councils work with the Blue Lamp Trust, a non-profit making body that provides home security and safety assistance to vulnerable people, with outreach workers carrying out risk assessments.

As a result, adds Jenkins, refuge spaces can be offered to women who require them most. The new funding will allow the project to be expanded into parts of Dorset. ‘It’s a well-thought out scheme and everybody is desperate to keep it alive,’ she adds.

In November, the MHCLG issued new guidance on housing waiting lists. This urges councils to exempt from residency requirements people who are living in their district in a refuge or other safe temporary accommodation after escaping domestic abuse in another local authority area.

The new guidance is strongly welcomed by organisations such as Women’s Aid. ‘It’s important that anyone who has had to take the difficult decision to leave their home can easily access accommodation,’ says Sian Hawkins.

In addition to recommending the new statutory duty and ring-fenced funding, the select committee called for a review of welfare, including split universal credit payments within a household, and widening the role of the proposed commissioner to include all violence against women and girls

It is unacceptable, said MPs, for women fleeing violence and other forms of abuse to be denied safety. While short-term funding must be provided to reduce the number of women turned away from refuges, the committee urged the government to create ‘a sustainable model that ensures the level of provision meets demand’.

In addition, says Joyce McCarthy, there is a need to address the causes of domestic violence, including poverty. Newcastle’s integrated service allows users to access a range of assistance, including outreach support if they remain at home. Independent domestic violence advisors are assigned to those at highest risk.

Delivered by the charities Thirteen Care and Support and Changing Lives, the service costs about £580,000 per year to run, but the bill to the local authority does not stop there. ‘

We know that increasing poverty is likely to increase incidents of domestic abuse,’ says Cllr McCarthy.

‘We’ve got more children coming into our core system because of domestic abuse in the home.’

This feature first appeared in Local Government News - click here to register for your free copy.

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