Pregnant women and child survivors of domestic abuse left sleeping rough as current funding system fails them

Tuesday 4 July 2017

“It was the scariest moment of my life. I felt out of my mind honestly. I couldn’t think straight at all. There was no one there for me to help me sort out what had happened, just a system that was processing something – me – as a problem” – anonymous survivor

Survivors of domestic abuse are being repeatedly turned away from refuges because they do not meet the criteria to fund their space. Women’s Aid has been working with these women and their children to make sure no woman is turned away.

  • 11% of survivors slept rough while searching for refuge, including seven women who had children with them and three women who were pregnant
  • Only one quarter of women seeking refuge were accommodated in a suitable refuge space, while only 7% of women with no recourse to public funds (barred from all public services due to their immigration status) were accommodated
  • In 32% of cases social services failed to meet their duty of care to survivors of domestic abuse, while 19% of survivors were prevented by local housing teams from making a homeless application – despite the fact that legally they should be treated as priority cases

For the past year, Women’s Aid, commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government has been working with women who have difficulties accessing a refuge through the No Woman Turned Away Project (NWTA). The report, which comes at the end of the first year shows that there is a systemic failure by statutory agencies when it comes to responding to the needs of the most vulnerable survivors of domestic abuse. While chronic underfunding is increasing pressure on already overstretched refuge providers, leading to a crisis in refuge provision for the women who most desperately need support.

It highlights the additional barriers that our current system creates to support women with complex needs, no recourse to public funds (NRPF) or a family too large or old to be accommodated in a refuge. Women supported by the NWTA caseworkers spent on average between one-two weeks searching for a refuge space with 11% of survivors sleeping rough during this search, including seven women who had children with them and three women who were pregnant, while 7% gave up their search for a refuge space and stayed put with the perpetrator. While searching for a refuge space, 17% of women had to call the police to respond to a further incident of domestic abuse and 8% of women were physically injured by the perpetrator.

The NWTA report is compiled from data collected between 19 January 2016 and 18 January 2017 by specialist caseworkers employed by Women’s Aid to support women for whom the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) were not able find a refuge vacancy. During this time, there were 8,623 calls to the helpline from survivors seeking refuge and 404 women were supported by the specialist caseworkers in their search, of whom only one quarter were eventually found a suitable refuge space during this period.[1]

The year-long project revealed a widespread systemic failure from statutory agencies such as housing, social care and the police. Social services failed to help 32% of survivors seeking their help in finding a refuge space, either because they did not believe they had experienced domestic abuse, or because they stated they did not meet the risk threshold for intervention.

Over a quarter (27%) of women supported by No Woman Turned Away had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) with only 7% of women with NRPF being accommodated in a suitable refuge space. 67% of women with NRPF were not eligible to apply for the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC), designed to provide emergency support for these women, with almost half of women (47%) being ineligible for the concession due to being European Economic Area (EEA) nationals. Refuge providers rely on housing benefits to cover their costs, which means there is simply no funding available to support these women. We believe there is only one space in each region of England available. Many refuges will try to accept women with no recourse to public funds, and support them using their own funds, but the demand outstrips the ability of refuges to do this.

Local housing teams prevented 19% of survivors from making a valid homeless application, and in 25 cases the local housing team refused to accept their responsibility to help in cases of domestic abuse, despite a statutory duty.

This failure by statutory agencies further exacerbates the existing funding crisis in refuge provision across the country, which falls short of the level recommended by the international human rights organisation, the Council of Europe by 1,793 refuge spaces.

Of the refuge services responding to the Women’s Aid 2016 Annual Survey one in 11 told us that they were operating a service without any dedicated funding2. This funding shortage is leading to services being commissioned to provide time-limited support for so-called “high-risk” survivors who have reported to the police, rather than recognising the importance of long-term support, and the fact that the majority of survivors do not involve the police: 28 women in the survey – all of whom had high needs and were in severe danger – disclosed that they were refused access to services because they did not meet the risk threshold. Refuges are struggling with funding contracts that prevent them from accepting women based on need.

When asked about how they felt during their search for refuge, women spoke about the strain of battling the system with one survivor stating: “I was phoning [the NDVH] every day and then I got [a NWTA caseworker] dealing with my case and I felt the burden was lifted off my shoulders – I knew there was someone out there looking after me. No other agency helped – the social, the police…they did nothing.” For many women, the NWTA project was a much-needed lifeline when fleeing from domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid has four key recommendations to end this life-threatening situation:

  • Provide sufficient refuge spaces nationally, including specialist support for Black and Minority Ethnic women, and for those with mental health, disability, substance misuse or language needs, and those with children.
  • Develop a new, long-term and sustainable model of funding for refuges which allows them to operate as a national network and meet the needs of women seeking help.
  • Ensure women with NRPF do not face discriminatory treatment when escaping domestic abuse by introducing new measures to ensure all women fleeing domestic abuse can access a refuge space.
  • Ensure that survivors of domestic abuse receive protection from all agencies according to their needs, not based purely on a risk assessment, including ensuring specialist training for relevant professionals to enable them to understand domestic abuse and its impact.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, says:

“It is clear from this report that statutory agencies are putting obstacles in women’s way when they are fleeing for their lives. For every woman in this report, there are many who have simply stayed in an abusive relationship when they have been unable to find a refuge. This is completely unacceptable.

“When women are turned away from refuge, it’s easy to blame the refuges themselves. But in reality the distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” is made elsewhere, forcing the refuge to make the appalling choice between taking a woman in, with no way of paying for her care, or turning her away.

“What is perhaps most clear from this report is that the combination of a risk-led approach to domestic abuse and the current model of funding and commissioning for refuges is putting increasing pressure on our already overstretched refuge providers, and leaving the women with the most severe needs without support and safety.

“In particular, it is unacceptable that women in life or death situations are being denied any support at all, because of their immigration status, or are being sent back to abuse by local statutory agencies.”

Read the report here

Read the executive summary here

For more information or to arrange interviews with Women’s Aid spokespeople or case studies, please contact Sara D’Arcy in the Women’s Aid Press Office on 020 7490 8330/ 07807 218687 or s.d’[email protected].


[1] This is a snapshot of women’s experience and does not offer the full picture of those turned away from refuges. According to Women’s Aid’s 2016 Annual Survey, over half of the 19,854 referrals to the 124 responding refuge services were declined in 2015/16. The main reason for declining referrals was lack of space/ capacity to support: about one in four referrals to refuge services in 2015/16 were declined for this reason.
2 145 refuge services responding to the 2016 Annual Survey said they were running refuge services without dedicated funding.


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