A year in focus – the annual audit of domestic abuse services in England
Today we have published The Domestic Abuse Report: the Annual Audit 2022, looking at the work of domestic services in England and the experiences of women who use them.
We found over a third (35.1%) of service users reported feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts as a result of the abuse they experienced.
We know from our work with survivors that this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg because of the stigma and fear around disclosing poor mental health. The evidence is clear: being subjected to domestic abuse can have devastating and long-term consequences for mental wellbeing and domestic abuse is a key driver of women’s mental ill health.
Yet our report shows that in 2020-21 domestic abuse services were struggling to cope with demand and provide the level of support that survivors so desperately need because of funding uncertainty and pressures resulting from the pandemic. Despite the number of spaces in refuge services in England increasing by 354 (the highest increase in recent years), demand still exceeds available space. Without sufficient refuge spaces, survivors are often left with the impossible choice of returning to their perpetrator – or becoming homeless.
- 9% of organisations responding to our annual survey told us they had been running an area of their domestic abuse service in 2020-21 without any dedicated funding.
- 9% of refuge referrals in 2020-21 were declined, most often because of a lack of capacity.
- 7% of organisations responding to our annual survey reported that Covid-19 had affected demand for their services. Of these organisations, 84.5% told us that demand for the support they offer had increased.
- Provision was not always accessible to all women who needed it. Only 6.3% of all service vacancies were able to consider women who had no recourse to public funds and less than half could accommodate a woman with two children. This fell to less than one in five for a woman with three children.
- 6% of women placed in refuge between 1st July 2020 and 31st March 2021 came from a different local authority area to the refuge they moved to, and 28.1% to a completely different region.
We estimate that refuge services supported 10,809 women and 11,890 children and community-based services supported 124,044 women and 148,852 children in 2020-21. The length of time women experienced abuse before this point was, on average, six years. For different women this period ranged from less than a month to a staggering 66 years. It is vital that specialist services are able to provide the expert support survivors need to recover from the trauma of domestic abuse and to rebuild their lives free from fear and abuse.
But refuges continued to face funding challenges and the impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21:
- 5% of refuge services were commissioned by their local authorities in 2020-21. This is roughly the same as in the previous year (71.7% in 2019-20).
- 2% of Women’s Aid Annual Survey respondents that had community-based support provision told us that they had received funding from their local authority for community-based support in 2020-21. However, this funding often did not cover full costs of delivering services.
- Services faced challenges in maintaining staffing levels and addressing concerns about the safety and wellbeing of staff and survivors.
However, the pandemic has also led to some new doors opening for domestic abuse services, including new short-term funding pots, reaching more survivors in the remote delivery of services, and new and strengthened partnerships with external agencies. Some organisations had even managed to open new services or expand areas of their domestic abuse support work.
Early impact of the new statutory duty
This year saw the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which includes a new £125m statutory duty on local authorities in England to assess the need for support for survivors of domestic abuse, including children, in safe accommodation, and fund services accordingly. In April 2021, some elements of this new statutory duty came into force and our report shows feedback from local services on the initial impact of the duty and its implementation in their local area. Next year’s annual audit report will give us much more information on the impact of this new duty.
At the time services responded, June and early July 2021, there still appeared to be considerable variation in the way that local authorities were interpreting the regulations and guidance in the statutory duty. Some felt well represented in the implementation process “All refuges and domestic abuse services are represented by the local partnership board in our local authority area, I am aware of two (ourselves included) services by and for Black and minoritised women.” Others flagged concerns about planned practice going forward “Other key DV/SV services are included [on the local Partnership Board] they are all primarily white British service providers. The LA is intending to take BME specialist services in house…” or that there might be unintended poor consequences for survivors “… I fear it may lead to them stepping back from the national refuge network with less accommodation available, and restrictions on national access ….”
Our report shows the vital work done by specialist domestic abuse services for women and children, in refuge services and also in support based in the community. We will continue to monitor the impact of the new statutory duty on the provision of refuge services. It is important to also remember the vital work done by those specialist domestic abuse services based in the community (whose funding is not covered by provisions in the statutory duty).
In a particularly challenging year, there have been some good news stories. The number of bedspaces in refuge services in England has increased (the highest increase seen in recent years). The resilience and determination shown by the professionals and volunteers in domestic abuse services to continue to support survivors during the changing times of the pandemic have been inspiring.
To read the full findings, along with information about missing data and sample sizes, and to find out more about our data sources, please see the full report: The Domestic Abuse Report 2022: The Annual Audit.
 Over a third (35.1%) of service users in a sub-sample reported feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts as a result of the abuse. In community-based services, this was 34.0% of service users and in refuge services the percentage was much higher at 45.6%