ELFT Women's Network supports Refuge in their goal to abolish domestic violence and violence against women and children.
This interview has been conducted by Sarah Canning, Trust Equality Lead for Women, in conversation with the Refuge Call Centre Manager, Jessica (not her real name)* : 'Women think they are not being physically abused because they haven’t been punched in the face, but they are being pushed or dragged across the floor or had their hair pulled; this is physical abuse.
There are also circumstances where there is no physical abuse but there might be controlling behaviour, financial abuse or emotional abuse, these are still abuse.'
-'Refuge' Call Centre Manager
Can you please tell me a little bit about your role?
I am one of the managers on the national domestic violence helpline, the helpline is run in conjunction with Women’s Aid, and I manage an amazing team of 9 permanent staff, 8 bank workers, and 60 volunteers.
Can you give me an overview of the kind of calls you would receive?
We take over 90,000 calls a year, which equates to about 260 calls a day, about 75% are from female survivors, but we do get a number of male callers, approx. 2%. We also get many calls from professionals looking for advice and information, or trying to get women into a refuge.
Do you get repeat calls?
Yes, we do. The repeat calls are people looking for refuge space and call often to try to get in if there has not been space available, as spaces are limited. We take an empowering stance on calls so we generally encourage the women to call the refuge themselves unless there are particular support needs or it is a very difficult situation. Most calls are what we would call a one-off intervention, where we try to equip the woman with all the tools she needs.
How long on average do the women stay in a refuge?
It can really vary, some might set a particular time period, say 6 months, after which they need to be in further accommodation. Others do not have a set time but would leave once the woman can find accommodation beyond the refuge. People might think of it as a few days here and there, but it’s not really like that. It’s more of a fresh start, where she can move on, get the support she needs, start to feel safe, then the refuge staff work with her to get safe accommodation beyond there.
What can Refuge offer?
What I think is unique about what the Helpline offers is that we take the time to try to unpick the dynamics of the abuse, offer emotional support, accommodate queries. Also, it is about believing her -; often the feedback we get is that this is the most powerful thing. We understand the tactics or behaviours used by abusers. Beyond that it’s about presenting options, since many women do not know what is out there, giving them options is empowering. For example, survivors of domestic violence should be eligible for housing from the council. This doesn’t always happen, but the legislation does state that if a woman is fleeing domestic abuse, she should be able to apply for temporary housing. We would also present going to the police as an option, but we are quite careful with this.
How does the role of Call Handler affect staff? Do they get specific training?
It is quite a full-on role, one of the hardest elements is that you don’t necessarily know what happens to the women when you put down the phone. Everyone is trained, even the volunteers go through a week-long training programme and then do some shadowing. Then there is ongoing training, supervisions, debriefs, practice calls. All of our Helpline workers are female.
What advice would you give to a woman who is affected by the various forms of Domestic Abuse?
We would adapt our advice depending on the woman’s needs, but we would often say you are not alone, it happens to 1 in 4 women, so just imagine all the women around you at work and at home who have been through the same thing, domestic abuse is very common. We are validating the woman for reaching out for support, which can be done anonymously. They don't have to tell us everything, although we are not linked to the police, so calling us does not mean we would call them. The only time we would ever breach confidentiality is if there was a child at risk, or a vulnerable adult.
We might also signpost women to support groups. Women’s Aid runs a group called the survivor's forum, where you can just go online and speak to other women, which can help make women feel less alone. We try to discuss with women that they are not weak, and actually that domestic abuse happens to women from all walks of life.
There is a misconception that women who are abused are weak or easily manipulated, but that is not the case. Many of our callers are successful, gregarious people, who have slowly had their confidence chipped away at. To manage an abuser in your life takes so much courage and strength; then to make the contact with us is so brave.
We work with women to come up with a safety plan so that if they want to leave the situation, they can leave more safely and confidently. This will include issues around tech abuse, as it’s becoming more common that abusers are installing spyware and GPS so they can maintain control.
We often find there is a lot of misunderstanding about domestic violence in the general public, so a lot of women when they do speak with their friends and family receive messages that make them feel guilty or ashamed. They are being told that they should try harder to make it work or are made to feel like it’s their fault. We do a lot of work around trying to inform women that it’s not their fault and how important it is to speak to professionals who understand the dynamics and complexities of abuse.
*Due to confidentiality, we changed the name of the interviewee to protect her identity.