A domestic violence survivor says lives will be put at risk if a service that helped save her from abuse is closed as a result of funding cuts. Chris Burn reports.
When Jennifer Jones made the brave decision to contact Women’s Aid in a bid to start the process of escaping her controlling and abusive partner, she was so frightened of the consequences of him finding out that she travelled to the other side of her home city of Sheffield to make the call from an untraceable phone box.
Jennifer (not her real name) says she considers the support she received from Women’s Aid staff and volunteers from that point and through subsequent criminal and family court hearings to have been genuinely life-saving.
“Without them, I would have been completely at his mercy. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be sat here today,” she says.
But now the Doncaster-based service, first founded more than 40 years ago and helping over 1,00 victims of domestic violence per year since that point, is facing the prospect of closure for the second time in two years after being told earlier this month that Doncaster Council will not be supporting it with any further funding after providing a one-off £30,000 grant last year.
Jennifer says she has decided to tell her story to The Yorkshire Post in an attempt to get the council to reconsider. “When I heard the service might close, I felt sick to my stomach. I know that somewhere out there is a woman in the same situation I was in who needs help. Many, many families desperately need the help of this service,” she says.
Now aged 37, Jennifer says that for the first two years of her relationship with her former partner, he presented himself as a loving and caring person to both her and her daughter from a previous relationship. But after she fell pregnant, she says “everything changed”.
Jennifer says he took an increasingly controlling attitude to her life and her finances - encouraging her to take out credit cards in her name and rack up debts. He would monitor where she was, who was calling her and interacting with her on social media.
She says her partner developed a drinking problem and his behaviour became “more and more erratic”, lecturing for hours if she got an insignificant fact wrong. “If I wasn’t looking completely at him or providing him with 100 per cent attention or tried to answer a phone or text message, he would start the lecture again but from the beginning but slower and louder. It got to the point where it happened every evening. Sometimes he would lecture me for as long as four hours, just one inch away from my face.”
Jennifer left him when she was six months pregnant but after their child was born, she says he came back into their lives. “When I had the baby, I had a longing for the father to be there. Every other mum in the hospital had their partner there and I sat there looking at all these couples. I contacted him to let him know the baby had been born and he wormed his way back into our lives.
“He said he had stopped drinking and seemed to be in recovery. As time went by, I genuinely believed he was making this effort and we could be a family. That is all a lot of people want - to have a happy and secure home life.”
She says that for the first six months, the relationship was good but then he began drinking again and the abuse restarted. “He got me to believe I couldn’t exist without him. I was so sleep-deprived and stressed, my weight fell to just six and a half stone. I was like a skeleton. Every day I said to myself, I’m going to try harder not to annoy him.”
She says his behaviour became increasingly violent and he would physically trip her up and push her. After she secretly contacted Women’s Aid, Jennifer says she was subjected to a violent assault in front of their young son.
“We were watching the CBeebies Bedtime Hour. He came in with an open bottle of beer and was swearing about someone from work and was very angry. I tried to keep the situation calm but the next thing I knew, I was on the kitchen floor. He had thrown me from the other room and was strangling me and banging my head against the floor while my son was crying on the settee. What he didn’t know was my daughter was upstairs. She had to phone 999 and I was so proud of her.”
Her ex-partner eventually admitted assault but did not get a jail term. She then had to face her abuser in family court as he sought access to his child - and because of the way the system works, he was allowed to directly cross-examine her. “Outside that courtroom, he couldn’t come within 50 metres and wasn’t allowed on our street. But inside, he was able to question me about our relationship. It was nightmarish.”
As with the first court case, Women’s Aid workers provided her with vital support, guiding her through the process and letting her know about her rights. Jennifer says she struggles to believe what she considers to be such an important service could close its doors within months. “It is not good enough - they are letting down the women and children of Doncaster and the surrounding regions.”
Louise Harrison, senior domestic abuse advisor at the service, says stories like Jennifer’s are why it is so important the service stays open. On average, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. A recent report suggested more than 1,300 children in Doncaster were living in the town where “high risk domestic abuse” was suspected to be taking place.
The original Doncaster Women’s Aid closed in April 2016. After losing its council contract to operate a refuge alongside its other support services in 2014, the organisation was reliant on a Big Lottery grant. But this funding ended in 2016, leading to the service closing.
However, a successful campaign secured a £30,000 grant from Doncaster Council and the service reopened in a new single-room office with a skeleton team and greater reliance on volunteers earlier this year under the new name of South Yorkshire Women’s Aid in recognition of it being the only service of its kind left in the county.
Louise says the service just hopes the £30,000 previously provided could be renewed on an annual basis - helping its case with securing other grants and allowing staff and volunteers to focus on their most important task which is supporting victims and survivors.
“We are still trying to do everything. Research says it takes 35 incidents for a woman to first talk to anybody. When a woman first rings up Women’s Aid, she might be embarrassed, she might have only just accepted it herself, might not have told her mum, might not have told her friends. For her to be able to ring up is vital. We have got no funds to run the phoneline but we are trying to do it for free. The success of our courses makes it all worthwhile - seeing a women start to believe in herself again, to recognise her self-worth, to see her potential and know she deserves a life lived free from fear.”
A £3.1m council-supported project was launched in Doncaster last year to help support victims of domestic abuse - but Louise says none of that money has been offered to Women’s Aid, despite the council frequently referring people to its services. “Women’s Aid has been here for 40 years, we have helped so many women, we are trusted. We are asking for a bit of support, we are not asking for the moon. Even in times of austerity, there are choices, there are ways of managing services.”
Louise says last year she was invited to the funeral of a former service user. “It was spoken about in the service - she was a client of the old Women’s Aid and we closed down, her mental health deteriorated and she committed suicide. We can’t go through that again but it will happen again if Women’s Aid closes down.”
Council defends position
Doncaster Council says it spends more than £1m per year supporting domestic abuse services in the town - but says organisations like Women's Aid can no longer rely on council support to stay open as cutbacks bite.
Councillor Chris McGuinness, cabinet member for the voluntary sector, said it had always been clear that the £30,000 provided to South Yorkshire Women’s Aid last year was a one-off grant from a £500,000 fund to support local charities and community groups and no further money was available.
He said the council does intend to meet the organisation’s trustees “to further understand the situation”.
Coun McGuinness added: “Since 2010, Doncaster Council has already been forced to cut more than £200m from its annual revenue budget and like other Councils faces further significant funding cuts in the coming years. Notwithstanding this, the Council has prioritised tackling domestic violence as a key issue and spends in excess of £1m per year on related services.”
He added: “In addition, the government funded Growing Futures project operated by Doncaster Children’s Services Trust focuses on therapeutic support for children and young people, finds new and better ways to keep them safe and help them recover from the impact of domestic violence – since the Government funding stream ended, the council has supported Doncaster Children’s Services Trust to maintain this service. The council has also funded the delivery of non-criminal justice based perpetrator programmes aimed at men who commit domestic violence in order to reduce the number of repeat incidents.”
“Domestic violence is wholly unacceptable and can have a devastating impact on victims and their children. The council will continue to prioritise these services within the resources available to it. However, as with all independent charities, South Yorkshire Women’s Aid must plan to exist without reliance on funding from Doncaster Council, which unfortunately is simply not in a position to provide financial assistance to every voluntary and community organisation facing financial pressures. However, the council will continue to offer support to these groups in order to help them to secure funding from the wide range of charitable trust funds in existence, and the potential for generating income through charitable activities.”