Domestic abuse is a complex, often hidden crime that can have devastating consequences. Here reporter Laura Smith visits ‘the refuge’ in Bury St Edmunds to find out what it does to help victims get back on their feet
‘If they ever laid a hand on me, I would leave’ – sound familiar?
It’s how most people respond to a hypothetical violent partner, but the reality of having one is far more complicated.
For those on the outside, it can be hard to understand why anyone would stay – love, children, control, fear, the list goes on – but for those affected, it’s important to know they’re not alone.
In Suffolk, there were 2,861 domestic abuse-related crimes recorded in the year ending August 2013 while, according to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 1.2 million women and 700,000 men reported experiencing the crime in 2012/13.
The Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid Centre is one of a handful of organisations in the county offering support and refuge to victims.
Established in 1974, it can offer residence to eight women and their children at any one time.
For the 39-year-old I spoke to, it was more than her home for four months - it was ‘a lifesaver’.
She left her ex-partner after he beat her and locked her in the house for two days.
Her injuries included black eyes, bite marks on her face and a broken nose.
“He put his hands around my throat – I was so scared. I thought I might die – I really didn’t think I would get through that day.”
“They saved me here though,” said the mother-of-two, who prosecuted her abuser.
“I was really scared, but they were with me every step of the way. The staff were brilliant – they did all the interviews and police statements with me and they came to court.”
They also provided her with counselling and enrolled her in parenting classes and the 12-week Freedom Programme, an educational course which examines the actions and beliefs of ‘the dominator’ and encourages an expectation of respect and equality in future relationships.
“They get you ready to live again, because you’ve lost all your confidence when you come out of those relationships.
“I was always one of those people that said if someone laid a hand on me I’d be out of there, but within a year I’d completely changed.
“He started with throwing things and smashing plates and I think of that now as a really bad sign, but at the time I didn’t realise that someone who breaks things goes on to break people!”
“I was convinced it was all my fault, that I had done this to him. I had met a lovely man and the poison in me had spread to him – I had turned him into a monster.
“It’s surprising how quickly they get into your head – you really do start believing what they say,” she said.
He received two years’ imprisonment for the abuse he inflicted on her and revealed a history of violent relationships she could have learned of sooner through the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, Clare’s Law.
The 35-year-old I spoke to suffers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of her past relationship.
He isolated her from friends and family and got more violent over the course of their five years’ together.
“It starts off with what you wear – you look better in the red dress- so you think I’ll wear the red dress then, and slowly they chip away.”
Recalling one violent episode, she said: “He knelt on my chest and put his hands around my throat – the light was going. I really thought I was done for.
“That’s what a lot of the PTSD is from, because I realise how close I was. My voice box was broken - for a couple of weeks I couldn’t talk.”
“My self-esteem was through the floor – I didn’t believe I was worth anything,” she said, adding that she finally left after her sons were forced to witness his abuse.
Convicted of indecent assault and grievous bodily harm, her ex received a 12-month suspended sentence.
“I was co-dependent and the refuge helped me to realise my freedom. I didn’t know what I’d been through was domestic violence – I thought all couples had arguments and sorted it out.”
She had used alcohol to cope with the PTSD, so the centre, otherwise known as ‘the refuge,’ got her into rehab and introduced her to other therapies.
It also got her into an informal Survivors of Domestic Abuse group (SODA), introduced her to its weekly coffee mornings, popular events where the women compare aspects of their new lives, and taught her to manage her finances, something she had no control over previously.
“I think the mental abuse for me has taken longer to get over than the physical because it’s complete cognitive dissonance – your whole thinking’s turned upside down and inside out,” she said, adding: “Now I’ve got my power back in my life - I’m in control and I have faith that I can be something.”
The refuge costs around £120,000 a year to run, but it is unclear whether its core funding will continue after March.
Its manager of 21 years, Annie Munson, herself a former resident, said: “For the last two years, we’ve been told our funding from Suffolk County Council might come to an end and the domestic abuse service funding will go out to tender.”
“The worry is we’ll no longer be in control of our services, and the level of service will diminish.”
Currently, she is working towards raising funds to provide specialist help for children, a service the centre was forced to cut around four years ago.
Mrs Munson said the service was ‘vitally important’ but two part-time child workers would cost around £14,000 a year, with a further £8,000 needed to fund individual therapy sessions.
“We want to expand rather than detract – we’ve got a head full of ideas and we hope to implement them before we retire,” she said.
To contact the refuge, call 01284 753085. Voicemails can be left out-of-hours.
Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org
STATISTICS ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
* 31% of women and 18% men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 - this amounts to 5 million women and 2.9 million men
* Domestic violence has repeatedly been identified as a major factor leading to death in or related to pregnancy and childbirth
* It accounts for 10% of all emergency calls
* It has consistently accounted for between 16% and one quarter of all recorded violent crime
* On average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner - this constitutes around one-third of all female murder victims
* The prevalence of domestic violence is greater among young women (under 24), and those who have a long-term illness or disability
* At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence
* Domestic abuse costs the tax payer an estimated £3.9bn per year
(Figures from Women’s Aid, CSEW and CAADA)