Policy blog

We need to take domestic abuse as seriously as national security

Of the ten years I spent working in government, some of my fastest and most effective learning came from working in the underground bunker known as the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, or COBR. This time taught me a huge amount about the way people work under pressure, and how a world class response to threats to life comes about by hard work and commitment, not by accident.

Of the time I spent in COBR most was in 'exercise' mode. That is, a simulation of a terrorist incident through which multiple parts of government, blue light and sensitive agencies work together in response to a steady feed of information that comes to them over the course of 2-3 days.

People say that government and even the UK's front line responses can be slow, that big institutional juggernauts can't be turned quickly. It just isn't true. Nor is it true that silos and turf wars between different parts of a response are inevitable. Because we 'exercise' the national security response, investing time from hundreds – sometimes thousands – of staff, from specialist bomb disposal to Ministers, environmental experts to traffic cops, we have a response that reflects i) a culture that works together at pace for safety ii) an operating model with highly refined guidance, practised and practised and practised again.

We know a minimum of 100 adult lives were lost to domestic abuse last year. Those were the adult homicides, a very high proportion of them women. We don't have accurate figures for the adult suicides or the deaths of children in domestic abuse situations, nor do we know how many people using abusive behaviours took their own lives. So 100 is a highly conservative figure for the human loss. The figure has hovered stubbornly around the same level for years.

I know we can't operate at the tempo COBR does all year round to get domestic abuse deaths down to zero. I know that isn't a sustainable model for response. But I also know that until we offer even a small proportion of the time, money and attention we spend on national security to our right to be safe behind closed doors, we're accepting abuse as inevitable in a way that's utterly unthinkable for harm that happens on our streets.

SafeLives doesn't have a bunker and we can't get thousands of professionals exercising for a 72 hour period. We can, however, bring some of the urgency, low tolerance and sheer bloody-minded won't-let-this-happen-again determination to a quiet corner of Westminster this Thursday afternoon. I'm delighted that a Minister and nearly 60 senior professionals have chosen to join us for the afternoon. The incredible spirit that prevails in the COBR bunker has been forged in adversity. So for the horrific adverse experience that domestic abuse represents, and the threat to life it presents: if not now, when?


Why we're shining a Spotlight on LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse

What comes to mind when you hear 'domestic abuse'? The chances are that most people see a heterosexual couple, in which the man is physically or emotionally abusive to the woman. Of course we know that the majority of people experiencing domestic abuse are women, and the majority of perpetrators are men. But for too long those who fall outside of this group have been ‘hidden’ from the services that should be supporting them, as our new report shows. 

In 2016 we started our Spotlights series, which aims to shine a light on the experiences of different groups of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, who face additional barriers to accessing support. Our latest Spotlight focuses on LGBT+ people, and the services and professionals who support them. We’ve brought together the voices of survivors, professionals and other experts, alongside our own research and our partners Stonewall and Galop

In all our work we are guided by the evidence: research and data, practice expertise from those working to support survivors, and most importantly the lived experience of survivors and their loved ones. All this evidence tells us that there is no ‘typical’ victim – or perpetrator – of domestic abuse, and we need to challenge the misconception that this devastating crime only happens to one particular group. We believe that if you are experiencing domestic abuse, you deserve the right response at the right time, with the support you need to be safe and rebuild your life – whoever you are and whatever shape the abuse takes.  

During the Spotlight we heard about the barriers faced by gay and bisexual men, who too often feel that services aren’t ‘for’ them, despite experiencing high levels of sexual violence in their intimate relationships. We heard from Suzie*, a trans woman who experienced emotional and physical abuse from her wife and was able to become safe and recover with the help of a specialist LGBT+ Idva. We heard from Sophie*, a bisexual woman who survived sexual and emotional abuse in an early relationship. 

What has been so clear throughout the Spotlight is the way that a person’s sexuality or gender identity can be used against them by an abusive partner – and the ways in which societal attitudes add to the impact. Even in 2018, threats to ‘out’ a person can be used to control them, and for many survivors an abusive relationship still feels safer than a world outside which is hostile to their identity.  

