On June 2 2014 Solace Women’s Aid in association with the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) at London Metropolitan University, launched its groundbreaking research report that looked at how women and children rebuild their lives after leaving an abuse relationship. The research was a longitudinal study tracking one hundred women who had accessed one or more of Solace Women’s Aid’s services over a three year period.
As an organisation Solace has always encouraged reflective practice and feedback on the way we work with women and our service users. Initially we conceived of this project as a way of informing us, the organisation of how effective our interventions are, how our practice impacts on our service users and to what extend do our interventions make a long lasting impact post crisis.
We have had many years of anecdotal evidence and the vast experience of our staff, and of others in the sector, has informed our approach and beliefs of future outcomes but there has been an absence of hard empirical evidence.
The Need for and Aims of the Research
Filling the gap in knowledge about the long term impact of domestic abuse, how women and children fair after the support and intervention of specialist organisations like Solace. By knowing the possible long term scenarios, what, if anything, can we as a specialist organisation, do to make intervention better and more efficient and finally, giving a direct and collective voice.. a platform to a group of women and children in our society who by the very nature of the issues they face may have to, for their own safety, remain hidden or have not been afforded the chance to speak directly to society at large or to those of a position of influence who may have a direct impact on their lives.
And you will see from the way the report has been put together, we have weaved their voices and words right into the every chapter of the report. It is from this desire to ensure the women’s voices are heard that we employed a specific research methodology, which led us to employ a dedicated research coordinator based at Solace as the primary link between the women and the research project.
The position of research coordinator worked well on a number of levels. It enabled a focused and coordinated recruitment drive where women were recruited from across the services of Solace. Service manager and staff were briefed and were very enthusiastic about the research project itself which helped the coordinator access and present to women from a range of services on a number of occassions. The Coordinator was a constant and permanent presence, which helped to embed the research and its relevance into the organisation. This worked very well when women involved in the research project would turn to the coordinator for support or advice during interviews or in the time between interviews. The coordinator was able to refer women on to services or link them to further support within and outside of the organisation. This enabled women to create ‘a basket of resources’ which they used as and when necessary and depending on their individual circumstances. The presence of a dedicated coordinator meant that women’s emotional welfare was ensured during the interview process but also a few days after interview women would be contacted to ensure that if the interview process brought practical and or emotional need to the surface that they were dealt with. The development of trust was the cumulative result of all of the above. This enabled women to take part freely and safely but also made their availability and presence for future interviews more likely hence the high retention rate of 65 at the end of a 4 year period.
Findings and Recommendations
The data and information generated by the research project is huge, the report itself looks at 9 different factors in the women’s journeys to freedom. Solace along with the researchers at CWASU agreed that more than 100 recommendations could be made but decided that it would be more useful and practical to highlight five of the most relevant and achievable outcomes that can have an immediate and a practical and long term benefit to women experiencing domestic abuse.
The research revealed that a staggering 90% of women have experienced some form of ‘post separation abuse’ three years on from leaving the abusive situation. Three quarters of those women experienced it as physical, sexual or verbal abuse. This clearly illustrates the point that leaving an abusive situation does not ensure safety or the end of the abuse. Women as a result had to employ extensive and detailed ways of ensuring their safety and that of their children. We call termed that as ‘Safety work’. Our first recommendation therefore states that ending domestic violence, dealing with its legacies and the process of re-building lives takes a significant amount of time and effort. Many of the women faced complex legal challenges. We therefore, recommend that all women and children who have experienced domestic violence are enabled to access support for a minimum of two years after separation. We believe this should include: refuge and floating support; legal advice and advocacy; short courses on understanding domestic violence; specialist counseling and group work for women and children; skills and confidence building workshops as well as individual and group support orientated to (re)entering employment.
Poor and inadequate understanding of what domestic violence is, the concept of coercive control and the way this impacts on the lives of women and children was prevalent across statutory services that came in contact with the women. In most cases this lead to negative experiences with agencies that hindered rather than supported women in re-building their lives. There was also evidence of repeated failure to implement existing policy and guidance. The shift to localism in commissioning and delivery has led us to recommend that a system of monitoring the delivery of sensitive and responsive services to domestic violence survivors needs to be developed. Central to that is a regularly convened panel of survivors whose recent experiences of service use-good and bad- are considered as evidence. This also creates a formal channel through which survivors’ voices are heard.
Housing, its quality and availability was a critical and determining feature of women and children’s ability to re-build their lives. Our study makes clear that domestic violence is a crime that takes place in the home; it therefore disrupts the image and reality of home as a place of safety and refuge. The research clearly illustrates that it is women and children who are victimised and pay the price crimes that are committed in the home whilst in many cases the perpetrator isn’t held to account. For 87% of women in our study fleeing the home was the only way of escaping violence and moving forward with their lives. For 25% of the women moving at least 3 or more times meant that creating a home and feeling safe took longer and was very disruptive. For a third of the women in the study they were still in temporary accommodation three years on from leaving the perpetrator. We therefore concur with the findings of Janet Bowstead (2013) that refuges should be considered a national resource, given the needs of many women to move away to be safe, but delivered locally. Women and children made homeless through domestic violence should be recognised as unique group fleeing crimes that take place in the home. This needs to be recognized through special measures including the offer of a social housing tenancy.