Bernice's Memories of Advocating for Refuge
Experiences in Housing since 1980
Before I was a Local Councillor I worked in another area as a Housing Manager for a Housing Association. I remember one occasion where a woman came into the office. It was a winter’s day and it had been snowing. She was in crisis. As she sat there talking to me, her eye was swelling up. When she had been out in the cold, the swelling had been suppressed, but as she was warming up her eye just began to balloon! She’d been hit by her husband during the night and had then been walking the streets until our office had opened. I talked to her about going to a refuge but she wouldn’t go as she was too frightened by the idea. Although I made the call to the refuge and encouraged her to go, it was up to her to decide. I couldn’t make her go. In those days there was much more stigma. Women didn’t feel able to admit it was happening. Perhaps they worried about being ostracised, bullied by others or not accepted.
The situation was very bleak. I saw a lot of controlling situations where women were told what to do, didn’t have any control of the money within the household and weren’t allowed to take decisions. In the housing role we saw men who were violent and we’d make sure we didn’t interview them alone. There was one male tenant I remember who was certainly violent. Their families suffered.
When I was a Housing Manager, we’d had a maintenance issue with the local independent refuge. The guy from Environmental Health was really unhappy about the circumstances, he said “I want you to instruct Environmental Heath to close this place down, unless something is done about it. I’m worried about the safety of these women. It is the only way to force the local authority to deal with the issue”. I had to say “This has got to change” and put myself in the position of being the bad guy. It was not a good place to be. For someone escaping violence, it wasn’t good enough. Making the leap to leave an abusive partner is a difficult and brave thing to do. Accommodation needs to be well maintained and safe.
At the time, a refuge could be an uncertain place as the buildings were all just cobbled together. However, most refuges had little money to address problems. This background in housing set me up to understand the big picture of what was going on. Erin Pizzey started the first refuge in the UK, in 1971 so at this point Women’s Aid was still quite new.
The Context of Housing Generally within Trafford in the early 90’s
I became a Labour Local Councillor at a by-election in 1991. At that time, the housing function (which included working with refuges) was part of the social services remit. Housing was seen as an aspect of the welfare service that the council provided. Having worked in housing I could see that this was the approach; it wasn’t about standards of accommodation.
I remember a male Councillor announcing once in the Council Chamber ‘You can take somebody out of Stretford but you can’t take Stretford out of somebody”. The idea prevailed that “I’ve done well for myself so I deserve to be wealthy, but you haven’t tried hard enough so you’ve got what you deserve. Which is why you live in Stretford.” Their attitudes were very patrician; “We know best” and “You live there so you are that kind of person.” Attitudes on domestic abuse fitted into this too. Domestic abuse was seen as a “lower class” problem. Something that doesn’t happen in “decent” families. At the time, there was no understanding either that a man could experience domestic abuse. I don’t think people asked for help when they needed to as there was so much stigma. Perhaps the woman I saw with the swollen eye couldn’t see herself as a victim of domestic abuse because she was middle class. It was a shameful thing to admit.
Labour took control of Trafford Council in 1995 and the service was reshaped. At that point it became Housing and Environmental Services and it became about standards of all accommodation, public and private, rather than just social housing or ‘residual’ accommodation; a ‘poor relation’ to Social Care that received no investment and no-one bothered about much. It became part of Public Health, Cleanliness, quality of life, and the Environment – a much broader view.
The Prevailing Attitudes in Society
When I first became Chair of Housing and Environmental Services in 1996 a male colleague within the council told me “Watch out for these Women’s Aid people. They’re all lesbian, man-haters! Don’t have anything to do with them!” I was shocked at this attitude. So when we had the meeting with Trafford Women’s Aid (TWA)*, I didn’t invite him!
This was the prevailing attitude. TWA had been absolutely kept at arms-length. Of course, some of this attitude was persisting due to a lack of women Councillors. When I became a Councillor there were not many women and I was the only one with small children. I was even warned that they did not want to see my children in the town hall! Having women in positions of authority and representation brought a whole different perspective to many things. At the time, instead of seeing a person who was having difficulties as a person who needed support, bizarrely they were often viewed as a threat!
The idea that they thought that TWA were just lesbian, man-haters was very strange. However, because I had a background in housing management, I knew that domestic abuse was very important. I knew where TWA were coming from.
