Families fleeing domestic abuse are being turned away from struggling refuges as they try to balance the effects of seven years of funding cuts across Lancashire.
Experts fear lives are being put at risk by a combination of savage cuts affecting domestic violence services and welfare cuts hitting vulnerable families.
Figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigatative Journalism show that across the UK, funding for refuges has been cut by 24 per cent since 2010, leading to hundreds of bed spaces being lost and vulnerable women turned away. Ninety-five per cent of refuge managers in England and Wales say they have been forced to reject women who are fleeing for their lives, as they simply have no space.
But despite the unprecedented financial dire straits, Lancashire is fighting back – with determined organisations pressing ahead with their plans to provide specialist support workers to help abuse victims from isolated communities such as those from ethnic minorities, men, and people with complex needs such as mental health problems or addictions.
Struggling councils – which themselves have suffered huge funding cuts since 2010 – have ring-fenced cash to support the county’s refuges for at least a further two years, but their future is far from certain.
And although Preston and South Ribble services have not suffered budget cuts, inflation and rising costs means that in real terms their funding has declined.
That is one of the legacies of a decade of cuts.
Rachel Horman, head of domestic abuse, stalking and forced marriage, at Watson Ramsbottom solicitors, said: “Most services across Lancashire have been hit by cuts and some have even had to close.
“There aren’t enough refuge spaces for victims across Lancashire and refuges regularly turn women and children away, putting them at risk of homicide.
“Separation is when victims are at the greatest risk of being murdered by their ex-partners.”
’We’ve had to take action and restructure our services’
Two high profile murders by abusive partners have raised the profile of tackling domestic violence in Lancashire.
Since Jane’s tragic death in 2009 and David’s in 2016, the county has seen an increase in men and women reporting they too are victims of abuse.
But it comes at a time when Lancashire County Council is facing unprecedented sweeping cuts.
Despite swingeing budget cuts it has pledged its commitment to do as much as it can to support victims by working with domestic violence teams to secure a £1.3m from a Government pot of money to tackle abuse, which it has split across 15 local authorities.
The funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) lasts a year at a time, but each year organisations have to come up with brand new ideas for services in order to secure more funding.
And with hundreds of victims still turned away from overstretched refuges and safe houses, experts fear it still is not enough to adequately tackle the issue.
There are thought to be around 80 units in the county open to female victims of domestic abuse within its network of refuges and safe houses.
But in the first two months of 2016 alone, 879 men and 3,089 women reported they were victims to Lancashire Police.
From 2016 to 2017 charity Safenet, which operates a string of refuges and safe houses in the county, had 341 referrals to its Preston unit, but could only admit 96 over the year - 29 of whom were from ethnic minorities.
In the same period, 180 women were referred to its Lancaster base, of which 50 were housed over the year.
It recently lost a specialist community drop-in and outreach service in Burnley, some Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs), who support victims at risk of serious injury, and the Domestic Abuse Early Support Service for children in Burnley and Lancaster - resulting in nine people losing their jobs.
Though part of the IDVA services were saved by funding from the Police Crime Commissioner, there are limitations on what they are able to provide.
Safenet recently launched Jane’s Place, a recovery refuge, offering safe accommodation for women and children at risk of domestic abuse, who have additional needs involving their mental or physical health, drug or alcohol use, self-harming, offending behaviour, sex working, grooming, trafficking, or a combination.
Women with complex needs are often unable to stay at communal refuges as it can impact on other families there. Eighty-four women were referred but only 29 were able to be housed in its 15 units.
Business development manager Andrya Prescott says: “We’ve had to take action and restructure our services to make sure we didn’t lose services before the cuts were made. Across the country the money’s gone, but LCC throughout has made efforts to sustain the funding through working closely with us to make bids for grants. We are much better of than other parts of the UK. If we had been in another borough we may not be here.
“We’re a larger organisation and can cope with change to some extent but smaller services have closed and we can’t predict what will happen in future.”
County Coun Peter Buckley, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for community and cultural services, said the authority worked with Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils, the 12 district councils, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and other local organisations to put together the bid for £1.3m from the Government.
He added: “We’re using this money to help improve specialist accommodation-based services across Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen, which provide vital support for people fleeing domestic violence.
“Some of the improvements being made include developing extra bed spaces and providing support workers for people with complex health needs; providing specialised support workers to help people from isolated communities and BME backgrounds; and piloting new ways of joining up the support with other health and care services.”
The “joined up” approach has seen the launch of a Health Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) permanently based at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, but employed by Fylde Coast Women’s Aid.
The Health IDVA offers immediate support when victims of abuse attend hospital with injuries, and helps staff at the hospital to recognise the signs of abuse.
Poignantly it was Blackpool Hospital where nurse Jane Clough was brutally murdered in a car park as she attended work.
The cash was also used to support more specialist services.
In May, a lifeline was given to male victims of domestic abuse as the county’s first refuge places for men was officially launched by charity Safenet.
The safe house, which is open to men from all over Lancashire, has been full since it was first made available as a pilot scheme. It has had more than 10 referrals, and housed five men in its three units - one of the few facilities for men in the UK.
Mark Brooks, of male charity Mankind, said: “The problem with cuts is both the impact on existing services but also it hampers the creation of new services for under represented groups such as male victims.
“That is one of the legacies of a decade of cuts.”
In South Ribble, two refuges are operated by Progress Housing and house 11 women and up to 24 children, but they too have had to turn people away when they have been full or if the woman has complex needs.
In addition the services they had have been streamlined as staff spread themselves thinner to cope with client’s needs where other services used to support them.”
Liz Stanton, manager of Clare House, said: “Due to funding cuts we have seen a dramatic reduction of services that support what we do, for example mental health and drug and alcohol services, health visitors, children centres, school support and transport plus many more.
“In recent years core funding for the refuge has also been cut, for example funding for our children’s support worker was withdrawn earlier this year which Progress Housing Group is currently making up the difference for from its own resources. All longer term funding is also uncertain and we would urge both local and national government to commit to adequate long term funding to ensure that these vital services continue.
“A reduction in legal aid is leading to the women we support not getting the legal advice and support they need and resulting in them having to face their abusive partners in court with no legal representation.
“The recent cap on benefits for families with more than three children also means that the women we are supporting have lost the benefits they previously had to look after their children.”
Many staff in South Ribble are undertaking additional training to become a McKenzie Friend - who are able to accompany someone who is in court by offering advice and support.
Solicitor Rachel Horman agrees welfare cuts and legal aid changes are also contributing to the situation.
She says: “Clients themselves have also had benefit cuts which has made it difficult to manage after separation and since 2013 legal aid has been removed for many victims meaning they are unable to obtain orders to protect their children from the abuser.
“Victims have been forced to be cross-examined in court by their abusers directly as they have been unable to obtain lawyers too.”