These experiences are reflected in our data, which highlights serious impacts on LGBT+ survivors’ mental health and wellbeing: 

  • LGBT+ victims are almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide,  

  • More than twice as likely to have self-harmed,  

  • More likely to face abuse from multiple perpetrators,  

  • Twice as likely to have experienced historic abuse from a family member. 

It’s clear that we still have a long way to go until LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse are seen, heard and supported in a way that works for them. We need agencies and services to be able to identify victims and provide tailored support. We need greater awareness around the fact that domestic abuse can and does happen in all communities, and we need to work towards a society where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are no longer barriers to reaching out and asking for help.  

The process of running the Spotlight has allowed us at SafeLives to build powerful partnerships with Stonewall, Galop and local specialist services, and has started empowering conversations between colleagues – we know that we ourselves still have some work to do. We want to share these findings far and wide, to make sure that no one has to go through domestic abuse alone – whoever you are.  

A choice no one should have to face

A home is more than bricks and mortar. It’s where I should feel most at ease, most myself. The sanctuary to come back to at the end of a long, tiring day. But thousands of adults and children making their way home this afternoon, when they open the front door, are hoping in their hearts that it won’t be ‘one of those nights’ – again. Home is a place of fear and tension. Two million adults had an experience of domestic abuse in England and Wales last year so if this is my home and my experience I'm not alone – but I might well feel it. 

Many families are facing an impossible choice. A choice between living in a home of fear and intimidation, and an uncertain future of homelessness - where would I go? Might it be worse than what I'm living through now? It’s a choice no one should have to make. Being expected to flee, into the uncertainty of not knowing where you will be housed from one week to the next, is not acceptable. We have to help survivors and their children to be safe – and safe means suitable, sustainable and long-term housing. We can't expect adults or children to be able to rebuild their lives when we're routinely taking them away from their communities and support networks.

The nature of an abusive experience is that it can strip away your identity, isolating you from supportive friends and family. And yet the current system further entrenches this after I leave a dangerous home; it removes me from my local community, my sense of belonging, putting distance between family and friends that are a vital resource to help me rebuild. As one survivor put it to us ‘it’s like leaving part of yourself behind’.

Government data tells us that 10% of all people looking to be re-housed say that domestic abuse is the cause. We believe the real number is far greater.  St Mungo’s finds that a third of the women they support are homeless due to domestic abuse.

Our research, published today, also shows that too often it is survivors and their children who are expected to uproot themselves in order to escape the abuse. It shows that those who do become homeless – particularly women – can be vulnerable to further abuse, falling into a cycle of abuse and homelessness that can seem impossible to escape. Perpetrators of abuse are currently more effective at identifying and acting on harmful experiences than those of us with a duty to protect people from them. This cannot continue.

In the best cases, agencies are collaborating to work out how a survivor can stay safely in their own home. They recognise that the presumption that it must be the survivor who packs their bags and leaves, when it is the perpetrator causing the harm, is outdated. A stronger enforcement response from the police, housing, children's services and others, working closely with specialist domestic abuse services, can focus disruptive action on the perpetrator, making the home safer and holding them to account if they continue to try and harass or threaten the victim. Why should anyone lose their home for something that they did not cause?

These instances, in which agencies think laterally about how to address the behaviour of the perpetrator while supporting the survivor, are still too rare. It is still imperative to leave to be safe in too many cases. 

Tonight, the majority of us will sleep somewhere safe and of our choosing. This should be the reality for all of us – everyone has the right to be safe at home.


Suzanne Jacob OBE is Chief Executive of SafeLives

In Claire*'s words: being a Pioneer

Claire* is a SafeLives Pioneer. She experienced years of emotional abuse and manipulation from her ex-partner. A former translator and journalist, Claire – alongside three other women – went on to found the charity VOICES, which supports survivors to rebuild their lives. Here she explains what being a Pioneer means to her.