*Trafford Women's Aid (TWA) was the previous name of Trafford Domestic Abuse Services (TDAS).
Policy and its Effect on Refuge
I had understood through the grapevine that there were issues to do with Trafford Women’s Aid (TWA). I was asked if I would organise a meeting with TWA and the then Director of Housing. We all sat down in the committee room, and I’d never seen the director look so uncomfortable before!
I had heard that the relationship between TWA and the Council hadn’t been going well up to that point. In the course of that discussion I heard that women suffering domestic abuse had to prove it by physically showing their bruises or other bodily harm, and that they were obliged to get an injunction against their husband/partner so that he would leave the property. The woman had to stay in the same property with her children and they were not allowed to give up their tenancy. This, of course, meant that their partner knew where they were and would be really angry! This increased the risk to the women and their children. If the woman didn’t comply with either of these, they were deemed to be timewasters. Understandably, not many women put themselves though this humiliating and potentially dangerous ordeal.
However, if a woman left and ran away, she couldn’t get housing benefit. Therefore, the women who did flee had no money. This was causing problems for the TWA refuge. The women staying there had no money to pay any rent, causing TWA to struggle financially. It was very often at risk of closing because of lack of funds. TWA were providing refuge, domestic abuse outreach in the community and a play worker for refuge children, all with very little funding.
A Landmark Change
Over the course of the meeting it was decided that women would no longer have to show bruises; they would be believed. Also, the local authority would support them to move to a safe place or to stay in the house; we’d support them to choose. If they decided to go to the refuge then their housing benefit could be transferred over and paid as rent to the refuge; setting TWA on the path to become financially sustainable. These decisions were made over the course of a half an hour meeting! The whole situation changed! Women would now have a place of safety they could go to, a confidential support service and the promise of a better life for them and their families.
Looking back on that meeting, that hour. I don’t know how I was so calm! A lot of meetings you attend there’s a lot of talking and afterwards you think to yourself “Has a single person benefited from this discussion?” But that meeting was possibly the single most important meeting I ever had. The repercussions of the decisions we made were momentous. It’s not until later that you understand the full impact of the decisions that we took.
It was a collection of circumstance that all lined up. I was part of making that change which is a great feeling. I remember in the meeting one of the women from TWA got a solemn promise from the director that no woman would ever again be asked to show their bruises.
Until this point TWA had been kept at a distance. They had been ignored, with people refusing to meet with them and perceiving them as a threat. This meant that decisions had previously been taken in ignorance. Now the Council officers would work with TWA on a common agenda.
I feel that speaking up in the meeting was the easy bit. Working with victims of abuse day-in-day-out is the hard part. I was there at the right time and in the right circumstance. Having my background in housing, I understood the issues and saw what needed to change. Due to the new split (housing being separate from social services) I got the role and had come into the role with a different view of what housing is for. It was serendipitous but it’s only when you look back on it that you see how everything came together just at the right moment!
A Change in Attitudes
By the time Cicely Merry became Mayor of Trafford in 1998, she chose TWA as her charity. She’d always championed it, but by then it was considered to be something the whole council could take on and support. There had been a whole change of opinion over the space of just a few years.
You have to remember that in the 1950s domestic abuse was accepted. In the early nineties it was still tolerated. I remember battling against the view when I worked in housing that it was “only a domestic” with the police not wanting to get involved. That was the fight to change attitudes that was going on.
I once gave a speech on Cicely’s behalf. I talked about TDAS and stressed that these women are not victims but are survivors. I thought this was very important, as they were still portrayed as victims. We need to be very proud of these women.
Introducing Judith Lloyd to TDAS
I was asked if I would join the TWA Trust Board but I was so busy that I knew wouldn’t be able to do it justice. So I asked Judith Lloyd, a person I trusted a lot to take this on instead and she’s been a board member ever since. Judith was busy but I knew that she’d get involved and would understand all the issues. She’s someone you can rely on, she will always do what she can and won’t let you down. Judith has made a big difference by being a trustee for over 20 years.
Many thanks to Bernice Garlick for sharing her memories of advocating for TWA/TDAS, refuge and domestic abuse services in the 1990s.