The pandemic has had a devastating impact on women in abusive relationships, trapping them in their homes with violent, manipulative or controlling
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on women in abusive relationships, trapping them in their homes with violent, manipulative or controlling men. The UN described the global increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic”, and in the first seven weeks of lockdown there was a domestic abuse call to UK police every 30 seconds. The Centre for Women’s Justice noted the number of domestic-abuse-related deaths trebled in the UK in 2020, compared with 2019. At the heart of this storm are women’s refuges, places of sanctuary that have seen their funding slashed in recent years. How are refuges coping? Here, we follow one manager over the course of a month.
14 December 2020
Every few days, Anna receives an urgent call: a woman needs a room immediately. This is one of those days. “There had been an incident quite recently; the police were involved, and she needed to flee,” says Anna. But despite the desperate situation, there is nothing Anna can do. Christmas is always chaotic; this year, especially so. “The refuge is full,” Anna says. “It has been all year.” She spends the morning ringing other hostels. Is there anywhere that may be able to fit the woman in?
Anna is a refuge manager at Idas, a specialist independent charity supporting people affected by domestic and sexual violence in the north of England. Before the pandemic, she tried to keep at least one of the eight rooms in her refuge free for women in urgent need. If necessary, she could hold it for a day or two to give the prospective occupant enough time to pack, say goodbye to family and friends – and, most importantly, plan an escape. This is especially important because leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for victims of domestic abuse. But now there is a waiting list, and free spaces are snapped up immediately.
Anna, a mother of two, has been a refuge manager for 15 years. Born and bred in Yorkshire she is warm and open, but matter-of-fact. You can’t be a crusading do-gooder and run a refuge – it’s too dispiriting. After so many years witnessing violence against women and girls up close, idealism crystallises into pragmatism. Anna knows now that she won’t be able to help all the women in her care – some of whom will return to violent abusers – but she has made peace with that. The most she can do is keep them safe while they are under her roof. To that she is absolutely committed.
Anna finds a space for the woman – but it is in the south of England. “There are a lot fewer refuge spaces available on the system [that refuge managers have access to] because of Covid,” Anna explains. A new rail-to-refuge scheme – which allows survivors with a confirmed refuge place to travel free by train in England, Scotland and Wales – will cover the woman’s transport costs. And as Anna is preparing to go home for the day, the doorbell goes. It’s a woman dropping off a full Christmas dinner. “She said that Idas helped her in the past,” says Anna.
Anna is touched, but not surprised. All week, donations have been pouring in. Chocolates and toiletries for the women; toys and board games for the kids. It’s testament to the generosity of their local community, but it’s more than that. Almost one in three women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life. At this time of year, at Christmas, it’s not something you forget.
Today is the refuge’s Christmas party. Shrieking children unwrap presents donated by local people under the lights of a twinkling Christmas tree. Staff members hover on the edges of the party. Cake, scones and jam are laid out on a table. Molly, a specialist children’s worker, has set up party games for the children; the grownups play bingo. They dance to Christmas music.
Looking around, Anna is glad to see that Fatima is there. In her early 20s, she arrived a few weeks ago and is the youngest resident. She was brought to the UK for a forced marriage and her husband was violent – the marriage fell apart quickly, but returning to her family is not an option. “She has experienced horrific abuse,” says Anna. “Her ex-husband did really degrading things to her.”
Fatima’s English is limited. The staff do their best to communicate with her, but there aren’t any suitable interpreters and Google Translate has its limits. “She was a university student in her country,” says Anna. “When you say: ‘You must be very smart,’ she beams. It’s as if no one has ever said anything lovely to her.”
Fatima spends most of her time in her room, coming out only to ask staff to go to the supermarket for her – she’s too scared to go out by herself. But today Fatima is holding a cake she has baked. She sets it down with the rest of the buffet food, and gingerly perches herself at the fringes of the party, looking on.
She stays at the party for 15 minutes before it gets too much, and she slips back to her room. “She wouldn’t have done that two weeks ago,” says Anna. “There’s no way.” It is a tiny, faltering step forward, but it is progress.
Anna is visiting a domestic-abuse survivor – she had heard on the grapevine that the young mum was struggling. She arrives with armfuls of presents. “When she opened the door, she started crying, bless her,” says Anna. The woman fled an abusive partner from another part of the UK. She doesn’t know anyone nearby, and is isolated and lonely. Anna talks to her on the doorstep for half an hour, while her children open their presents.
The women’s refuge movement emerged in the UK in the 1970s; a refuge in Chiswick, west London, was the first, created by second-wave feminists. “Battered wives” saw discreet newspaper advertisements and fled, arriving at the ramshackle residential house, which had mattresses on the floor and lengths of brown hessian demarcating personal space.
