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From rats nests to target hardening: memoirs of a refuge ‘madam’

Cathy Davies, who retired as chief executive of Hafan Cymru in June, gives her personal reflections on the past, present and future of the domestic abuse sector in Wales

I shall never forget the day I found a rats nest under the stairs in the refuge. this was in 1987 and I had been working as refuge co-ordinator for Carmarthen Women’s Aid (CWA) since 1982.

During the 1970s groups of women around Wales had begun to come together to address the almost complete lack of support (both legal and practical) for women living with violence in the home and by 1982 there were around 20 refuges offering emergency accommodation in Wales. Our refuge, like all others at the time, offered communal living, mostly overcrowded and where women often shared bedrooms as well as living and eating areas.

All but two of these1 were run by autonomous Women’s Aid groups, well supported by a strong band of women who worked for Welsh Women’s Aid (WWA). This had been established by the movement in 1978 to support the growing number of refuges and Women’s Aid groups, and was very definitely feminist in principle, espousing self-help and mutual support as key elements of how women would be supported. Working in a refuge as either paid worker or volunteer was seen not as a job, but as something you did because you were committed to helping women, and being part of the grassroots movement. Groups were non-hierarchical, trying for consensus in decision making rather than a majority, and debate was passionate, with boundaries between staff, volunteer and trustee often very blurred.

‘Battered wives’

This was the era of ‘battered wives’ or ‘battered women’s refuges’ – with no mention of Violence Against Women (VAW) or gender-based violence, though there was a growing rape crisis movement supporting women who had experienced sexual violence. I was the only paid worker for CWA: paid for 17 hours a week and working 40. Other help was provided by a loyal but small band of volunteers who had worked hard to set the group up and obtain the building we occupied from the county council. Most paid refuge workers then, where they existed at all, were part-time, underpaid and overworked, but wholly committed to their work and to assisting women escape violence in the home, and volunteers were not only trustees but key in running refuges and in helping fundraise to continue the meagre services we were able to provide.

Refuge was the only provision for women and their children experiencing domestic abuse – no safe houses or temporary supported housing, no floating support, no target hardening, no outreach. Indeed, with little and insecure funding, we struggled to provide even refuge support, with no political support, no leadership and certainly no supporting legislation. A 1983 Welsh Office seminar on domestic violence highlighted the almost entirely voluntary nature of the movement in its report2.

Funding was insecure, inadequate and always short-term, my post being funded by a small grant from Carmarthenshire. By the end of the 80s, when there had been major expansion in the number of refuges in Wales, WWA described the serious lack of funding amongst refuges as ‘a desperate scramble for cash to keep going’. Hostel deficit grant (HDG) had by then arrived, which did fund any deficits you could evidence. However, most refuges in Wales were owned by local authorities and HDG was only applicable to housing association properties. This, coupled with the desperate need to improve conditions within Welsh refuges, led to a growing trend in the 1990s to develop refuges through housing associations instead.

‘Those people’

There was no recognition of the needs of men and it was a huge struggle to get the needs of women and children recognised. In those days comments from local councillors reflected those from Aberystwyth when the fledgling Women’s Aid group there tried to get funding to open a refuge: ‘We don’t have any of  that here and if we do it’s those women coming in on the train from Birmingham bringing it with them.’ The support CWA had from Carmarthenshire was fought for by the officers often against the wishes of elected members and when the authority attempted to purchase a new building for us, following the ‘rats nest’ incident, we came up against a petition signed by over 100 people, including local members, against having ‘those people’ in the street where it was located.

Even later on in the early 1990s, when I was CEO of Tai Hafan and we were beginning to develop a new housing scheme in North Pembrokeshire, I experienced the wrath of the local community. I was accused of running a brothel by one particularly unpleasant local resident at a public meeting attended by over 80 people opposed to the development. Opposition then was the norm, and the fact that we had to struggle for survival only made us more determined to succeed and made us stronger and more united as a movement for change.

Alongside the lack of funding, and inadequate refuge buildings, there were other major issues for women experiencing domestic violence. Protection under civil or family law was almost impossible to get and the police response was very variable, with ‘domestics’ often being treated as trivial and a time-wasting use of their resources. In addition domestic violence was not accepted as a reason for homelessness and refuges frequently became blocked as women could not move on into independent living. Even where women were rehoused in local council stock, it was seldom in an appropriate area, often far from schools, benefits and council offices and other key resources vital to rebuilding their lives after trauma.

A group of us in Welsh Women’s Aid decided to take action to address this latter issue of adequate housing. In 1989, following a secondment to research the housing needs of women in refuge in Wales3, I was lucky enough to find myself as the first – and for some time only – staff member for a newly created housing association, Cymdeithas Tai Hafan. This was specifically funded by Tai Cymru4 to provide housing and support to address the longer-term needs of women and children experiencing domestic abuse. At last there was an initiative to provide good quality, self- contained housing, where women could get longer-term support rather than just emergency accommodation, and could live independently and benefit from the mutual support of others in a similar situation but without living on top of them.

