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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.
 

Jane’s daughter told her school counsellor about the abuse at home, which led to her, her mum and sister getting help to leave the relationship.

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Age at interview: 46
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Because she was absolutely hysterical whilst this was happening, you know. And then again afterwards it was my fault. He didn’t really think he’d done anything wrong. My eldest daughter actually reported that to her school. And because I was travelling to school that morning, taking the two children, and I was still very upset I kept saying, you know, I said to myself in the car out loud, “Something needs doing about this,” well it was then that my daughter took it upon herself to disclose that to the school. And as soon as that was disclosed then Social Services got involved and the police.

Right.

And I was able to leave that night. But even then, when Social Services was following me because he was following me back past my house to be able to go to my friend’s house he had the gates open like he was expecting me to come home. And the shock on his face when he realised that I drove by and that the Social Services was behind me, was a picture.

Yeah.

It was like, “What’s going on?” you know.

I think that was my main that was my main form of support in the first place, was that she was so nice.

Yeah.

There was her and there was her area manager.

OK.

And they made me feel so at ease and, you know, she was really, really nice to me and said, “Look,” she said, “use this as your opportunity to get away,” she said, you know, “from this moment in, if you want to, if you work with us, then he’s never had to, going to have to bother you again.”

And how did they support you then through that time?

Well literally as I’ve gone to pick up my eldest child, because they wouldn’t let him pick her up, he was obviously waiting at the school, and there was a police officer outside. So he wasn’t allowed to enter the school premises or try and attempt to get our oldest child away. From that moment, you know, when I walked into the school, was when I felt safe. Because there was, there was my daughter’s class teacher there, there was the head of year there, there was the parent support worker there, they was there on behalf of the school, and there was also two lovely social workers. And at that moment I felt actually safe because there was a policeman outside.

Yeah.

Because there was all these people there that was willing to help me.

Was that the first time you’d felt safe in a long while?

That was the first time I’d felt safe in a long time, yeah.

And thinking back to that time, was there anything that was done particularly well for you?

The school were fantastic. You know, they supported my eldest really well. She was, all she kept saying all day was, “My dad’s going to kill me, my dad’s going to kill me for this.” And she was really, really scared. She was white. She was wondering what I was going to do 

Yeah.

And what I was going to say, whether I was going to diminish it. And they kept reassuring her all the time throughout the day that now she’d said something there was absolutely no way that they are going to let like even Social Services or even the school is going to let her live with her father again.

Yeah.

Yeah, and if I chose to come with them then, you know, all well and good. But if I decided to choose him and go home then they would, they would have to go somewhere together.

Yeah.

You know, so that was incredibly frightening for her, but at the same time they made her feel, you know, that this was the right thing to do and that, “Obviously mum’s not going to go and go home, she’s going to go with you, she’s going to choose the children, she’s not going to choose an abusive partner.” You know, so they put her mind at rest there. And once I realised the enormity of the situation and then looked back as to what I’d put up with, I couldn’t believe it. You know, I was a totally different person when I came towards the end as what I was in the beginning.
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.
 

Julia had never actually been hit by her partner. She talked for ages to someone on the helpline who helped her see what was happening and she realised she had to leave.

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Age at interview: 57
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And it just took the form of a sort of constant belittling, being ignored, being in bad moods with me, criticising me all the time. It was just a sort of constant, low level campaign. It felt like a campaign, yeah.

It felt like a campaign, right, a campaign yes. So how many years had you been in that relationship?

Oh we were together 22 years.

22 years, OK. And was it something that you were aware of quite early on or was it more that it developed over time?

Well, it becomes-. The thing about it was that we started going out together when we were both in our early 20s and it was almost like I was sort of putty, if you like, and he convinced me from the word go that I was all wrong. I mean I had bad experiences of sexual violence and I had physical problems caused by taking the pill, which made, which had an effect on our sex life.

Right.

And it was just from almost just months after we started going out together I was just being told I was inadequate, I was an inadequate sexual partner. Constant arguments right from, like I say, almost the very beginning. And I, for most of the time we were together, I thought he was right. I thought he was. I thought I was damaged goods. 

And it was only a few years before we broke up that I saw a programme about domestic violence on TV, and phoned the number they gave at the end. And I said, “Oh I don’t know what I’m supposed to, what I’m going to be, I don’t know what I’m phoning you for, because my partner doesn’t hit me or anything, but he’s just so horrible to me all the time.” And the, the man on the helpline, he talked to me for ages and was really helpful. And he said, “You are suffering domestic violence.” And it was only then that I realised really.

Yeah.

By that time I was a wreck.

A wreck?

Well, it had been 20 years of just constant battles. So I had chronic fatigue syndrome.

Right.

Lots of digestive problems, what I now recognise as being PTSD and things like that.
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.
 

