‘Fleeing domestic abuse is the hardest thing, because it chips away at self-worth’

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR - Credit: Archant

Reporter Maya Derrick speaks with Liz Perry and Sara Jackson of St Albans and Hertsmere Women’s Refuge about the all important work they do to help women, children and men in their time of need.

Picture: SAHWR

Picture: SAHWR - Credit: Archant

Serving the community since 1982, St Albans and Hertsmere Women’s Refuge (SAHWR)’s extensive history has embedded the organisation within the community it covers for almost four decades.

“We have gone from accommodating seven families, to being able to accommodate 26 families, to having an outreach service, to now running services across the south west of Hertfordshire,” Liz Perry, one of SAHWR’s refuge managers, said.

And the refuge’s continual expansion has also meant that their services can cater to male victims of domestic abuse. “In the last three years, we have not only been able to provide a community-based service for those men, but also accommodation. We now are able to accommodate men, and their children, if they are the victims of domestic abuse.”

With the victims of domestic abuse not being confined to gender, age or ethnicity but to name a few, SAHWR come to the aid of those fleeing domestic violence, which Liz says is “the hardest thing they’ll do”, citing the bravery of victims.

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR - Credit: Archant

“It’s making sure that people have a really good understanding that it isn’t just physical abuse,” she added.

Refuge charities like SAHWR not only provide safety through housing victims, but also provide tools for those fleeing domestic abuse to build a better future. “It’s building up that resilience, because domestic abuse chips away at people’s sense of self and self-esteem and self-worth.

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“The other big bit of work that we do is supporting in the impact of domestic abuse on children. They’re often the hidden victims, and the impact on children living in households where there’s domestic abuse is quite scary.”

SAHWR help equip a victim of domestic abuse with children with the tools to help their children recover, which is supported by BBC Children in Need funding.

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR

A bedroom waiting for a new family at a SAHWR refuge. Picture: SAHWR - Credit: Archant

Sara Jackson, who has served as a manager and freedom programme facilitator at the refuge for 25 years, highlighted the importance of educating people, especially young people, on what a healthy relationship is: “When you start having boyfriends and girlfriends when you’re at school, it’s like it’s coming from a place of love when your boyfriend says ‘oh, I don’t want you seeing them, I only want you to see me’, ‘we’ve got to spend all our time together’ and ‘I don’t like you wearing those kinds of clothes, I want you to wear this’, and it’s understanding that that’s not normal in a relationship. That isn’t a healthy relationship.”

“Education is totally key,” Liz added: “And I think you need to start young. Unfortunately, there is more of it happening now.”

Whilst the pandemic has had a huge impact on the refuge, some silver linings have emerged in response to coronavirus restrictions. Although the majority of the refuge’s face-to-face community outreach has ceased for the time being, the support from their dedicated team has been predominantly unaffected. The pandemic has changed the way in which they offer their services, but the fact that victims can be supported remotely – whether that be through WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom or via phone – means they can deliver support with fewer time and travel constraints. “Because we cover such a big area, we’re able to spend more time and we’re able to see and speak to more clients,” she said, noting that outreach services have increased during the pandemic.

“It’s not all bad!” Liz jests, but the magnitude of the of the situations victims find themselves in, and the lengths support staff go to to cater to their individual and complex needs, remains clear. Practicalities such as dial-ins to court – which result in victims not having to come face-to-face with perpetrators like in pre-pandemic times – have been a glowing positive, but the fact that resources are spread thin, and there’s a clear rising demand for the refuge’s services. “So our child support workers became teachers, as well as entertainers and referees! It’s been a really tough time,” Liz continued: “But again, there’s something about the work in refuge. Yeah, it’s tiring, it’s frustrating, and all the rest of it, but there’s something that hooks you into it.”

According to Liz, support from the local community during this time has been paramount. “We have been incredibly lucky, but one of the important things for us is that we’re very embedded within our community,” she said.

“We are lucky that we are quite well-known, especially in the St Albans area, and it would be nice to have that across the board.”

On the topic of demands on the service, the refuge is appealing for more people to sit on their board of trustees, especially those with specific skills, for example a legal, financial, HR, housing or health and safety background.

Praising their dedicated team, the duo explained that they do whatever they can for their clients to creat as smooth a transition in, and eventually out, of their refuge services.

“For us, we make sure that we treat all of our clients with respect. Most of those clients have never had that in their life, maybe. They’ve not been believed and they’ve not been respected, and that’s what we try to do,” Sara said.

Liz added: “We value the children. We value the women. We value the bravery of fleeing domestic abuse, because that is the hardest thing they’ll do. Whether that’s a community client who is seeking advice or support, or whether it’s a family that uproots and comes into refuge.”

Between April 2019 and March 2020, SAHWR worked with 479 clients within refuge and the community. Since April 2020, 268 clients have been supported through the service.

To find out more about SAHWR’s work, visit sahwr.org.uk.