The cost of living crisis is pushing domestic abuse services to breaking point
Women’s Aid and ITV have highlighted this week that the cost of living crisis is having a significant effect on specialist support services working with survivors of domestic abuse. New research from Women’s Aid has revealed the impact of the crisis on services and some of our members have shared their experiences with ITV. You can watch the ITV piece here.
- Nearly every member (96%) said they were experiencing at least one of the following financial issues: increased rent for premises, other increased costs (e.g. food or supplies), funding not rising in line with costs or another financial issue.
- More than half of Women’s Aid members (59%) told us they were using their charitable reserves to cope with the crisis.
- Almost three-quarters (73%) said they had staff who were experiencing financial hardship, with one in five (20%) saying they had staff who were using foodbanks.
- Only five members (10%) had been able to access help with their refuge energy bills.
- The majority of members are experiencing staffing issues, with 80% struggling to recruit for vacant roles at the salaries they can pay.
- Shockingly, many members (67%) said if this crisis continues without intervention, it would stop them from supporting survivors – either turning them away from existing support, reducing the support available or closing all together in 5 cases. This rose to 85% of services run by and for Black and minoritised women.
Specialist domestic abuse services such as Women’s Aid members are a vital lifeline for survivors, providing safety and support for women to recover and rebuild their lives after their experiences of abuse. In summer 2022, our survey of domestic abuse survivors found that the cost of living crisis was making it even harder for women to escape domestic abuse. At a time when their life saving specialist services were especially needed, our members told us they were also feeling a severe impact from the rising cost of living.
We know, and Women’s Aid research has found, that the domestic abuse support sector is facing an ongoing funding crisis. The recent Covid-19 pandemic presented huge challenges to domestic abuse services and as the cost of living crisis has intensified this winter, it has added to the pressures on these already stretched services. To understand members’ experiences of this further crisis and to find out what impact it is having on their capacity to support survivors, the Women’s Aid research team issued a survey in November 2022. The full results of our survey can be seen in this document.
Local support services are facing financial challenges due to the crisis
Nearly all of the specialist frontline services who responded to the survey (96%) told us they were facing a financial issue related to the crisis. With the majority (78%) reporting that their funding was not rising in line with the increased costs they are seeing, member services were looking for ways to cut costs and having to scale back on the extra ‘added value’ support they deliver alongside their core services, such as care packages for survivors or peer group work programmes. Over half (59%) were having to use their charitable reserves to cope, which is not sustainable in the long-term.
“Our reserves can only be spent once, when they’re gone that will be the end of any support we can give to staff and survivors…”
Staff are struggling with the crisis, creating additional challenges for services in delivering support to survivors
Local authority funding contracts for domestic abuse support does not always cover the full cost of delivering the service. Often services rely on unsustainable and short-term funding pots to support their work, leaving domestic abuse services under-resourced and restricted in what they can pay their staff. With low salaries in the sector and the cost of living soaring, almost three-quarters of the specialist support services responding (73%) said they had staff who are experiencing financial hardship. One in five (20%) had staff who were using foodbanks.
Low salaries mean passionate and experienced staff are making the difficult choice to leave for higher paid roles elsewhere in order to support themselves and their families. The majority of the specialist domestic abuse support services responding (80%) were struggling to recruit for vacant roles at the salaries they can pay. Member services told us they were concerned these issues were affecting the quality of the services they could deliver to survivors, with short-staffed services and heavy workloads leading to burnout and affecting the wellbeing of existing staff.
“We cannot keep up with increasing demand and staff are working non-stop and beyond working hours to support women. This is leading to burnout. Staff vacancies means that staff are doing more for longer”
Domestic abuse support services are feeling the impact of pressures on public services
The impacts of the cost of living crisis are far-reaching and services in other public services are also feeling the effects. The vast majority of Women’s Aid member services responding (92%) said they were seeing an increase in delays or difficulties accessing services in at least one other sector. This is leading to longer stays in refuge as survivors struggle to secure move-on housing or require support over longer periods of time, adding to demands on services and reducing the number of refuge places they can make available.
“It’s prolonging progress, positive outcomes and recovery, lives are on hold.”
Support services have not been widely able to access support around the crisis
The majority of specialist support services responding have not been able to access government support schemes to help with their refuge energy bills. These schemes are not straightforward to access for communal buildings, which is how utilities in refuge services are often managed. Just five (10%) of the services responding to our survey, said they had successfully been able to access energy support for their refuge and some were unaware that support was even available to them.
“Our bills are set to soar and the additional cost of funding these bills takes away money from other areas such as staff.”
Specialist services for Black and minoritised women are particularly feeling the impact of the crisis
The survey showed these challenges were having a disproportionate effect on specialist services run ‘by and for’ Black and minoritised women. For example, specialist services for Black and minoritised women were more likely to report issues recruiting staff and more than half (54%) said they had not been able to provide any cost of living pay increases to staff, compared with just under one-third (28%) of all services. More of these specialist services reported concerns about how the crisis may affect their ability to support survivors in the future.
Fears for the year ahead
Despite all of the challenges they are facing, specialist domestic abuse services continue to provide their lifesaving work and support for survivors remains available. However many specialist services (67%) said that if the cost of crisis continues without intervention, they were concerned they would have to turn survivors away and/or reduce their services. Shockingly, five member services had fears they might have to close their services completely.
“Our service is at serious threat of closure”
Women’s Aid is calling for:
- An Emergency Support Fund administered by a network of specialist domestic abuse services and accessible to survivors regardless of immigration status, to support survivors of domestic abuse through this crisis period.
- Urgent, practical support for specialist domestic abuse services
- The Government to establish an independently chaired taskforce to review recruitment and retention in the domestic abuse and wider violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector. The taskforce must be chaired by a VAWG expert, and involve specialist VAWG organisations and specialist ‘by and for’ services, as well as local commissioners and funders.
- A Government guarantee to provide services with support with energy bills until the crisis is over, and that no specialist domestic abuse services will close. The government must also provide immediate clarity on how energy bill support can be accessed where there are difficulties.
- Ensure local authorities and police and crime commissioners set contracts with services to pay workers at the Real National Living Wage.
- Reduce the impact of legal costs for survivors to enable them to seek justice
- Abolish the means test for legal aid for survivors of domestic abuse.
- Fund specialist advocacy services for all survivors.
- Provide additional support to women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) to ensure they can access immigration advice/and support with their visa fees.
- Exempt survivors of domestic abuse from the benefit cap and end the two-child tax credit limit these are huge barriers for women with children when fleeing abusers.
- Abolish the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition for survivors of domestic abuse and extend eligibility for the existing Domestic Violence (DV) Rule, to ensure all women with insecure immigration status are supported to escape abuse.
- Local authorities must prioritise supporting women with NRPF experiencing domestic abuse directly during the cost-of-living crisis – and set aside emergency funds to do so.
- The government must urgently provide clarity about what funding will be provided for accommodating survivors with NRPF, specifically the Support for Migrant Victims run by Southall Black Sisters concludes in March 2023).