The refuge movement expanded rapidly from there. “Most were set up in women’s spare rooms or in basements,” says Prof Nicole Westmarland of Durham University, an expert in male violence against women. They offered not just a safe space, but were “consciousness-raising places, where women could realise that domestic violence was a political issue rooted in gender-based inequality”.
Today, the sector is highly professionalised. Anna’s refuge has six members of staff and each room is a self-contained unit with a kitchenette, table and fridge – the bigger rooms can house a woman and up to six children. There is also an institutional-looking lounge with games for the children, sofas and a TV, and a small garden. All the rooms are full, and five of the women are mothers, so there are eight school-age children in the refuge.
When she arrives, Anna runs into Melissa, a mum in her 20s, and her children, Tommy, a toddler, and Emily, who is under 10. Emily twirls around to show Anna her new dress – a gift from the Christmas party. “She was so giddy,” Anna says. “She told me that she had a lovely party and got lots of presents.”
Emily chatters excitedly about school. “If you saw her this morning,” says Anna, “you’d just see a happy little girl in a sparkly outfit. You’d have no idea what went on behind the scenes.” But at times Emily will recall details of her father’s abuse – reciting in a matter-of-fact, almost singsong way, how, for instance, he used to shout at her mum all the time.
Other children react to the trauma they have experienced by becoming taciturn. “There was a family in earlier this year; the children wouldn’t speak,” says Anna. “Their dad would go mad if they spoke at home because he didn’t want them making noise.” Molly helped them with play therapy, building up their trust until their thoughts and feelings about the abuse came tumbling out. Because of the funding shortages faced by refuges, not all can provide this. Other refuges, Anna notes, have to raise money through raffles and fun runs for these vital child support workers.
On the helpline, an IDAS staffer, Jill, receives a disturbing phone call. It is a woman called Maria. Her partner has been abusing her for decades. The violence is extreme, but she doesn’t have much evidence, like police or hospital visits. Now Maria’s partner is posing as the victim. This is something that Jill has experienced more of during Covid. “They try to manipulate you,” Jill says. (IDAS does support male survivors of domestic abuse and violence.)
Sometimes, the men make false allegations so they can claim for legal aid; at other times they want to punish their victims. Jill recently fielded a call from a perpetrator whose ex-partner had left him and taken their daughter with her. “He told me that he wanted her ‘done’,” says Jill, “for taking his daughter.”
Maria’s partner has secured temporary custody of their children. “Her world has fallen apart,” says Jill. “She’s lost her children. He’s got away with beating her black and blue for years, and now she’s starting a battle, from scratch, to prove that he’s been abusing her. There is nothing in the system about the abuse. Where does she start?”
The refuge is quiet, with residents in their rooms, preparing for their Christmas celebrations. A local beauty bank delivers some goodies for the women. The government has just made yet another U-turn – people in lower-tier areas of England can only socialise in their Christmas bubbles for one day, not five. For Anna’s ladies – she always calls them her ladies – the announcement was a blow. “They were looking forward to visiting their family and friends on Christmas.”
She chats to Emma, a resident in her 20s with a small child. They’re getting ready for a walk in the park. She had been planning to visit her mum on Christmas Eve and have a friend over for a Boxing Day lunch. Now, she’s flat and upset. “She feels like her mum is missing out on watching her grandchild grow up,” Anna says. “You could feel her anxiety levels getting really high.”
Emma moved into the refuge after her abusive ex-partner was released from prison and found her. (The government has been releasing inmates early to help minimise the spread of coronavirus in prisons.) She had stayed in a refuge previously, after the abuse had escalated to the point that social services had taken her child into care. This time, Emma took charge and asked to come back to the refuge. “She didn’t want to stay in that situation and have social care remove her child again,” Anna says.
Emma can be one of Anna’s trickier ladies to deal with, as she puts it delicately. “It was a big decision for her to come here because she’s not someone who likes to live under other people’s rules. But she knows the refuge is the best place for her right now.” The truth is, no one wants to live in a refuge. They’re institutional spaces where women from all walks of life have to rub together regardless of whether they get on. Staff do their best to make the space as homely as it can be – before a new resident moves in, they make sure the room has matching bed linen and toys for the children. But there’s a limit to what they can do.
Before Anna managed the refuge, she ran a hostel for homeless people. “A 42-bed hostel for single, homeless men with complex needs is easier to run than an eight-bed refuge,” she says. “Because single men just want a place to wash and sleep for the night. But when women come to refuge, they have to flee a perpetrator. They’re cutting ties with family and friends. They have to switch their phones’ location services off. I’ve seen ladies who have been abused for 20-plus years. They may have drug and alcohol problems or severe mental health issues. Some have never been independent. Staff become everything to them.”