Jacqui felt she was ‘jumping off a cliff’ when she left her partner but she built a close relationship with her support worker, who helped her get a range of services.

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Age at interview: 59
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I went to see my GP.

Right.

And disclosed to her. And she was the one that actually put me onto our domestic abuse organisation.

A local based organisation?

Yeah, local, yes, yes.

OK, so she referred you to them?

She referred me. Yes, yes.

OK, and how did she react then when you disclosed to her the abuse you’d experienced?

She was very supportive actually. She wasn’t at all dismissive, very supportive and very kind really, very kind. She didn’t act shocked. But she didn’t make me feel uncomfortable with disclosing to her.

And did they, the organisation, contact you then or did you have to contact them?

I had to contact them. And they were very quick to respond, very quick.

So what support did they then provide to you?

Basically when they, when I first met my community support worker, she put into practice, into place things, practical things like making sure with the police it would be a rapid response if I had to phone up. practical ideas, like always having a bag ready in case I had to flee very quickly with all my documentation and, you know, basic stuff in. She was also very good at, she wasn’t judgemental, she was very supportive, she gave me options. I had the option that I could have gone into a refuge if I’d chosen to. But that’s not the way I wanted to actually do it. And she, you know, it was my decision completely. And when I did oh, she also helped me get a different banding with the council.

Right.

And she just let me talk and she didn’t ever tell me what I should do or what I shouldn’t do but was just, whatever I was saying, she would support me in whatever decisions I wanted to make, she supported me. And when I finally decided to go and I managed to get a flat she was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Because I did leave without anything and it was like jumping off a cliff, it really was. And the flat I moved to, I had absolutely nothing, and she was able to access through various charities and organisations practical things for me, like beds, carpets, cooker, fridge freezer.

Yeah.

When I first moved into the flat I just had a little canvas fold up chair, I had no curtains, I had no carpets first of all but I had a front door key that was mine and I was safe.

And how did that feel?

Oh it’s [laughs] absolutely, absolutely fantastic. It really is, it’s such a difference, such a difference. It’s my flat.

And your home.

[Laughs]

So the community support worker, so that was through the local organisation, the women you saw, and how often did you meet with her?

Usually it was about once a week.

OK.

And we had this special code to make sure he wasn’t there.

Right OK.

That he’d gone to work and then she’d come round.

She’d come and see you at home?

She’d come to me, yeah, she’d come to me, yes.

And the time period from the back incident to actually having the flat, was that days, weeks, months?

Ooh goodness, let me think. It was probably, I think that was about probably about four or five months between first being in contact with her and actually getting my flat, yes.

And that was the same support worker then who sorted it all out?

Yes, yes.

And do you think it was important to have that consistent?

Oh absolutely, yes, because you do build up quite, you know, quite a close relationship. In fact I still see her now and I actually consider her a friend now, so yes, we have stayed in contact, and that’s three years.

And once you were in your own flat, so did she continue to see you quite a lot during the initial weeks and months you were in there?

Initially, yes, initially just as and when I needed it, support or just to drop in. You know, she’d ring me and say, “I’m in the area, do you want me to pop in for a cup of tea?” and that, and she would, yeah.
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.
 

Shaina made sense of her experience when her Domestic Violence and Abuse worker showed her the ‘Duluth Power and Control Wheel’* that shows the difference between an abusive and a healthy relationship.

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Age at interview: 32
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So you went to the GP and they put you in touch with [local DVA agency].

Yeah.

And what did they do, give you a number to ring or how did that contact come about?

I think I got a referral letter, then I was given an appointment of like for 6-12 weeks long.

Right, and how did that go, how did you get on with that?

It was good. It was literally learning to be strong, not to blame myself. You know, we did the wheel of…

The wheel, yeah.

…abuse and all of that. And it was like, “Ding dong, makes sense.” And that’s when everything really, the whole definition of domestic violence was clear for me.

That was the first time you’d really understood it?

Yeah, yeah that was the only time. Before then I was you know, mentally, emotionally, you know, people think physical all the time but, yeah, there’s a lot more to it than that.

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

Sophie wishes that Domestic Violence and Abuse services had better funding, and described her relief at talking to someone who understood.

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Age at interview: 49
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What support have you received or not received?

There’s – we did have some specialist DV services in [Place] at the time, and I did access those. And I was referred to them by the police.

Right, so was that on one of those occasions that you called…

Yeah, yeah.

…called the police out? So they referred you to?

Yeah, yes they did. It was called [Local domestic violence service] at the time, but it’s been changed since then so 

OK, so how did they support you?

Well I had a - first I had a MARAC done. And they were very supportive at the time. And I had a one to one key worker at the time. And that’s how you get onto – that’s – and I was referred to Pattern Changing.

