advocacy for specialised refuges and housing for women

Questions about specialised refuges.

Why do women need refuges?

Women who are being abused often require a safe environment where they can think about their situation and what they want to do next. Because of the stress of living in an abusive relationship, this is often not possible at home. Also, refuge staff have specialised knowledge and networks that help women access help and support as quickly as possible.

What is a specialised refuge?

It is a safe house for women and children who need to escape domestic violence. However, as women with mental health or drug and alcohol problems can rarely access conventional refuges, this would specifically cater to those women unable to enter a conventional refuge. This service would offer clinical and non-clinical support to women for the mental health/addiction problems that they are experiencing.

Why do you want to start specialised refuges?

Mental illness symptoms, drug and alcohol abuse and not having dependant children are all conditions that can exclude women from entering an existing refuge service. The primary reason that refuges do not like to take women with drug and/or alcohol problems/mental illness symptoms is that these women cause disruption and exhibit behaviours that upset the other women and children in the house. Specialised refuges would be run in conjunction with mental health and alcohol and drug services, staff who have professional expertise in these areas, plus a very good analysis and understanding of domestic violence.

The needs of women who do not have children will be considered to be of equal importance to those of women who do have children in their care.

Are you talking about women who use mental health services?

Not necessarily. Many women are just feeling crazy, or are being treated by their GPs. However, they still require specialised services as these issues cannot be addressed properly by non specialised services

What’s the relationship between domestic violence and mental illness/substance abuse?

The mental health effects of domestic violence are:

  • Alcohol abuse – Up to one third of abused women will abuse drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with abuse.  A number of studies suggest that most abused women only begin drinking heavily after the abuse has started. 
  • Suicide – research in New Zealand suggests that thee is an 8 times higher risk of suicide for women who live with violence and abuse.
  • Mental illness including major depression, trauma and anxiety disorders.
  • Diagnoses such as eating disorders, generalised anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, multiple personality and personality disorders. Bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.
  • Other issues - sleeping disorders, self-neglect, malnutrition, panic attacks, aggression towards ones-self and/or others, repeated self injury, chronic pain.

Long Term Effects for Women

Women involved in a New Zealand study identified a number of long term effects of being involved in an abusive adult relationship. These are indications of emotional distress: 

Diminished ability to deal with stress 

Depression 

On going fear

Lack of volition

Being suspicious or afraid 

Worn down, shattered, or isolated 

Blocking out – having gaps in their lives

What happens if we don’t do anything for these women and their children?

The number of women abused and suffering mental distress will not diminish and these women will remain trapped in horrendous circumstances. To exclude this group from refuge means excluding the most vulnerable women.

When living in an abusive environment, children are at risk from physical, sexual and emotional abuse and of being killed by the abuser. They are also at risk because of the instability that their mother is experiencing and manifesting.    When there is nowhere for these children to go, they remain at risk, or experience the upheaval and subsequent emotional and mental health problems associated with being removed from their mothers and placed in long term care – or of having their mothers taken into care and being left with the abuser.

What are the ongoing costs of doing nothing?

The ongoing costs associated with the intersection between mental health and domestic violence include:

The long term effects on the children and wider family.

The increased risk of children developing mental and physical illnesses later in

their lives

Women’s ongoing use of mental health and substance abuse services.

Rehabilitation and long term care.

The ongoing high use of GP and A&E services 

The inappropriate care of women who have been abused – i.e. placed in mental health services when they really require domestic violence services. 

Years of life lost because of suicide and homicide. 

The length of time that women are unable to function without support.

Diminished realisation of educational, employment and personal potential

Surely not many women would need this service?

Because this is a hidden problem, it is not possible to estimate exactly how many women would require this service. However, in a 2006 survey of 39 refuges affiliated to the National Collective of Independent Refuges, it was discovered that in a six month period, 525 women with mental health and/or substance abuse problems, accessed, or attempted to access, refuge services. Between them, these women had 447 children. Some women are able to access appropriate help and support. 257 were unable to access refuge residential services. Many of these women were forced to either go back to their abusive partner or to live in unsafe conditions – caravan parks, short term situations with family or friends, or they end up in institutions or on the street.

What are the effects of domestic violence on children?

Children who live in an environment where abuse is occurring suffer trauma whether or not they are abused themselves. The children's stability is threatened and this influences their sense of security and ability to survive, which causes them lasting damage.

The psychological effects of domestic violence include low self-esteem, lack of empathy, depression, passivity, sleep disorders, eating disorders, anxiety, teen pregnancy, suicide and suicide attempts.