A few years ago, they had a resident who had never even had a haircut or any money of her own. Because she wasn’t allowed out of the house, she would harm herself so the perpetrator would take her to hospital. “We are social workers, drug and alcohol workers, and mental health workers. It can be chaos.”
Idas also runs a phone line and community outreach service with three other refuges. Initially in the first lockdown in March, referrals dropped – women simply couldn’t get away from their abusers for long enough to use a phone. And when they did, their calls often went unanswered, as council housing officers struggled to set up remote working. But in April, the floodgates opened. “It’s been relentless,” says Laura, who manages community outreach. Between April and December 2019, Idas managed 2,419 referrals. In the same time period in 2020, the figure was 3,485 – an increase of 44%. On average, Laura now manages 70 referrals a week – before Covid, it was closer to 50.
Alarmingly, many of these referrals are high risk: women who are facing serious harm or even murder. Such referrals often come through the police. “Lockdown has exacerbated a lot of abusive situations. People are getting to that breaking point much sooner,” says Laura.
It’s the same pattern across England and Wales – the Office for National Statistics reports a 7% increase in domestic-abuse related police calls from March to June 2020 compared with 2019. “The ‘stay at home’ messaging meant many women felt they couldn’t escape during the first Covid lockdown,” says Westmarland.
Men, too: a report Westmarland co-authored with colleagues at Durham University found that calls to the Men’s Advice Line, a UK-wide service for male victims of domestic abuse, increased from 1,926 calls in March 2020, to 3,674 in May 2020, the highest since the service began in 2007.
It is too easy to blame the pandemic, says Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan of the domestic violence charity Refuge. “Covid doesn’t cause domestic abuse,” she says. “It’s not about being cooped up and angry, and lashing out. Domestic abuse is primarily a result of gender inequality, male entitlement, power and control.” The surge in demand is because the pandemic has intensified the situation for victims. “They may have had respite dropping children off at school or visiting a relative,” says Tucker O’Sullivan. “These opportunities for breathing space are now gone.”
Local authorities are not legally obliged to house people fleeing domestic violence, so most refuges are funded by a mixture of local authority, police and central government budgets. And there hasn’t been enough money in the pot for a long time. “Over the past decade, Refuge has seen funding cuts to around 80% of our services,” says Tucker O’Sullivan.
For many women fleeing violence, the consequences are stark – they simply may not be given a space in a refuge when they need it; “64% of refuge referrals in England were declined last year, and the main reason was lack of bed space,” says Tucker O’Sullivan. Women’s Aid, a national domestic-violence charity, found that of the 243 victims turned away because of a lack of space in 2019-2020, 17 slept rough – one with her son – while 93 women sofa-surfed, until a space became free. Tucker O’Sullivan hopes the domestic abuse bill, which is about to pass into law, will improve matters by making it a legal duty for English local authorities to house victims and their children.
Of the 243 women turned away, almost half (43%) were from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. BAME service providers have been disproportionately affected by cuts. And women with no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status – such as Fatima – can find themselves at the bottom of the list. The domestic abuse bill does not make it a legal duty for refuges to house women without recourse to public funds. “They are massively failing a group of women who most need support,” says Westmarland. (If Anna can’t secure funding for a woman, Idas will pay for their room out of its own funds.)
Today, Anna has a catchup with Jessica, a long-term resident who is planning to move out in the new year. Jessica is in her 60s, and was pushed to the edge by the pressures of the pandemic.
“It was a lifetime of controlling behaviour,” says Anna. “Not necessarily physical abuse, but financial, and isolating her from her family and friends – even her children.” Jessica was with her partner for decades. She had tried to leave before, but went back. (Women often attempt to leave their abusers several times before making a definitive break.) But during the first lockdown, the abuse became intolerable. She called the police, who put her in touch with Anna. Jessica slipped out of the house and came straight to the refuge.
Jessica is one of their success stories. “She wants to do some volunteering work,” says Anna, “and find a little place by the sea.” Most importantly, she is adamant that she won’t go back to her abuser, ever. “She has completely cut contact with him,” says Anna. “She’s talking about divorce.”
Not everyone can make as clean a break. Abusers are insidious, charismatic, calculating, cruel and volatile. They work their way into their victims’ lives like shards of glass. Sometimes, the victims find it too painful to remove them.
This was the case with Tina, who arrived about five or six years ago. She had substance abuse problems and poor mental health, and when she left the refuge she promised Anna and Jill, who was also working on her case, she would stay with a friend. Jill worked with the local authority’s housing team to place her in safe accommodation, but Tina was chaotic and didn’t always answer her phone. “I suspected she was going back to him,” Jill sighs.
When Jill got hold of Tina, she was indeed back with her partner. “I said to her: ‘I need you to understand that, in my professional opinion, I don’t think you’re safe.’” But Tina wanted to stay.
