Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Getting help from domestic violence and abuse agencies

​Specialist support for domestic violence and abuse began in the 1970s with the setting up of refuges across the UK. These independent safe houses subsequently joined, merged, and collaborated to create organisations that provide a range of services including those directly for victims/survivors, multi-agency working with other providers, as well as campaigning and policy work to try to change laws and services’ response to abuse. The support offered by these specialist services is crucial in empowering women to make decisions which are right for them and their families. This support might include offering the Freedom Programme (a group course for women experiencing abuse); advocates; counselling; refuges; outreach; children’s support workers; perpetrator programmes to challenge abusive behaviours; and follow-on settlement support for those leaving refuges.
 
Contacting specialist domestic violence and abuse services was crucial for most women in either helping them to leave an abusive relationship, or supporting them afterwards. As Ella said; ‘I owe my life to Women’s Aid’.
 
Women we interviewed frequently found it difficult to get professional help whilst they were in the abusive relationship, since they did not realise their partner’s behaviour was ‘domestic abuse’ and they had no idea or information about where to turn for help. Many also experienced threats from their partner to harm or kill them and their children if they took steps to leave. Women described living for years with fear and anxiety, which often continued in the form of harassment and threats even after leaving the abusive relationship.
 
Some women, such as Anna, said they would never have sought help for themselves but wanted to protect their children. In contrast, Jane received support across multiple agencies that began when her daughter confided to a school counsellor that she had witnessed her father beat up her mum.
Domestic Violence National Helpline
 
For some women the first port-of-call was the National Helpline but only if they were already aware of ‘domestic abuse’. Making the call had to be done in secret from their partner, at night or on a borrowed mobile phone. Sara described ‘shaking and that because I was like he’s coming back, he’s coming back’ as she made the call. Ana endured eight years of abuse while she sorted out her immigrant status. Her only support was the helpline which she phoned ‘at least 30 times’. Julia and Ana both responded to television programmes that gave the helpline number at the end. After years of a controlling relationship with emotional, financial and sexual abuse, Julia finally recognised that it was ‘domestic abuse’ after watching a TV programme.
Accessing services
 
At the point of seeking professional help, usually to leave the relationship, the women found it difficult to navigate an unfamiliar system. Many of them found that services such as benefits, housing, police, doctors, social services, legal advice, women’s refuges and domestic abuse agencies did not work together, particularly across different parts of the country. Liz described the system as ‘broken’ and longed for a ‘single point of contact’, to help access the right people.
 
Women usually ‘found’ a domestic violence agency through other professionals, most often the police or the doctor, sometimes a housing officer, a work contact or a friend. This usually happened at a point of crisis, such as an assault, or an attempt to leave an abusive partner or when dealing with the aftermath of leaving. Jacqui and Penny were referred to their local domestic violence organisation by a GP.
Experience of specialist domestic abuse services
 
Women described how they valued the mix of emotional and practical support given by specialist domestic abuse support workers who understood their experiences. They helped them to recognise ‘domestic abuse’, to understand that they were not alone and that the abuse was not their fault.
(
* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services.)

Homeless after her third abusive relationship, Ella had no idea that relationships could be different until the housing officer put her in contact with Women’s Aid who helped her to recognise signs of abuse and break the cycle. She recently reported being in a happy relationship with a man who really cares for her.
Domestic abuse support workers
 
For many women talking to domestic abuse support worker was the first time that anyone had listened, believed and understood their situation, and the majority of them described their support workers in glowing terms.
Tina, who suffered severe depression and attempted suicide several times, said her support worker, who had herself experienced domestic abuse, was ‘mint’ and kept her going. Chloe, who suffered from PTSD, talked about her support worker as a ‘fairy godmother’ who did not ‘label [her] as insane’.
Support workers also helped women to access housing, legal and other support agencies. Lindsay was terrified when her ex came out of prison and the Domestic Violence agency installed CCTV, alarms and portable ‘panic buttons’, to make her feel safer.
 
Most women found it easier to talk to a domestic violence support worker than to a family member. Sue was too embarrassed to talk about sexual abuse to her family. Lolita’s support worker listened and encouraged her to make decisions at her own pace in contrast to her family members who wanted to ‘take control’.
Some women had disappointing experiences of domestic violence and abuse agencies. In one case, Sophie, married to a Muslim man, experienced cultural prejudice. A few women felt their support workers were not very skilled, and Catherine found it hard to accept practical help at a time when she wanted specialised counselling for PTSD, which was too expensive. Stephanie, who worked full-time, could not easily access support outside working hours.
 
Support after leaving 
 
Women said the support for them and their children after leaving was crucial (see ‘Life after an domestic violence and abusive: taking back control’). Jane left her marriage of 20 years and said that without professional help she would have ‘gone backwards’. Women wanted help to prevent further abuse, but felt that services tended to be available only after something had happened such as an assault. As Tasha said, ‘You’re on your own until something happens’. Many women talked about getting support from other domestic abuse survivors (see ‘Domestic violence and abuse survivors helping each other’).

* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services.

 

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