Dramatic rise in violence against women and girls – but can new legislation help break a generational cycle of abuse?

Katherine Johnston (14 August, 2019) Crime Housing Health Community

“We are seeing more and more high risk cases - last year alone Solace received over 2,500 referrals in the borough and we expect that rate to increase” - Solace Women’s Aid

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Recorded cases of domestic violence offences have increased by more than a quarter in the last three years in Southwark, as the council vowed to do more to support affected families and target perpetrators with early interventions.

Southwark has the fourth highest volume of recorded domestic abuse offences in London, a number which has increased by 27 per cent since 2015/6, according to police data.

In the same period, referrals to specially commissioned support services rose by 52 per cent.

This year, a panel of experts looked at how Southwark Council can improve support to victims, including those experiencing stalking and harassment.

They want to help identify perpetrators sooner and, use ‘behaviour change’ to help them make a lasting effect.

A new five-year strategy for ending violence against women and girls was published last month.

Southwark Cllr Induction Portraits 2014

Cllr Evelyn Akoto, cabinet member for community safety and public health, told the News: “Violence against women and girls in all its forms is unacceptable.

“It affects all communities and has an incalculable impact on the lives of those individuals affected, their families and the wider community.

“Through building on the community foundations we already have in place, I am confident that by working together we will achieve our vision, and reduce the harm caused by gendered based violence for future generations.”

Key themes include broadening existing work helping victims of domestic abuse, and seeing violence against women and girls as part of other issues – from child sexual exploitation, gang activity and sexual harassment on the street.

Much of this work will be a legal duty for local authorities due to the new Domestic Abuse Bill, championed by Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman.

For the first time, this law widens the definition of domestic abuse to include coercion and financial control. It will also end the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in family courts.

Fundamentally, it places more of the responsibility for dealing with these issues on local authorities.

Writing in this newspaper, Harman pleaded with Boris Johnson to back the new bill, and give councils the funding they need, properly to implement it, as long-term cuts from central government have left councils like Southwark funding front-line services without any extra money.

“I am urging the government to set aside a percentage of gross national income to safeguard refuge funding and end the hand-to-mouth existence of these vital places of safety,” she said.

“Southwark Council and over 40 councils are backing this.

“The important thing is to establish the principle – the money would be a tiny percentage of government spending overall, but be hugely important for women and children fleeing violence.”

Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman

In 2015, Southwark Council estimated the financial toll to its services from domestic abuse was around £20 million each year; cash spent on urgently rehousing families, providing foster care placements, and specialist services for women, children and men affected.

One of Southwark’s key partners is Solace Women’s Aid. A spokesperson told the News it welcomed the strategy, as the number of women seeking help is “consistently increasing: “We are seeing more and more high risk cases, last year alone Solace received over 2,500 referrals in the borough and we expect that rate to increase.

“At a time where the need for specialist support is at an all-time high, it is essential to have a joined up approach and long-term vision to ensure we can reach more survivors, with the right support, sooner.

“Solace works in Southwark providing specialist support to ensure survivors are safe, can recover from the impacts of abuse and can rebuild their futures independently.

“We welcome Southwark Council incorporating this understanding into their strategy as well as their approach to raising community awareness and holding perpetrators to account for their behaviour.

“Working closely with Southwark Council, we have been developing new and creative ways to deliver services.

“We have seen positive outcomes for service users and been able to reach, and engage with, more of the most vulnerable people in the borough who are facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

“But there is still a long way to go to ensure every survivor can live free from abuse.

“While innovation and partnerships are key, we also recognise the need for more funding for our core community services and IDVAs (Independent Domestic Violence Advisors) who work on the frontline, often with the most high-risk cases.

“We must ensure no one is turned away, but equally that each survivor gets the right support at the right time and this can only be done with adequate funding.”

Although Southwark’s housing support for survivors has been praised as best in class, earlier intervention would minimise trauma for victims and, in some, extreme cases, could help more mothers stay with their children.

According to the council’s own records, 31 per cent of social care family assessments carried out from May 2015 to March 2019 listed domestic abuse as a factor in referral.

And the number of ‘high risk’ cases the council reviews is growing – with a ten per cent increase been 2017-2018 and 2018-19.

And this abuse is generational – with those experiencing it in childhood struggling with abuse in adulthood, too.

PAUSE Southwark is an organisation working with women who have had two or more children removed from their care.

This may take the form of help with attending appointments, accessing housing or benefits or employment, or getting mental health support and counselling.

The charity says 88 per cent of these women in Southwark have experience of domestic abuse. Seventy-one per cent of them experienced childhood abuse themselves, and nearly half of all the women they work with spent time in the care system as children.

Earlier intervention could be key to breaking this generational cycle of violence – but it won’t work unless perpetrators are given the help they need too.

Identifying those who want to change, and those who don’t and will continue to abuse with potentially lethal consequences is a huge challenge – with or without extra funding.

 

A survivor’s story: “I feel safe and no longer in fear when I walk through the door”

One woman has told of how being rehoused with support from Solace Women’s Aid and Southwark Council helped her flee abuse.

“My husband had mainly been verbally abusive to me. I came to the UK nine years ago after an arranged marriage.

“The only means of income I had was the child benefit which I had to feed my two children.

“I was also sexually abused and was four months’ pregnant with my third child. I have medical issues so have been classed as a high risk pregnancy.

“My husband had been having an affair and he had left the family home to be with his new girlfriend.

“I was then a further victim from my husband’s brother who was still living at the property, who continued the verbal abuse in front of my children and treated me like a slave.”

Initially placed in one-room shared housing in Tower Hamlets, Solace helped the family move into Rhea project housing; temporary accommodation for families escaping domestic abuse.

“When I entered the property I was so surprised how much room I had. I asked the support worker if I was sharing the property.

“I was told the whole flat was for me and my children. I was so happy and I was crying. I could see the smiles on my children’s faces.”

After moving in a few months ago she now, for the first time, has access to benefits she is entitled to.

“I feel safe and no longer in fear when I walk through the door. My children are more relaxed and we are all looking forward to the baby being born.

“This is the first time since I have been in the UK I can plan for the future. I want to improve on my English and to eventually go into education.

“I am very grateful for all the support from Solace and feel safe to know they will still be supporting me until I move on to a permanent property.”

 

Shocking figures: The Stats on Violence Against Women and Girls in Southwark

  • 180 businesses in Southwark have signed up to the Women’s Safety Charter, introduced in 2015, to tackle sexual harassment and assault in the night-time economy
  • Southwark has the fourth highest volume of recorded domestic abuse offences in London, a number which has increased by 27 per cent since 2015/6
  • In the same period, referrals to specially commissioned support services have risen by 52 per cent
  • An estimated 7,000 women in Southwark aged 15-49 are believed to have been affected by FGM
  • In Camberwell and Peckham, a staggering eight per cent of women are believed to have undergone a form of FGM
  • 88 per cent of women in Southwark who have had two or more children taken into care have experienced domestic violence and abuse
  • Social care assessments of what the council calls ‘families in need’ record domestic abuse as a factor in a third of cases.
  • The number of ‘high risk’ cases of domestic abuse, intervened in by the council and other agencies, has risen 10 per cent in the last year

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