Domestic abuse victims’ law

New act says councils must prioritise victims

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When 38-year-old Khloe Fallon* fled her home with no shoes on, after her husband threatened to kill her, she had no idea she could gain accommodation from her local council.

“I called the Women’s Aid national helpline for advice. I was so ashamed that this abuse was happening to me. I was afraid to make a change, but I knew I didn’t want to live with my partner’s violence and threats anymore,” she said.

Fallon spoke to a “lovely lady” who advised her to go to her local council and they would find her accommodation.

“I had no idea I could do this. It was a turning point for me,” said Fallon. Worrying where she would live had been the biggest barrier to leaving a violent relationship.

‘Epidemic within pandemic’

Now victims who are homeless due to domestic abuse will be prioritised for accommodation from their council. Under the government’s landmark Domestic Abuse Act councils will have to accommodate victims, helping to ensure they do not remain with their abuser for fear of not having a roof over their head.

Previously victims had to be assessed as being vulnerable due to domestic abuse to be identified as having a priority need. Under the new legislation domestic abuse will be a standalone reason to qualify for this support.

The law was brought into effect after the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Vera Baird QC, accurately predicted domestic abuse to be an “epidemic within the pandemic”. Between April and June 2020, there was a 65 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, compared with the previous three months.

Fallon said that being trapped with her partner 24/7 during the pandemic had exacerbated her abuse.

“I used to have a break when he went to work but then, suddenly, he was working from home and I couldn’t get any space from him.”

Karen Ingala Smith, who runs the Counting Dead Women project, estimated that during the first three weeks of the first lockdown there had been 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children in the UK, which was the highest for at least 11 years.

Experience recognised

Stephanie Mallas, CEO of Stockport Without Abuse – a charity supporting domestic abuse victims in the borough – said she was “intensely saddened” by the increase in referrals to her service during and after lockdown but said that she fully expected it.

She added that although the Domestic Abuse Act is a positive development the biggest challenge will be the availability of appropriate properties for victims and their families, of which there is a national shortage.

“My concern is there may be a temptation to try and put victims into accommodation which isn’t really appropriate,” said Mallas.

“Then the local authority will have met their requirement but the property may not be suitable for those families – for example if they were placed in an area which means getting three buses to their child’s school.”

She added that the new law is an important step for victims of domestic abuse because it recognises their experience.

“Domestic abuse is not something a person has imagined. It is very real, and I think this may also encourage some of those victims who have been reluctant to report and to take action to leave to do so.”

Fallon said: “I didn’t want to tell anyone what was happening to me because I was scared they wouldn’t believe me.”

Heather Brennan, accommodation development project manager at the Independent Domestic Abuse Service (IDAS) in York, said the new legislation could give victims of abuse the confidence to move from an abusive situation as they know that they will become a priority for the local authority. But she described how it will put pressure on domestic abuse services because the government has not announced that there will be any additional refuges.

“We only have eight rooms in the whole of Barnsley so if we then had a big influx of people who were needing refuge they would have to go out of area because, as it stands at the moment, we have no one moving on.”

Denise Craghill, executive member for housing and safer communities at City of York Council, said that prior to this change in legislation the council has already been prioritising people fleeing domestic abuse to help them find safe accommodation. The new law will not change the way it operates but she agreed it is a positive step that should give people suffering abuse more confidence to come forwards.

“We will continue working with IDAS and with individuals to find the secure home they need,” said Craghill.

Following her ordeal, Fallon spent six months in refuge accommodation but was granted priority status on the housing list by her local council. She has recently moved into her own flat.

“I was living a life no one should have to suffer,” she said. “It was dark. I had lost my identity. Now I can see the light, and I am me again.”

Anyone suffering domestic abuse can call the national 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (national 24 hours helpline). Victims in York can call IDAS on 03000110

*Victim’s name has been changed

Interact: Responses to Domestic abuse victims’ law

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