In addition, Tai Hafan (now Hafan Cymru) recognised that women who have lived with abuse, often or years, can also need support with PTSD5 or other mental health issues, substance misuse, offending behaviour, education and work, building confidence, managing finances etc so from early on we ensured that support was extended to all these areas.

The past 25 years have seen a vast increase in the expertise and specialist knowledge and professionalisation of domestic abuse sector specialists like Hafan Cymru and a move away from collective working to hierarchical structures and improved governance for most Women’s Aid groups.

The present day

Jump forward to 2014 and where does the domestic abuse sector find itself today in relation to both policy and practice in housing? First, domestic abuse cannot be taken purely in relation to housing but must be seen in its legislative and political context as this is what will determine future policy. Second, it isn’t a domestic abuse sector but happily one which is recognised by Welsh Government in its recently presented Bill as Gender-Based Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence6, thus reflecting wider legislation7 and the proven fact that women are the primary victims of abuse in the home or within society at large.

The Home Office has introduced a new definition of domestic abuse which covers 16- and 17-year-olds and includes coercive control – all forms of abuse, not just physical violence – and there are current moves to strengthen Whitehall legislation to make coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships a specific offence. Domestic abuse and VAW are recognised
by Welsh Government and increasingly by public bodies as key issues for our society and the duties laid on statutory authorities in the Bill are designed to ensure that all professionals take action when domestic abuse is suspected. The Welsh Government has demonstrated its cross-governmental approach to the issue by using the Housing (Wales) Act to place responsibility on social housing landlords to take action in cases of domestic abuse and the former housing minister demonstrated his commitment to tackling VAW and domestic abuse in many ways, not least in his avowed intent to ensure all housing associations have a domestic abuse policy.

Third, we have a much expanded, better quality and more variable range of housing and support provision than in the 1980s and 1990s. From 2003 to 2013, this was relatively well funded by guaranteed grant aid through Supporting People funding, supplemented by domestic abuse services grant. There are now around 35 refuges in Wales for women and two for men – almost all owned by housing associations – and an increasing number are moving away from the communal model towards some element of self-containment, with the preferred model being that of the complex needs refuge in Blaenau Gwent owned by United Welsh and managed by Hafan Cymru. There are an increasing number of safe houses  for women or men, including those with physical disabilities, more complex needs or older male children8 unwilling or unable to gain entry to many of the refuges in Wales where accessibility and appropriate support for complexity are still an issue.

However the greatest increase in provision – which started from around 2003 when there was a huge expansion of services enabled by the inclusion of transitional housing benefit in the then new Supporting People funding – is in floating support, the vast majority of which is in social housing stock. Coupled with this, and an essential adjunct to keeping people safe, is the growth in target hardening9 – without this, floating support in crisis and violent situations would be unworkable – and an increasing recognition by some associations of their key role in enabling victims to stay in their own homes, both through target hardening and by active perpetrator work. The work over the past five years of the Domestic Abuse Modernisation Group10  has demonstrated that women prefer their own space to a communal refuge and even more prefer to stay in their own homes, especially when there are children involved. In addition the growth in floating support reflects the view of service commissioners that floating support is cheaper and therefore better value for money.

We have also seen an increase in the number of providers. Whilst Hafan Cymru, BAWSO and other Women’s Aid or former Women’s Aid groups, remain the leading specialist providers of domestic abuse and VAW services, other more generalist support providers, including general needs housing associations, are being funded to provide domestic abuse services. This often reflects local authority tendering processes that focus more on price than on quality or specialism and allow larger generalist providers to undercut more traditional, smaller providers.

Above all during the past couple of years we have had a major change in the administration and commissioning of Supporting People services, with devolution of funding from Welsh Government to local authorities and Regional Collaborative Committees (RCCs). This has led to insecure funding once again, with authorities commissioning services predominantly through tender, offering short-term contracts on increasingly less funding.

This has happened particularly in areas where the redistribution of Supporting People funding has focussed authorities on cutting costs, but it also applies elsewhere as authorities tighten their own belts.

In addition, contracts are tightly defined, allowing providers only to carry out the permitted activities outlined. More and more this fails to address the often multiple and usually complex needs of many domestic abuse clients, bringing frustration for those staff who wish to provide the best possible service.

Lessons for the future

You may be asking why I dwelt for so long on the early history of domestic abuse provision in Wales – interesting though you may find it, what does it tell us other than we are very lucky to be 25 years on? Well I feel there are some lessons to be learnt from those early years which may stand us in good stead for the future – and which we ignore at our peril.

The first and most obvious of these relates to funding and commissioning. Once again providers of domestic abuse services find themselves facing insecure and decreasing funding. This brings with it a need for flexibility and adaptability alongside a clear commitment to key values and ethos in order to maintain focus and quality. The early movement had just that – a cohesive group of people all with the same aim and intention to tackle domestic abuse who worked together against the odds.