A few days later, Jill saw on the news that there had been a fire on Tina’s road. She knew instantly what had happened. Hours later, the fire brigade called. It was a probable murder. Accelerant had been used. Tina and her partner were dead. “I know in my heart of hearts that I did everything I could,” says Jill after a pause. “But I couldn’t stop her going back to him, and I couldn’t save her.”
Most of the residents have left to visit family. It’s just Jessica and Fatima on Christmas morning – Fatima has nowhere to go, and Jessica doesn’t feel safe visiting her children in case her ex-husband tracks her down. Luckily, the two women have become friends.
In the afternoon, Lorna returns. She’s in her 60s, and moved into the refuge in the autumn. She spent Christmas Eve with her child, but was too frightened to stay lest her ex-husband turn up.
For every woman who flees a domestic abuser after a sudden explosion of violence, there are women like Lorna, who are gradually worn down. “She got to the end of her tether,” says Anna. “There was a lot of controlling behaviour. She didn’t have access to money. There were a lot of subtle put-downs. She was stuck in the house with him telling her that she couldn’t go to the shops or see her friends, and she finally realised that what she was living with wasn’t normal.”
Lorna’s room is next door to Alesha, a woman in her 20s. Alesha is a night owl who likes to play music and chat to friends on the phone. It drives Lorna crazy. But not tonight. Not a creature is stirring. All is still, and all is well, and all is calm, in the refuge, this Christmas Day.
5 January 2021
A third national lockdown has been announced. Schools are to close, except for the children of key workers. (Women in refuges are allowed to continue to send their children to schools to minimise the disruption to their children’s lives.)
Legally, the refuge counts as one household, meaning that residents don’t have to wear masks in communal areas, but they are allowed to form support bubbles with another household outside the refuge, which poses a challenge for staff safety. “We don’t know how many bubbles they’re forming. People don’t always keep to the rules,” Anna sighs. Her office is in the middle of the refuge, and women often drop in for a chat without wearing masks.
But Anna’s main concern today is Holly, a mother in her 30s with three children, all younger than 15. They fled Holly’s ex-partner recently. He is an arsonist, and violent too. But two of her children are refusing to go to school. “They’re anxious. They say they won’t know anybody.” Molly, the children’s worker, tries to persuade them, but it doesn’t work, so she sets up home schooling for them instead.
Parenting in a refuge is hard. Mums may let their children skip homework or have McDonald’s for dinner because they feel guilty taking them away from home. It’s Molly’s job to encourage them to reimpose boundaries. “She’s really good at making sure the kids get back into a routine,” Anna says. “School is the best place for them – they need the discipline.”
Jill and Fatima go for a walk. It’s only the second time Fatima has left the refuge, and the first time unaccompanied by a staff member. “She seems so much brighter now,” says Anna of Fatima. “She’s cooking and eating Middle Eastern food with the other ladies, which she never used to do.”
A snow day. School is cancelled. Anna tries to drive to work, but her car is skidding all over the road, and she has to turn back. The mums take their kids sledging at a park. It’s a good day.
Alesha is upset. Her children are in foster care. “It was a violent, volatile relationship, and the children were removed because of it,” says Anna. “Her only hope of getting her children back is not to be in that relationship.” Alesha came to the refuge in the hope of escaping her abuser. Since then, she has been fighting to get her children back; she hasn’t seen them for more than a month. But now she has been told her family court hearing has been delayed for another month because of the pandemic. “She said that nothing ever goes her way,” says Anna, “Nothing ever goes right.”
Lorna is moving out. She’s returning to her abuser. It’s the way it goes sometimes. The main thing is to make sure things are as safe as possible; Lorna’s house is tagged by police, so that if there’s an incident, they will come out straight away.
It is not that Anna has failed; Lorna’s experience in the refuge has been positive. She’s close to her children again. She has regained some self-esteem. “She’s had a taste of what life can be like,” says Anna. “Even though, to some, it might feel like a backwards step, she’s moved on more than she would have done had she not come here.” Yet Anna can’t help but feel Lorna might have stayed if it wasn’t for Covid. “People are isolated in domestic-abuse relationships, and then they come to the refuge to flee, but they’re still isolated because they can’t see their friends or leave.”
Anna looks around the cleared-out room, then goes back to her office to check the new referrals. Within 24 hours, there is a new occupant – a woman in her mid-20s who was violently assaulted by a family member just before Christmas. He’s in prison now, on remand.
Two more of Anna’s ladies are moving on next week, but to council properties. Among them are Melissa and little Emily – Melissa is overjoyed. More women will arrive immediately. The cycle of male violence does not stop, but refuges like Anna’s offer, if not quite a home, at least a place of greater safety and a chance for women to rebuild their lives.
Names, dates, ages and genders have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the adults and children mentioned.