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3 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:52pm

What does the legal duty to provide refuge accommodation mean for child survivors?

By Sandra Horley

Children who witness and experience domestic abuse can recover with the right support. I know from my own experience of working with women and children in crisis that, even after the most harrowing ordeals, many survivors manage to rebuild their lives and flourish. I know this because I’ve seen it happen – children can and do recover from trauma.

Without the right support, however, child survivors (and this includes children who witness domestic abuse) can suffer lifelong repercussions. Disruptions to development, particularly in young children, can result in difficulties with behaviour, learning, relationships and ultimately, psychological ill health and loss of potential. Poverty, social isolation and relationship problems in adulthood can all have their roots in early experiences of domestic abuse. The Istanbul Convention, the internationally recognised gold standard for best practice on domestic violence, recommends that state parties provide all child survivors with refuge accommodation, psycho-social counselling and other crucial support services.

Theresa May’s announcement of a legal duty to provide accommodation-based support was very welcome (and long overdue) but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on how this new duty will work in practice. A new needs assessment model will be designed on the basis of this consultation, and this will determine the type of services that are commissioned at a local level. At Refuge, we are calling for specialist services for women and children with appropriate staff-survivor ratios. Child survivors must be central to this model – they shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought.  

We know that “one size fits all” cut price commissioning models do not work, and cost local authorities more in the long run. We need appropriate commissioning models, robust quality standards for services and sustainable funding to ensure that we can deliver them consistently. Domestic violence services shouldn’t be living in constant fear of funding cuts. We cannot cut corners when it comes to the lives of women and children. Let’s not forget that even today, in 2019, two women a week are killed by their current or former partner in England and Wales. The recent, and very welcome, announcement from No 10 promises more money for accommodation and support for survivors, but it didn’t specify how much. It’s imperative that the funding is both sufficient and sustainable.   

At Refuge, we support 6,500 women and children across the UK every day through our refuge accommodation and outreach services. On any given day, more than half the people living in our refuges are children, yet we receive barely a penny of state funding to support these child survivors. Instead, we rely on donations. We shouldn’t have to. This is not a sustainable way to support the hundreds of children who will spend the summer holidays in our refuges.

We know that domestic abuse affects millions of women and children across the UK every year, at an estimated annual cost to society of at least £66bn. Most of this (£47bn) accounts for the physical and emotional harm suffered by victims. These figures, as shocking as they are, tell only part of the story as they don’t include the harm suffered by children who witness and experience domestic abuse.  

Sufficient, sustainable funding for child survivors is not only the right thing to do, it also makes sound financial sense. An independent analysis of Refuge’s services revealed that every pound spent on our refuge and outreach services for survivors reaps a social return on investment equivalent to £4.94. This is an easy win for local authorities, but, in order to take advantage of this opportunity, they need to be given sufficient, ring-fenced budgets from central government. As the austerity period clearly showed, cutting frontline services for vulnerable people is not only inhumane, it is a false economy.

At Refuge, we recently launched a major new campaign with cinema chain Picturehouse to raise awareness of the fact that 90 per cent of domestic abuse that takes place in family homes is witnessed by children. The 60 second ad, directed by Lucy Bridger at creative agency BBH, really drives home how terrifying it is for children to witness and experience domestic abuse. We chose to focus on this issue because it is so fundamental to what we do: when a woman asks for our help, we don’t just support her in isolation, we support her children too.

We are calling for a truly sustainable funding model for every woman and child. The Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill will publish its interim report in June. We hope the committee will not only recommend radical legislation to support survivors, but also urge the government to support a new legal framework with sustainable funding for services. This is fundamental to the success of the draft bill. I can’t see how the government can transform its response to domestic abuse without a sustainable funding model that supports every woman and child.

Sandra Horley CBE is chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge. 

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