92 Hours: My time shadowing a victim of domestic abuse

Very early on a recent Saturday morning, I got a phone call from a police officer. A survivor of domestic violence named Alyssa* needed a safe place to go, but local refuges were not responding to calls.

It was 1am.

It would take 92 hours – until late Tuesday evening – for Alyssa to be placed into emergency accommodation by the local council, a period in which she was left without money to buy food, without access to her belongings and without adequate support. I would expect better for people trying to flee abuse.

The police called me because I have helped to coordinate a service whereby a consortium of Hilton hotel rooms across London provide emergency short-term accommodation to survivors and others in need. But hotel staff are not equipped to handle vulnerable people on their own. Our service requires the survivor be in the care of and receiving specialist help from a charity or police representative to:

  • ensure safeguarding measures are in place,
  • check on the survivor every day and
  • plan an ‘exit strategy’.

This system had been working almost seamlessly until that Saturday morning.

Because Alyssa was deemed ‘medium-risk’ by the police, it became her responsibility, unaided by any statutory agency, to secure specialist support in order to access our emergency accommodation.

It was the weekend. It was late. It was in the middle of a pandemic that found services stretched beyond their capacity. So, when I helped Alyssa by calling refuges, the local council, the national domestic abuse helpline and other police departments, I was met with an answering machine or was told to call back on Monday. That meant at least two whole days without any support.

After contacting the police again, they offered to escort Alyssa to pick up some of her belongings, but for reasons that should go without saying, she was too afraid to return to her home. Instead, in my capacity as a private citizen, I helped Alyssa over the next four days—ensuring she had accommodation and food—and making more than 50 calls to eventually find her refuge in Council-provided accommodation by Tuesday evening.

It’s important to say that none of what I share here is intended as empty criticism. I had the opportunity to shadow the journey of a survivor of domestic violence for just one weekend, and the experience made a profound impression on me. It revealed the complexity of our response and protection systems and how it is matched by the uniqueness of every survivor’s case. Surely we cannot expect a survivor like Alyssa to navigate this system on her own.

In recent weeks, we’ve been having a very important public conversation about the meaning of the word ‘systemic’. This experience has highlighted that by identifying the structural weaknesses in our public services, we can develop solutions to address the inefficiencies and breaks in communication that can at times leave individuals in more vulnerable positions.

In Alyssa’s case, the system failed in these three particular ways:

A rigid risk classification system

Alyssa was categorised as a ‘medium risk’ domestic violence survivor. Her partner had been arrested and granted bail under conditions stating he could not see her. But because the home they shared is in his name only, she would not be allowed to return to the property. Unable to get her belongings, she was left without money for food nor other essentials. The risk classification system stuck Alyssa in a generic category, dictating her support, while not considering her personal situational needs.

A limited role for police

The role of police is a fairly limited one in circumstances like Alyssa’s. After a ‘medium-risk’ survivor is removed from immediate danger, the police’s role has been effectively completed; the rules say they are no longer expected to provide further protection or support once she is placed in emergency accommodation. It’s not the fault of the police officers, but in Alyssa’s case, she was dropped off at a hotel at 5am with instructions to ring a national helpline the next day. She was on her own. The official role of the police hamstrung them from providing additional support and considering Alyssa’s case on an individual basis.

Timing was a factor

Refuges around the country are already stretched thin, struggling to respond to the growing need for their services amid the coronavirus pandemic. But domestic violence doesn’t take the weekend off; if anything, it’s been working overtime. Alyssa escaped her abuser late on Friday night, but the timing meant that police officers couldn’t find accommodation through the regular channels. As a single woman (without her children with her), Alyssa was expected to ‘manage’ until she could seek Council support on Monday without so much as a phone charger.

It is under these conditions – alone, vulnerable, facing hunger and fearing homelessness – that many survivors consider returning to their abusers. Thankfully, Alyssa did not.

But the system was stacked against her.

In my role as a local councillor and director of a non-profit, I know there is more we can do in the public, private and third sectors to strengthen our processes and improve our systems. There is a need to re-imagine them in such a way that centres the needs of survivors and responds to the reality of their lives. A clear roadmap, with straightforward guidance to support survivors practically, could be one place to start. More specifically, how can the police address the lived experiences of survivors without having to stick to rigid, sometimes unhelpful risk systems? What can be done to ensure that helplines and refuges are adequately funded and equipped to support survivors with actions tailored to the specific circumstances of each individual? Finally, in what innovative ways can businesses in the private sector use their assets to support these helplines and centres, during the pandemic and beyond?

The goal is always to protect survivors and, ultimately, to save more lives.

*The survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.