Charities Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid and Alumah in Brandon working tirelessly to ease pain of domestic abuse
It could be the smallest thing. A word out of place. Not quite the right gift. An innocent phone call. The next thing ... a punch in the face.
Christmas and New Year is the season when being home with loved ones should be a joyous time. For those whose lives are blighted by domestic abuse it is anything but.
Violence can flare at any time, but for many the ‘festive’ season is especially fraught with danger.
And physical harm is not the only fear. The corrosive impact of coercive control isolates the victim from family and friends, destroys their confidence, and leaves them trapped. Shocking statistics show one in three women will suffer domestic abuse. It is also estimated at least one in five young people is abused by a partner.
The number of cases in same sex relationships is also put at one in five, but could be higher as it often goes unreported. And it is thought at least one in seven men has been abused by a female partner.
West Suffolk has two charities devoted to helping people escape domestic abuse and the toxic legacy it leaves behind – Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid runs a refuge for women and children, plus other services that are open to anyone, while Alumah, based in Brandon, works to help rebuild the lives of those who have experienced abuse.
Bury Women’s Aid was founded in 1974. Its first small refuge, run by volunteers, was one of the earliest in the country. Now the charity offers a wide range of help including a much larger refuge, resettlement, support groups, and a programme that teaches about healthy relationships.
It also has an outreach centre which is the hub of its operations with meeting rooms, offices, and a store for donated items to help families settle at the refuge or set up a new home.
Women given a safe place to stay in Bury are never local – if they were it would be too easy for an abusive partner to track them down.
Pat Leach, one of the charity’s trustees, explains that they arrange for those from West Suffolk to go to another part of the country.
“The women who go to a refuge often have to leave everything behind. They sometimes come with just what they are standing in,” she said.
New arrivals are given personal items to make their room at the refuge feel more like a home. Every woman gets a new handbag. Children choose their own quilt they can take with then when they move on. People escaping domestic abuse need help to start again and the charity has a specialist resettlement service.
“It takes around eight months for people in the refuge to be resettled,” said Pat. “During their stay they have a domestic abuse support worker.
“Often their finances are in a mess, the perpetrator has often taken all their money. Sometimes they have significant mental health issues. Their self-esteem can be extremely low because they have been told they are stupid.”
A resettlement worker will support them with everything from putting up curtains, to coping with fears of being isolated and alone, and worries their abuser might find them.
Help is there not just for women at the refuge but local people who have had to move to escape abuse.
Children – who might have witnessed a parent being abused – also need support. The charity has two child support workers paid for by a Children In Need grant.
“They help children to understand what’s happened to them, begin to express their emotions, and rebuild relationships affected by trauma,” Pat said.
The charity also has a helpline. “Sometimes people will phone us for a number of weeks and just be quiet, or sob. We will wait until they are ready to speak.
“An outreach support worker will talk them through where they are and what they need, and they will make a plan together.
“Sometimes people work with us for a few weeks, or months, or even years. We offer counselling for anyone in the West Suffolk or Mid Suffolk council areas.
“We also run a number of groups – sometimes people feel stronger as part of a group.”
Sessions include the Freedom Programme. “It’s all about what a healthy relationship is. Some people who come to us may have never experienced that,” said Pat.
“It also includes red flags about what perpetrator behaviour can be like, because sadly some can go on to another abusive relationship.”
The SODA programme – which stands for survivors of domestic abuse – encourages people to look after, and think positively about, themselves.
“Some of the women we work with haven’t been able to choose how they have their hair for a long time. It’s a very empowering experience to be pampered.”
Stronger Families is for children and parents, and helps when children have seen their mum or dad being abused. “It’s about putting the relationship back in balance,” said Pat.
“We also have a new service for young people having their first intimate relationship. With the bombardment of social media, the idea of what a healthy relationship is like can be missing.”
Future plans include taking on a specialist mental health social worker, and offering some of their group work in Haverhill.
The charity has 10 staff, supported by volunteers in a variety of roles. Many of those giving their time for free have themselves been helped in the past.
A new principal operations manager, Sue Ling, has just been appointed. Her past career includes roles covering domestic abuse, equality and diversity, and special educational needs.
The service costs around £380,000 a year and budgeting is a constant issue. Finance officer Derek Gadd’s job is to keep everything on an even keel.
Funding comes mostly from local authorities and grants, but also donations, fundraising and legacies.