So that key worker, because it’s interesting coming down here and speaking – you know what I mean?

Yeah.

Because like your experiences may be a bit different than a lot of – you know.

Well this was four years ago and it has changed.

So the key worker, did you meet with them here in your home or did you go and see them?

No I had to – at the time, because the house was still in joint names, I had to go and meet them elsewhere.

Right OK, and was that weekly or was it just?

Yeah, it was, I think at the time it was weekly.

OK, so what did they do that was useful?

I think that they sort of made – they – what I liked about them was that they made you realise that it wasn’t you, and that you weren’t on your own. And that was really a great relief that, you know, actually this is quite common.

Yeah.

Not, not that they said that to me like, “Oh yeah, yeah, you know, this is really common.” But they, you know, you had somebody who came along and they knew exactly what you were talking about, without you having to explain yourself. And they could see the whole context. You know, you only had to say three words and it was like, “Yeah, we know exactly what you’re talking about.” And, and that was such a relief to have somebody actually to be able to hear you and, and what you’re talking about.
(
* 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.
 

Women's Aid 'opened her eyes' to the abuse she had suffered for years and Ella feels that ‘I owe my life to them’ (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 27
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I feel the most helpful was Women’s Aid.

Right.

Hmm.

Yeah OK. And in what ways do you find that helpful, the contact with Women’s Aid?

I felt like somebody was there for me. Nobody ever judged me. They helped me get things like vacuum, toaster, microwave, things to help me, even though I worked. It wasn’t seen as, “Well you’ve got” – when you try and apply with the council and things like that, you work, so they don’t care. But with Women’s Aid, yes, I did work, but I still couldn’t have afforded these things because I was having to pay my rent and bills and things like that. And it was no questions asked, “We will help you.” So they got me little things like that, which helped. They were non-judgemental. They opened my eyes to abuse, so made me realise. And then changing the pattern, moving forward to pick up on these things before they start in new relationships.

Right, and are you still able to follow that, you know, are you still able to make use of what they told you?

Yes, yeah.

Do you still get support from them or?

No, no the lady who was a support worker, she left. But I think I felt I was OK, yeah.

Great. And during your contact with Women’s Aid, did you have any actual counselling or was it more it was from the support worker?

It was the support worker. And I couldn’t go, I was offered to go to the pattern changing behaviour that they do as a group, but because I was suffering with such bad panic attacks I didn’t want to go. But they were able to do it one to one at home, which was nice.

Right yeah, and that was specifically about domestic abuse, was it?

Yes, yeah.

Yeah, and how many weeks was that over?

It must have been a good few months. I was seeing her probably once a fortnight. Because they first came when I was staying at my friend’s nan’s house, and then they saw me through then to my new flat and she visited me there for a good few months.

Right, and that’s been helpful for you?

Yeah very. No, I feel I owe my life to them.

Really? Oh gosh.

Yeah, and I said that. And that’s why I went and did charity work there, because I felt, if it wasn’t for them, I would have been in this pattern of meeting all these men and then going forward and I would never have got out of that.

Hmm yeah.

Yeah, so I really do owe a lot to Women’s Aid.
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.
 

Penny enjoyed one to one contact with her support worker who helped her understanding of abuse and suggested she stop responding to her partner's harassing emails.

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Age at interview: 62
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So did you have many sessions up at …

I probably had quite, well I had them every fortnight to start with, probably three or four, and then every month, couple, I probably saw her six or eight times.

And that was one-to, a one-to-one?

Yeah.

One-to-one sessions.

Hmm.

And how helpful … 

Very

… were the sessions?

Very. And. No, because I felt she understood and helped me move on and I was also seeing my GP at the same time, about the depression and she gave me, she started me on anti-depressants as well. So the, the pair of them together really was, was good. Because I continued to see my GP quite regularly as well, because she, she listened.

So, in terms of [Local specialist Domestic Violence and Abuse service], and you said, so, you know it was help, it was helpful …

Hm.

… what, how was it, how was it so helpful?

Because she understood where I was and helped explain how I could get out of it really. Because [Name of perpetrator] used to send me emails saying, damn, I’ve deleted them all, and I’d thought I’d kept them, saying you know, everything was my fault and I really thought that it was, and you know, he, I’ve ruined everything for him and I’d ruined his life and things like that. And I used to show these to [Support worker] and, you know, she said, “Well, actually, no, you know, ignore them”. Because I’d always write back.  

Right.

And she said, “No, just ignore them”. But I always used to write back. You know, just, just precipitate it all really. Just do what he wanted. Because he’d want an answer, he wanted me to feel guilty, that it was all my fault, I’d ruined everything.

Putting that blame on you.

Hm.

Blame on you.

Hm.