The German word “vote” and “voice” is the same: “Stimme”

Not having an equal vote within a relationship feels like having no voice. Being a Pioneer for SafeLives, for me, is all about strengthening the voices of others to challenge abusive behaviour.

I got involved with SafeLives in the first place because of a simple idea to found a singing group for people like me, recovering from the effects of abusive relationships. That initial contact led to the community group I was part of becoming involved in consultation and eventually, to my joining SafeLives’ Family Friends and Survivors consultation forum.

Our local group became the charity VOICES, which I now run, providing holistic support and services for survivors together with training and consultation. 

Working as one of the SafeLives Pioneers, there is a real feeling of strength and purpose in being part of the national conversation on challenging domestic abuse, and I would like to see as many survivor voices as possible have the opportunity to be heard in the months and years to come.

*Name changed for safety

A letter to my younger self

This letter was written by a brave member of SafeLives staff, who is also one of our Pioneers. She has chosen to share her story with the hope of raising awareness and empowering other survivors.

To my younger self

Just because he is black doesn’t mean you have to defend him whatever he does. Just because you stood up to prejudice and married a black man doesn’t mean you have to deny what he is doing.

When people are racist to him it’s right to defend him, be angry and hurt, and support him, but that’s separate from accepting his violence and anger at you.

You are not his protector.

It’s not ok just because he is a victim himself.

It’s right to want to try and escape. Its right to want to protect your children, his children from seeing and hearing his bad behaviour.

I know it’s hard because he is fitting that horrible prejudiced stereotype of a violent black man and you don’t want him to be.

You want to be able to prove them all wrong, all those racists. All those people who say these bad things about people of colour are wrong... but so is he.

He is wrong to be violent and controlling.

You don’t have to be as good a cook as his mum. You don’t have to fix the window he broke by pushing you through it. He should fix it. He is responsible, not you.

You don’t have to lie when your colleague asks you about the marks on your arms.

You don’t have to make everything ok.

I so understand why you want to make everything alright and calm again, because it’s a much nicer place when he is calm and nice.

Also, you know when that colleague at work says to you “why don’t you just leave” please don’t question or doubt yourself, just remember that you know this man inside out and you knew when it was the right time.

Remember you got you and your children out safely by waiting for the right time.

When you tell his mum and she says you must “turn the other cheek”. ......Please don’t.

When you leave, and you were brave to leave, please don’t feel guilty that the children don’t have their dad at home anymore. It was for the best. Your boys' lives will turn out well.

They will grow into good men; clever, emotionally intelligent and above all kind.

When one of the boys asks you “Will I hurt ladies like dad does” because everyone tells him he “looks like his dad” please know that you were right to reassure him that of course he would not, and that violence and abuse is a choice.

And please know you were right. Neither of them turned out like their dad..... In fact the complete opposite.  In years to come you will look at your boys sometimes and almost burst with pride.

When the time is right, talk with your boys about what they saw and heard so they can equip themselves to deal with their dad going forward and know they are not to blame. Don’t think you need to protect them from knowing their dad is violent and abusive. You need to protect them from being confused by the truth not being told.

And by the way, he will never go on to hurt your mum and dad like he threatened or tell your police colleagues things that will make you lose your job.... He won’t because he is just threatening you to get you to do his bidding.

One day in the future you will make all this work for you. You will use it to make a difference to lots of other people’s lives. You will not have a vanilla life; you will have a life with all shades of colour because of this experience.

You will turn the negative into positive and you will flourish and reach your potential. Just not in the way you dreamed of as a child. Sorry but you won’t be a famous dancer!

You will be a well-respected police officer, a light in domestic abuse work nationally and most of all a good mum, daughter, sister, friend and wife. This will be your collateral good.


If you're worried about your relationship, feel scared of your partner or are concerned about a friend, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge) 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 – if you're in immediate danger always call 999 and ask for the police.