“I didn’t know where I was going and what’s going to happen”
Children speak about their journeys into refuge
By Josie Austin, Research and Evaluation at Women’s Aid
Tuesday 22nd September 2020: Today, Women’s Aid published a new report, Nowhere to Turn for Children and Young People: Documenting the journeys of children and young people into refugeRead Nowhere to Turn for Children and Young People
This report is a unique exploration of how experiencing, and fleeing, domestic abuse affects the lives of children and young people. The report documents their stories, told to us in their own words in face-to-face interviews, and illustrated using drawings, to show the impact of their family’s search for a safe space to live after fleeing domestic abuse.
Nowhere to go.
One of our participants was Leah (not her real name), a preteen girl who had fled with her mother from her abusive father. Leah and her mother were forced to stay in hotels for several weeks whilst they struggled to find a suitable refuge space:
“We were in three different Travel Lodges and one Holiday Inn or something… We were in a hotel for a week, then we moved to another and we were in there for a bit over a week then we moved to the next one and we spent a bit more than three weeks I think.”
Leah talked how staying in a hotel made things harder for her at an already difficult time in her life:
“We were in the hotel for ages and we didn’t really get…like there was loads of people. There was people on top of us and stuff and they were being so noisy. I didn’t get much sleep. There was no kids or anything so no one I got along with.”
A life in limbo.
“We didn’t go out much. We used to stay in the hotel room because there wasn’t much we could do…I stayed in bed and watched TV. My mum let me watch it all day if I wanted…it felt like the nights were very short so I didn’t get much sleep, but it felt like the days were really long…It was really boring.”
Leah’s picture below of a calendar illustrates how the three weeks that she stayed in a hotel seemed like a very long time to her.
Fleeing with nothing.
Leah and her mother had to leave their belongings behind because if they had taken anything then her “dad would just question more”. Leah talked about how difficult she found it to live without any of her belongings for so long. The image on the right illustrates how Leah felt that “everything was in different places”: her belongings, but also her mum and her dad, and her past and future. Leah’s picture below of a calendar illustrates how the three weeks that she stayed in a hotel seemed like a very long time to her.
Struggling to make ends meet.
Leah and her mother only had £20 a week to spend on food during the time they were staying in hotels. They were not able to cook, which made it very difficult to eat well with such a limited budget. Leah told us that she was worried about not having enough to eat by the end of the week. She drew the crying face on the left “because it was hard to live with 20 pounds a week.”
Leah was able to choose a small gift – an electric toy car – the following day when her mother had received more money from the social worker. While her mother was not really able to afford it, she could not bear to see her daughter so sad and did not want her to go without at least a small gift. The importance and the strength of the bond between Leah and her mother, who protected and supported each other through this difficult times, was evident in Leah’s narratives.
Finding a refuge.
Despite her difficult experiences of looking for a refuge, Leah considered herself lucky in the end. Initially her mother was unable to find a refuge space, which was partially because she was not eligible for the housing benefits she would have needed to pay for this. However, Leah and her mother did eventually get accepted into a suitable refuge. This process was aided by their social worker, who according to Leah was very supportive and actively listened to her concerns. Leah described her experiences with the social worker in the following way:
“I was like excited to see her because she’s so nice…like when we saw her sometimes she took me out of the room. Like my mum was in another room and I was in the room with [the social worker] and she said is everything ok at home and stuff? …And she got some activities to do.”
She drew the picture below to illustrate the optimism that refuge had given her once she had arrived there.
How typical is Leah’s story?
Children and young people make up more than half of those who live in a refuge (13,787 children vs 11,489 adult women). However, Nowhere to Turn for Children and Young People highlights that only some of the available refuge spaces are suitable for families and that more than two thirds of refuges are unable to employ a dedicated Children and Young People’s (CYP) worker.
Whilst many children and young people entering refuge share Leah’s experiences of transience and have to deal with a host of emotions, there are additional challenges some families face. Many women who are fleeing the perpetrator with their children face the difficult task of navigating their search around childcare and any child-contact arrangements with another parent. For families from Black and minoritised backgrounds, systemic racism and structural inequalities create additional barriers, and specialist ‘by and for’ services for Black and minoritised women and children have seen disproportionate funding cuts. Families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) are often not able to access refuge, with only a very small proportion of refuges able even to consider these referrals. There are few spaces in refuges for families with someone needing wheelchair access: in 2019-2020 only 0.9% of refuge spaces were fully wheelchair accessible.
What could help children like Leah?
Nowhere to Turn for Children and Young People offers several recommendations to improve experiences for children and young people fleeing domestic abuse with their mother. This includes recognising children and young people as survivors of domestic abuse in their own right rather than as witnesses to domestic abuse, providing sustainable funding for child survivors of domestic abuse, providing support for migrant families, ensuring support from school and professionals, and meaningfully consulting children and young people like Leah when planning any changes in the sector which may affect them. As Leah’s story highlights, listening to children and taking seriously their needs makes a key difference in the ways in which they experience their challenging journeys into refuge.
Nowhere to Turn for Children and Young People: Documenting the journeys of children and young people into refuge can be accessed here.