“The police and crime commissioner funded quite a lot of the outreach centre. And a company called Toolbox has recently created a new website for us, said Pat.”
Bury Women’s Aid can be contacted on 01284 753085 or at burystedmundswomensaid.org.uk
Founder of Alumah, Liz Jenkins, holds out a £20 note and asks ‘how much is it worth?’ She crumples it in her fist, drops it on the floor, stamps on it, then asks ‘how much is it worth now?’
The answer, of course, is still £20. Battered and bruised it might be but it is worth exactly the same as before.
It is a powerful symbol of the message the charity works to put across to those whose self-esteem has been shattered by domestic abuse.
“We might be kicked about but our value doesn’t change,” said Liz, who like all Alumah’s staff has herself experienced abuse. She is CEO of the charity that launched in 2016.
The name Alumah, a medieval Hebrew word that means strong or brave, was adopted after Liz and a friend talked about how courageous people needed to be to come and seek help in the first place.
“We’re not a crisis centre,” said Liz. “We are community orientated support, although we can refer a case to the police if we feel someone is in greater danger than we can handle. We also work with other agencies.”
It also specialises in helping children who are often the unseen, unheard victims of domestic abuse – suffering a devastating impact on their mental, social and emotional development.
Alumah’s team includes youth worker Claudette Racine and Tiffany Skimmings, who works with children. They go into schools and colleges, taking assemblies, running workshops and doing one-to-one sessions.
The Domestic Abuse Childhood Trauma Intervention Programme is pioneering project for seven to 11 year-olds, supporting them through the trauma of living in a family experiencing domestic abuse.
“They can be misdiagnosed with a disorder on the autistic spectrum,” said Claudette. “What the professionals see is very similar, but it is the trauma that has caused it. There is also a huge overlap between trauma and ADHD.”
Liz, combines being CEO of Alumah with private work as a counsellor. She trained after escaping an abusive relationship.
“I thought it would be a good way of healing myself – I did a two year degree and worked in mental health and substance abuse.
“When I started my own practice in 2011 domestic abuse kept cropping up everywhere, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to understand it a bit more.”
She trained to deliver the Freedom Programme, and eventually became chair of West Suffolk Domestic Abuse Forum.
Realising more support was needed she began looking into how it could be provided.
She got a place at the School of Social Entrepreneurs. “I was one of only 10 chosen out of more than 100 applicants so they understood my vision. That gave a financial boost which started us off,” she said.
At first they did the Freedom Programme and Shine, which is a self-esteem course.
Then they added Escape the Trap, where teenagers can discuss relationships in which they are being abused emotionally, physically or sexually.
“The average age of children being pressured into having sex is 11 or 12 years old, with older boyfriends,” Liz said.
“A year in, we started developing our counselling service which is donation based. People give weekly donations from 50p to £45 depending on what they can afford.
“When people have been through abuse their self-esteem is rock bottom. We want them to recognise their worth, and help them to move forward. It shows an investment in themselves.”
Being creative can also help, and Alumah runs a twice-monthly group doing crafts and making decorations at Christmas.
Over the past year the charity has worked with almost 200 people. The self-esteem group and Freedom Programme are now online as well as face to face.
Another programme, called Curve, is for LGBTQ people, among whom domestic abuse is often under-reported due to fears of being judged or outed.
Alumah has two other staff, counselling co-ordinator Emma Youngs, and Tammy Oakley, who runs adult groups. Everyone is employed part-time. Liz oversees fund-raising, writes policies, and works closely with the charity’s trustees.
Coercive control in a relationship is now a criminal offence but Liz says that does not deter perpetrators, although it could encourage more people to report it.
She says young people, especially, are sometimes messaged as much as 30 times an hour by a partner and will be afraid to switch off their phone.
From the outside, control can be mistaken for attentiveness. “With the ‘keeper’ or ‘jailer’ you can look at someone and say isn’t her husband lovely and attentive. He always goes with her to the shops. People think he’s charming, everyone loves him.”
A new addition to their team is Parsnip the teddy bear, who goes along to group sessions. “If people want to say something, but don’t want to say it in front of the group, they can write it down and put it in his pocket,” said Liz.
Alumah is funded by donations and grants. “We would, especially at this time of year, appreciate any donations,” she said.
To contact the charity go online to alumah.co.uk or phone 07770 468698.