Children who experience abuse and those who only witness it, experience many of the same emotional and behavioral problems, including:

Psychological and emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, low self esteem, social withdrawal, hostility, nightmares, disobedience and aggression.

Poor school performance 

Cognitive functioning problems such as lower verbal and quantitative skills and the development of attitudes supporting the use of violence.

Somatic health complaints and physical problems such as delayed motor skills, speech difficulties and multiple health problems.

Long Term Effects on Children Childhood exposure to abuse and other adverse experiences is strongly linked to:

Chronic adult health problems, including ischemic heart disease.

Cancer.

Chronic lung disease.

Diabetes, hepatitis, and liver disease.

Juvenile offending. 

Alcohol and drug abuse.

Increased risk of later physical and sexual assault.

Interpersonal and parenting difficulties.

Isn’t it unsafe for them to be with their mothers?

Child safety will always be a priority within the refuge services.

Generally, being an abused woman does not make a woman a bad mother. Women are usually working hard to protect their children from the abuser. Frequently, it is fear of her children being hurt that motivates a woman to take action against abuse.

It may occasionally be unsafe for children to be supervised by their mothers – but this will usually only occur when women are in crisis. Staff and respite arrangements can be put in place if this is necessary.

Homeworks Trust considers that children are placed at more risk if they are left in the care of an abuser, or placed in foster care. Homeworks Trust is committed to strengthening and enhancing the bond between mothers and children, with the long- term goal of reestablishing stability.

Who would use a specialised refuge?

Women who require a safe environment to escape domestic violence, but who are denied that refuge because of perceived mental health or drug and alcohol problems.

This could be a woman of any ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, childless or with children.

Are there other services that do the same thing?

There are very few refuges that will take women who use/abuse drugs and alcohol, or who are taking psychiatric medication or exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. Often these women – and their children – require specialised support that is not available at existing refuges. In order to meet the complex needs these women have, staff require professional expertise in mental health or addiction along side an analysis of domestic violence. These services also need to be staffed 24 hours a day by paid, not volunteer, staff. This alone makes the service very different from existing refuges.

Will Homeworks Trust specialised services make a difference?

Specialised refuges will ensure that abused women have somewhere safe to go if they do not fit current inclusion criteria for refuge. It will offer a safe place for women and children to understand their circumstances and begin the journey of change and healing.

It will help women identify the services they require and it is intended that it will eventually lead to them accessing conventional domestic violence services for their ongoing support.

Is this just band-aid or will it make a difference long term?

Specialised refuges are only part of the network of services required to respond to domestic violence. The service can have long term effects on women and children who would otherwise be trapped by their circumstances.

However, if we are to tackle the causes of domestic violence, we must look more widely at society and how we reinforce and endorse this behaviour – and attempt to change the mores that enable the abuse of women and children to continue.

Questions about women only accommodation for women who currently live in commercial boarding houses

Why do women, who live in commercial boarding houses, need alternative accommodation?

Women become homeless for many reasons including poverty, the break down of relationships, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and experience of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Boarding houses provide immediate, short-term options for people who are unable to manage the stresses of a more formal living arrangement, or who are unable to pay rent and bond. However, commercial boarding houses are frequently physically, sexually and emotionally unsafe for women.

Why a woman only house?

Research has identified that women who live in commercially run boarding houses are at risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse both from fellow residents and from managers/owners. Woman only accommodation would provide security and would be managed by women who can assist the residents to develop the skills they need to move into longer term, safer accommodation than that which a commercial boarding house supplies. It would also be an aesthetically pleasing and soothing environment – of a level that women may be unable to afford else -where.

Are there other services that do the same thing?

Most boarding houses are mixed gender. Women who live in mixed gender boarding houses are at risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, plus become very stressed from living in an unsafe environment.

Will Homeworks Trust specialised services make a difference?

Women only accommodation will provide women with a safe, non-exploitative and secure environment in which to think about:

  • why they have been living in insecure environments
  • the changes they want to make in their lives
  • how these changes could be made.

The staff will have the professional expertise and networks to support women in these processes and help them to make positive changes in their circumstances. The service is designed to help residents to acquire the skills required to move into long-term stable, independent living environments.

Is this just band-aid or will it make a difference long term?

Long-term changes will only come about when there is more analysis of women’s specific housing needs and strategies put in place to implement constructive home ownership and secure tenure programmes. Until this time, marginalised, poor and disadvantaged women will continue to be homeless or live in unsafe and insecure situations.