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Barking and Dagenham domestic violence: Women turned away from refuges as council freezes funds

PUBLISHED: 14:14 26 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:40 26 October 2017

Maria Sookias, of Huggett Women's Centre in Dagenham, says one woman was asked to move to a domestic violence refuge in the Midlands. Picture: Ken Mears

Maria Sookias, of Huggett Women's Centre in Dagenham, says one woman was asked to move to a domestic violence refuge in the Midlands. Picture: Ken Mears

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With beds in domestic violence refuges ‘massively oversubcribed’ and the council cutting funds, investigations journalist EMMA YOULE learns how battered women are being asked to move to the Midlands or, worse still, are offered no refuge bed at all

Victims of domestic violence are struggling to access services. Picture: Laura DodsworthVictims of domestic violence are struggling to access services. Picture: Laura Dodsworth

Five years into a relationship with a sadistic bully, mother-of-one Tracey summoned the courage to leave her Dagenham home and flee a man she describes as evil.

She had endured physical and emotional violence, including her partner pushing her down the stairs while pregnant and trying to suffocate her baby daughter in her cot.

But despite her history, Tracey was never offered a place in a domestic violence refuge.

Today a Post investigation, in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, can reveal funding shortages for refuges are having an impact on support for survivors of abuse.

As local authorities struggle to cope with the scale of cuts to their funding from central government, cash-strapped Barking and Dagenham Council has cut money to domestic abuse services by 9 per cent in the last five years.

“All I can say is I’m thoroughly horrified and dismayed,” said Tracey. “Because when I needed help, there wasn’t enough help there. It is vital that you have a safe place to go to, and I speak from personal experience and for many other women when I say that can be the difference between life and death.”

The Huggett Women's Centre in Dagenham was opened last year and provides vital support, says head of operations Maria Sookias. Picture: Ken MearsThe Huggett Women's Centre in Dagenham was opened last year and provides vital support, says head of operations Maria Sookias. Picture: Ken Mears

New research by the Post and the Bureau shows councils across London have cut their spending on domestic violence refuges by up to 75 per cent since 2010-11.

Nationally refuge funding has fallen by nearly a quarter over that time.

But the drop in Barking and Dagenham was only 3 per cent and the council says there has been no change in total bed spaces, with 13 provided across two refuges since 2010-11.

“At a time when council funding is being reduced overall by over 30 per cent, this suggests that the council recognises the importance of these services,” said a spokesman.

Meanwhile, the number of domestic violence cases handled by the council and police has risen.

In London last year more than 150,000 cases of domestic abuse were reported to the police and crime figures show incidents have almost doubled in the last decade.

The number of domestic violence cases handled by police in London has doubled in a decade. Picture: Laura DodsworthThe number of domestic violence cases handled by police in London has doubled in a decade. Picture: Laura Dodsworth

Maria Sookias, head of operations at Huggett Women’s Centre in Dagenham, said refuges were “massively oversubscribed” and women often raised this in workshops.

“People are struggling to find refuges,” she said. “One woman was offered a refuge in the Midlands. That was the nearest safe accommodation and she had small children. It was obviously not possible for her to go that evening to that accommodation.”

Heather Harvey, research and development manager at Nia, which has two specialist refuges and the East London Rape Crisis Service working with women from Barking and Dagenham, said there was not enough refuge space generally and a lot of refuges did not take women with high needs.

These could include serious mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, or women with no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status.

“If the women can’t access benefits, or public funds, then she can’t actually stay in the refuge,” she said. “So you will have women who are destitute, on the street, or staying with violent abusive partners because they’ve got nowhere to go, and their lives are at risk.”

The figures also reveal a postcode lottery in provision across the capital, with Barking and Dagenham spending 40 per cent less on domestic violence services than neighbouring Newham.

Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas said the Post and the Bureau’s joint investigation had highlighted “deeply worrying concerns”, while Barking MP Margaret Hodge said she was worried by “the rise in high-risk cases in the borough”.

But the government told the Post it was taking action to ensure no victim is turned away from the support they need.

A spokesman said: “We’ve secured £40million of dedicated funding for these domestic abuse services over four years up to 2020, and so far allocated half of this to local authorities to support 76 projects across England, which will create more than 2,200 bed spaces and support to over 19,000 victims.

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Council responds to concerns about refuge funding cuts

Barking and Dagenham Council said the number of refuge bed spaces in a borough did not reflect the amount of provision for domestic violence victims, as it is common to place women outside of their home borough for safety.

“When a victim or survivor flees violence, in order to reduce the risk they face in their home borough, they

will move to a refuge or temporary accommodation outside of the borough,” a spokesman said. “Not all high-risk victims require refuge space. Many prefer to stay in their own homes and are supported through various orders, both criminal and civil, to compel the perpetrator to keep away.”

The council said provision of domestic violence services remains a priority.

It highlighted Barking and Dagenham’s White Ribbon Day campaign, which raises awareness of domestic abuse through a wide-ranging events programme.

A new council campaign will also be launched to encourage people to donate their old mobile phones for domestic abuse victims, and the council will raise awareness at both Barking and Dagenham Heathway

through a ‘Blooming Strong’ campaign to celebrate the strength of women survivors and other women who support them.

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Trailblazing new women’s centre shows it’s not all doom and gloom

The Huggett Women’s Centre is an innovative new drop-in centre in Dagenham and a rare example of a new service that has opened in the last year, supported by Big Lottery funding.

It provides services to women who have experienced multiple forms of disadvantage, including domestic and sexual violence, and runs English and maths classes, drumming workshops, creche provision, and services for disabled women at its fully accessible centre.

Maria Sookias, head of operations, said: “Domestic violence doesn’t just stop when a perpetrator leaves, particularly if they’ve got children. It can go on and on and on. And so what we do is try to give women and girls the tools to be able to take on those challenges.”

She said housing has become a “huge issue” among women in their group workshops.

“The housing crisis is one of the fundamental reasons why women aren’t able to get out of the violent situations they are in,” she said.

“Housing costs are going up. The [housing benefits] cap is staying where it is, and the amount of housing stock that is available to women if they’re private renting becomes less and less.

“Plus the criteria for getting social housing is higher and higher, and refuges are oversubscribed, massively oversubscribed.

“We know that there’s demand for advice on housing, because many of the women that take part in our group work tell us that housing has been a huge issue.”

She said more money is needed across the whole sector.

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* Anyone seeking help or advice relating to domestic or sexual violence can contact the Barking and Dagenham Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Advocacy service can be reached on 020 8591 3498.

* The Huggett Women’s Centre, 321-329 Heathway, Dagenham, RM9 5AF, is open for drop-in services Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm. For more information visit http://www.niaendingviolence.org.uk/huggett/index.html

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