Now everyone is fighting for the same decreasing funding pots – and this, along with many of the current commissioning and tendering processes, is divisive, leading to competition not collaboration, and a lack of respect for others’ services. In addition, commissioning, often at low cost, is leading to more generalist services and we are in danger of losing much of the specialist expertise which has been built up over the past 25 years, along with the professionalism which has grown with it. If we wish to end violence against women and domestic abuse, we need to work together. While the funding available may not increase, changing tendering to relational commissioning, longer term contracts and more flexibility for providers to deliver services in ways appropriate to the client group, would increase the likelihood of collaboration, maintain the necessary professional expertise and address the multiple needs of service users. Second – and also linked to decreasing funding – is the increasing preference of commissioners for floating support services rather than accommodation-based services.

The reasons are clear in a period of austerity but this trend may well mean that in future men and women escaping violence situations are not as safe as they could be and don’t benefit from the mutual support of others in a similar situation. Whilst I do not believe it is necessary to increase the number of refuge spaces, the variety of provision we currently have has been one of the strengths of recent years, and can be used to offer women and men alike a choice of ways in which they can be housed and supported. Providers and landlords need to be flexible, reconfiguring existing projects rather than decommissioning to ensure that end users have the accommodation and support they need. Most important in all of this, however, is to involve users in determining what services are appropriate and how they should be delivered. Whilst the new Supporting People regime has brought with it a commitment to involve service users in commissioning processes to date this is very patchy and tends towards tokenism. Commissioners and landlords could take greater notice of the excellent service user involvement that has been established by some support providers.

There has also been an increasing tendency during recent years for gender neutral domestic abuse services to be commissioned, instead of recognising the key importance of having gender specific services separately for both men and women. This is due in part to lack of funding and to the difficulties that remain in identifying male victims and mean that the numbers of men coming forward for support in many areas, despite the national police statistics to the contrary, remain too low for an effective separate service. Much more needs to be done to ensure that the gender specific services that have been in place for many years are not compromised by extending services to men but that, even if they are slow to get off the ground, new and targeted services for men are established.

Linked to the above is the necessity for all social housing landlords to take a proactive approach to tackling domestic abuse, training up staff at all levels, having clear policies and procedures for staff to follow, ensuring specialist support is made available for victims to stay in their own homes where this is their wish, is appropriate and they can be kept safe, and actively moving perpetrators. Once again, though, this requires landlords to listen to their tenants and take the lead from them, ensuring that all victims of whatever sex, age, language or ethnicity, are met with empathy and understanding. Housing associations are quasi-public bodies and the duties imposed by the forthcoming Bill when finalised will also apply to them. Now is the time for landlords to gear up and take an active part in tackling this crime.

Third, while accommodation has improved vastly from my early experiences, there is still a reluctance among some commissioning authorities – and sometimes a lack of commitment from social landlords – to prioritise refuge improvements. This means we still have a small number of inappropriate communal refuges in Wales. Women overwhelmingly do not wish to stay in communal refuges but do wish to benefit from mutual support and, where it is not appropriate or safe for them to stay in their own home, the temporary solution offered should be fit for purpose. In the current climate, where the forthcoming legislation will undoubtedly increase demand for domestic abuse services, it is incumbent on commissioner, provider and social landlord alike to ensure the accommodation provided is in a good condition and that rats nests and overcrowding are very definitely in the past.

It seems a lifetime since those early days and, thanks to the lead from Welsh Government, housing and support providers in Wales are now in a position to make a real difference to the lives of those who live in daily fear and trauma, despite austerity. I really do hope that the next few years will see a return to the passion, commitment, and collaboration of the early movement but in an extended form and that we make firm progress in preventing and tackling VAW and domestic abuse.


1.During the 1980s these two also came under the auspices of Welsh Women’s Aid

2 This relatively new and rapidly developing service has been, perhaps, enabled by being largely a voluntary and volunteer effort. It has had the flexibility to change

and develop as ideas have developed and to create a ‘grassroots’ ethos perhaps impossible to achieve in other ways. There is no doubt that the development of refuges and support systems for battered women and their families has met a need strongly felt but largely unmet for many years previously

3. See Homes Fit for Heroines by Cathy Davies, published by Welsh Women’s Aid, 1988

4. Then the umbrella body governing and funding RSLs in Wales, established in April 1989 just after the registration of Tai Hafan as a charitable housing association in January ’89

5. Post traumatic stress disorder
6. There is a strong lobby that this should be only a Violence Against Women Bill
7. CEDAW – the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

8. Some Women’s Aid refuges will not allow boys over 15 to reside there
9. Security measures such as panic alarms and increased physical security to the property
10. A group of provider and commissioner representatives whose report has informed much local authority and Regional Collaborative Committee proposals for domestic abuse services during the past couple of years 

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