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Disability and domestic violence

Gill Hague, Co-Director of the Violence Against Women Research Group, in Bristol, UK, discusses the first ever UK research on domestic abuse and disabled women, on behalf of the research team, including Ravi Thiara, Pauline Magowan, and Audrey.

Making the links: disabled women and domestic violence is available in various formats as a detailed full report, an executive summary and a good practice guide from Women’s Aid (www.womensaid.org.uk).

One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime — many of these on a number of occasions. The first ever UK research on domestic abuse and disabled women reveals that many disabled women who are mothers experience domestic violence either while they are pregnant or after the children are born.

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, the research was managed by UK domestic violence charity, Women’s Aid, and carried out by a mixed team of disabled and non-disabled researchers from the Violence Against Women Research Group (University of Bristol) and the Centre for the Study of Safety and Well-being (University of Warwick), advised by disability consultants.

Overlooked

We aimed to develop understandings of the needs of disabled women with physical and sensory impairments experiencing domestic violence, and to investigate the scope of existing provision. However, it was very difficult to find women willing to be interviewed. We contacted women through word of mouth, refuges, disabled people’s organisations, specialist black and minority ethnic projects, and advertising in the disability and domestic violence press.

We found that support services almost universally overlook abuse or respond inappropriately. Disabled women, including those with children, often experience significantly more abuse than non-disabled women and are, therefore, likely to have an increased need for services. But this need is coupled with a severe lack of provision. Disabled women, including disabled mothers and their children, lose out on both counts.

We knew that the situation for disabled women facing abuse was likely to be difficult, but were constantly taken aback at the paucity of effective services and the distressing scale of the abuse experienced. Victims were often living in situations of extreme vulnerability, distress and isolation. Sexual abuse was particularly prevalent, and physical violence was usually accompanied by emotional bullying and harassment, with women’s impairment often being used as an integral part of the abuse: “He’d turn off the wheelchair and leave me there and walk away ... or move it to one side just as I was shifting myself into it.” (disabled mother)

Neither disability organisations nor domestic violence services were able to offer very much help to disabled mothers and their children trying to escape domestic abuse, sometimes leaving them in a desperate plight. Organisations of disabled people rarely considered domestic violence ‘their’ issue or provided services, and in any case they, of course, have almost no resources. Domestic violence organisations had made considerable efforts to improve services in terms of accessibility, but still had a long way to go, especially in terms of disability equality awareness. The responses of statutory services were particularly poor, with 80% of interviewees finding adults’ or children’s social services the least helpful of all. Sometimes, either the police or social workers had threatened to remove children from their mother’s care, rather than provide her with support so she could continue to look after them and work with her to access services to deal with the domestic violence.

Like many non-disabled mothers experiencing domestic violence, most of our interviewees kept the abuse to themselves. Many felt that they dare not tell anyone for fear of what might happen to them or their children: “I didn’t tell anyone. I just tried to make things as normal and happy as possible in my family” (disabled mother).

Impact on the children

All the interviewees who were parents felt that the children had been badly affected by the abusive situation. Having children raised different issues for different women. For some, it meant they had stayed specifically because of the children. For a few, the abuse started, or increased, when the children were born or were young, and, as they were often unable to look after them on their own and needed greater support from their partners, the onset of abuse could place them in an impossible quandary. Those women with children who were at an age to be aware of what was happening reported the strong impact the abuse had had on them, and some children had themselves experienced direct abuse, at times both physical and sexual.

Several women believed strongly that their condition had been used against them in dealing with professional agencies about the children, and the workers had sometimes colluded with violent non-disabled partners. For example, the children of one woman with high support needs were taken into care. Being able to show that she was in a relationship, albeit abusive, had assisted her in getting them back, so the last thing she wanted to do was to separate or draw attention to her abuse.

Another did seek the help of emergency services due to violence, whereupon her daughter was almost taken into foster care because there were no facilities for them both to escape to, even though there was no other need for foster care. They ended up staying with neighbours rather than accessing the agency help to which they were entitled. Often, the problem was because none of the local refuges could take a disabled woman and children. Another child (aged three years) was left with a violent father when the mother fled. Social services and others said nothing could be done to help because of the mother’s support needs.

In 2005, the government published its first national report on domestic violence containing the framework of the national delivery plan, and all local areas should now have domestic violence strategies. The days when women facing domestic abuse were left to cope alone are meant to be over — but not it seems if you are disabled. In our study, the agencies usually had the best will in the world, but lacked the services to do much to help.

The way forward

We produced wide-ranging recommendations to address these difficulties, all of which need to be implemented in partnership with disabled women and children themselves. They include more accessible refuge services, disability equality and domestic abuse training (provided by disabled women where possible), domestic violence policy development, and integration into all relevant strategic and commissioning frameworks. We also produced recommendations on community care packages, domestic violence quality marks for good service, and what to do if the abuser is your personal assistant.

It is essential that all relevant services, including the statutory sector, and both domestic violence and disabled people’s organisations, take on the issue. For too long, disabled women and their children facing abuse have been ignored and left without assistance from the agencies meant to offer help. Now is the time to make a change.

References

Hague G, Thiara R, Mullender A and Magowan P. 2008. Making the links: disabled women and domestic violence. Bristol: Women’s Aid.

Home Office. 2005. Domestic violence: a national report. London: Home Office.

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