So…

So it took [Support worker] to say actually, just ignore them, just delete them, don’t even open them. And I couldn’t do that. I had to always look at them and reply.

Even after …. 

Just, no, I did learn not to reply. I’d always look at them actually, but I didn’t reply in the end. 

So her understanding…

Yes.

… and advice, that was …

Yeah, that was …

… helpful?

… really, really helpful.
 

Ana cried with relief when her support worker told her ‘100%’ she was being abused (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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And she was an angel.

Oh.

She met up with me in the local children’s centre. And I remember asking, I remember just crying and telling her and she was just shaking her head. Obviously my memory was a little bit, obviously I knew more, I can’t remember everything. I can remember things but it’s more fresh. And, and I just said, “Can you just, can you just please tell me, just please tell me, am I being abused?” And she said, “Yes. Like of course,” not in a good way said, “100 per cent, you are,” and you know, so it was just kind of direct admission.

So you still had a bit of doubt?

Oh yeah, yeah. Deep down, I knew, but they always, they, he always made me question myself.

Yes. Yeah.

So yeah, you kind of always need to, you need someone to just …

Yes.

… reconfirm things to you because you do…
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’.
 

After a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chloe was advised by her Support worker not to begin therapy until she was more ‘stable’ and had a fixed place to live (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
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You mentioned when we spoke on the phone that you had PTSD diagnosed, when did that come about?

It’s fairly recent actually. It’s not, I mean I was struggling with anxiety and, well, what was labelled as anxiety and depression which turned out to be PTSD really. It was just kind of waiting for all the symptoms to pop up and just…

What help are you getting with that?

…at first I was not able to have any counselling or anything over this period because I – what they said to me was, “You need to be stable, you need to be safe to open up,” and I wasn’t, I was couch surfing.

Who was saying this to you?

The [Domestic Violence and Abuse agency] workers or?

It was, it was [Domestic Violence and Abuse agency] workers and anyone else I’d been referred to for therapy, [local charity] I think was one.

Yeah, yeah I’ve heard of them.

They were all saying the same thing, “We can’t open it, it’s Pandora’s box, you know, until you’ve got – you know, you’re too unstable basically to do this.”

Right.

Which was agony, because the box was already open. But they were right, because I was being triggered left, right and centre from not having a stable home. so I’ve been here three months, and we’ve just started opening that and I’ve had a few therapy sessions.

Right.

It’s kind of like finding the right therapy as well because…

Of course yeah.

…at the moment the therapy I’m having is for domestic violence.

Right.

It’s looking at, it’s also looking in the direction of self-harm and eating basically. Because I now have a very weird thing to do with eating: the extremes of eating healthy and, you know, eating the things that are [unclear] make you space out and go away. And it’s only the beginning of that so…

Right yeah, and that’s from someone with a speciality in domestic violence counselling, yeah?

Hmm so really I need the PTSD person. They cost about £95 a session.

This other counselling, are you having to pay for that or is it available?

That’s also through [Domestic Violence and Abuse agency]. So I can only be referred for that once I’ve finished what I’m doing. I can’t do two at the same time.

OK.

So yeah, I’m actually pretty scared at the moment where I’m thinking this is not quite the right counselling, but I don’t really know what I need [laughs], you know, enough to just keep following and hopefully come to the right people.
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’.
 

Lolita said her support worker was ‘relentless’ in helping her stay safe and to see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

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Age at interview: 20
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And who do you think these people are that have been empowering you in this way, helping you?

Definitely my friends. My [local Domestic Violence and Abuse agency] worker is the most relentless person I’ve ever met.

Relentless?

Yes.

In what sense?

She will not hear me, she will never ever let me speak down of myself. Everything is about, “But he did this to you but you can still do more. He may have said this is you but somebody else might say different.” You know, nothing, I can never just have a dull moment, I can never be down. Everything, she always picks up on the good. Like when I speak about him she says I go dreary. But then when I speak about my friends I light up. And she’ll always remind me of those things, so I see for myself that the way he treats me is affecting me.

For someone else to see it, I can see it, and that has given me so much. You know, for her to tell me, I met someone who I liked, but a lot as a friend, and she told me that when I speak of him, you know, my face starts lighting up and I glow, my cheeks go red, but then when I speak of him I start to look down at the floor and, you know, I look unhappy. So for her to recognise that, I thought to myself, you know, he’s not actually that great then. If somebody is making me feel happy, and that person is not him, even though he is just a friend, why am I with him? You know, he doesn’t make me feel happy. 

Right.

So for her to constantly tell me like, “You know he doesn’t make you feel happy. You know he doesn’t give you what you want. There’s people around you that can and do, so why are you with him?” And that’s what I needed. I needed that person to show me that there is still light at the end of the tunnel. And I believe that empowerment is key.
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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