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Islington domestic violence charity Solace Women’s Aid: Cash-strapped refuges are being forced to turn women away

PUBLISHED: 07:00 26 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:16 26 October 2017

Mary Mason, CEO of Solace Women's Aid, said only one in three women in need is given a refuge bed. Picture: Polly Hancock

Mary Mason, CEO of Solace Women's Aid, said only one in three women in need is given a refuge bed. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Council spending on domestic violence refuges has fallen by up to 75 per cent across London since 2010, leaving Cally charity Solace Women’s Aid trying to do more with less. Chief exec Mary Mason tells investigations journalist Emma Youle about the pressures faced by her charity – and what happens when women can’t get help

Solace Women's Aid runs domestic violence refuges and counselling services in Islington. Picture: Polly Hancock Solace Women's Aid runs domestic violence refuges and counselling services in Islington. Picture: Polly Hancock

Life-saving domestic violence refuges in Islington are being forced to turn women away due to funding pressures.

A joint investigation by the Gazette and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found lives are being put at risk because vulnerable abuse victims are struggling to access refuge beds.

Solace Women’s Aid, which runs two refuges in Islington, said it is facing huge pressure on services.

Chief exec Mary Mason said: “We think at the moment that we have one refuge space for every three women who are seeking it. That’s roughly the figure.”

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

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

Islington Council’s funding has fallen by 34 per cent in that time, as the cash-strapped town hall copes with huge reductions in government funding.

The council now pays for two refuges, compared with three up until 2015.

Islington said it had helped the third refuge, run by Latin American Women’s Aid, to secure £100,000 of central government funding for its important work and it had not closed down.

Labour leader and Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn has attacked the Conservatives for putting austerity policies before women's welfare. Picture: PA Labour leader and Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn has attacked the Conservatives for putting austerity policies before women's welfare. Picture: PA

Behind the figures is the reality of women being forced to remain in violent homes.

Ms Mason said Solace Women’s Aid’s funding has not been cut, but the ratio of money to service users has fallen.

There is currently a one-month waiting list for counselling in Islington and about half of calls to the charity’s advice line are missed because they do not have the resources to staff it more often.

Refuge provision is also stretched. In one stark example, Ms Mason revealed the charity was unable to move a woman with mental health issues and drug problems into a refuge last year as she had no recourse to public funds due to her immigration status.

“We couldn’t find her a refuge space and in the end she was found dead in a flat,” said the CEO. “Obviously there are cases where somebody does get killed.”

She said another woman, who she met at a refuge last week, had gone to a council housing team saying she was fleeing domestic violence but was sent away. It is not known if this was in Islington.

Ms Mason said: “She went back home and stayed another year in an abusive relationship and in that time her arm was broken in front of her child by the perpetrator. The woman said that she had lived in fear for an extra year and felt quite angry that she wasn’t told about refuge spaces.

“But even if she had known, we don’t know that she would have found one, because it’s quite difficult.”

She called for ring-fenced funding for refuge provision, and for longer contracts. “Local authorities fund street lamps for 15 years and yet they fund us for two,” she said. “It’s nonsensical.”

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

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

The council encouraged all victims to come forward so it could “give them the support they need”.

Finance boss Cllr Andy Hull said Islington had invested in domestic violence services at a time when other councils have cut back.

He said: “Domestic violence services are a major priority for Islington Council.

“Despite huge, ongoing government cuts to council budgets we continue to fund advice, support and refuge services for women in Islington and support a wide range of projects and initiatives to tackle domestic violence.”

By 2020, Islington will have lost 70 per cent of its core government funding.

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Jeremy hits out at Tories over austerity’s impact on women’s refuges

Islington MP and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of placing political policy before women’s welfare as he demanded action over cuts to domestic abuse services.

Reacting to figures uncovered by the Gazette and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, he said: “The blame for cuts to services in Islington and across the country lies squarely at the door of the Conservatives, who have slashed funding while at the same time giving tax breaks to the super-rich and big corporations.

“Under near impossible circumstances, Islington Council has aimed to preserve essential services and I know it takes the issue of domestic violence very seriously indeed.”

But the government says it is 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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Leanne’s story: ‘Refuge gave me a road to a new life’

One domestic abuse survivor helped by Solace Women’s Aid tells her story.

“After four months of phone calls to a domestic violence helpline, I was put through to refuge worker Sara and the kindness, calmness and reassurance that I felt from her voice gave me the courage to finally make that leap into the unknown for me.

“I had worked full-time since the age of 15 and owned my own property since the age of 19. However, I was made false promises by my ex and he convinced me to give up work on the birth of our daughter. I was coerced into lending him money to cover his debts. Needless to say I lost my home, still had his debts in my name and was destitute.

“I arrived in the refuge with my daughter and a bag, a case of belongings and £85. Sara was lovely and immediately helped me sort out my finances. I got my room. I still couldn’t quite believe what I was doing, but I already knew that it was the right thing and I was never going back. I can still remember the feeling in my stomach of being terrified but also excited and relieved. I knew it was the beginning of a new life.”

(Names have been changed)

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If you need help or advice relating to domestic or sexual violence, contact the Islington Access and Advice Service on 020 7527 2299 or Solace Women’s Aid free, confidential advice line on 0808 802 5565

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