First Steps to Freedom

As acts of domestic violence play out daily on our TV screens, investigates what support is available in reality for victims in York

By the time you’ve finished reading this article, an estimated 30 acts of domestic violence will have taken place in the UK, one every six seconds. One in four women experience violence in their relationships with men at some point. The statistics bear an unhappy familiarity.

Domestic abuse takes many forms. The harm inflicted can be physical, psychological, sexual or financial. It can also happen in same-sex relationships. This was the case for Laura, who for three years endured regular beatings and mental torture at the hands of her partner. She watched their relationship deteriorate through her partner’s heroin use. “Through the drugs she turned nasty, her character changed completely,” she says.

“She beat me, scratched me, hit me. She fractured my skull, hit me with belts, irons, and anything else she could get her hands on.”

Her partner’s violence was accompanied by controlling behaviour that isolated Laura from the outside world. “She was very domineering,” she says. “Before I met her, I’d had a perfect life. I had loads of really good friends. She stopped my friends coming round and just isolated me until I was basically on my own. Until she was all I had. She’d cut everyone off from me.”

Laura called the Police for help but because she was in a same-sex relationship, they took no action. “They weren’t interested,” she says. “They said: ‘It’s two women, just a bitch-fight. Just get on with it.’”

“People find it difficult to contemplate that domestic violence can happen in a same-sex relationship. People find it difficult to contemplate that rape can happen in a same-sex relationship. But it happens.”

Eventually Laura received the help she needed to escape her abusive partner. “I rang Social Services and asked for a way out,” she says. “They told me they’d help if I went to their offices. So I ended up running away. I waited until she had gone to her Mum’s one night, packed all my stuff up and went to their office.” They referred Laura to York Women’s Aid, a local charity that helps women suffering domestic abuse and runs two refuges in the city. “I got to Social Services at 3.30pm and by 5.30pm that evening I was at the refuge in York,” she says.

After suffering from three years of abuse, Laura found adjusting to the new situation difficult. “When I arrived there, I was afraid to even walk down the street. Even though I was in a different city, I still got the feeling that she’d find me, that she’d follow me here.”

Laura stayed at the refuge for seven months before moving into private accommodation when she felt ready. “It’s not the easiest place to live – no one would want to be in that situation – but they really help you and support you through everything. They helped me get back on my feet. They really do everything in their power to help you.”

The refuge did, however, have its limitations: it’s an old building and women and children have to share communal facilities. That’s all about to change. An £800,000 project is underway to replace the existing facilities by the end of the year. A new, purpose-built refuge will allow York Women's Aid to support a further 15 women and their children annually, in addition to the 40 or 50 families they presently help each year.

This coincides with a large expansion in refuge places throughout the country. Sarah Hill, project manager of York Women’s Aid, thinks this represents an increasing recognition of domestic violence. Today, she says, “if women know that there’s refuge accommodation out there and support out there, then they will access it.”Even with its increased capacity the new refuge will not be able to accommodate all the women who seek emergency assistance. “We get about ten times more referrals than we can actually take in the refuge,” says Sarah. In cases where women cannot be accommodated, staff always ensure they have somewhere safe to stay. Many women contact Women’s Aid to make use of their outreach project, which supports those for whom emergency accommodation is not necessary. This is an alternative Sarah Hill favours, “for a lot of women that is the best option. It means they don’t have to leave what they know, what they care about, but they can still get all the support that they need.”

Sarah believes that women are now more willing to seek help than in the past, partly as a result of high-profile stories in the media. “Even when a storyline is used in Eastenders or wherever, we see an increase in the amount of calls we get for support,” she says. Ultimately, it’s about raising awareness. “If it’s in people’s minds all the time that they shouldn’t have to put up with this and there are other people suffering it – that they’re not alone – then they do get in touch.”

For Laura, the refuge provided a lifeline. It’s almost two years since she left, she’s turned her life around, and she’s now working at the refuge. “I felt I wanted to give something back,” she says.

“I feel very optimistic. I’m so glad about my life now and that I got away from it. Nothing can be as bad as what I went through.”

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