This week, we received a referral from a partner agency working to support women and children subject to domestic violence.
They were supporting a woman, lawfully present in the UK but without recourse to public funds, and her young child, who is a British citizen. The woman is resident in the UK on a spouse visa, and had left the family home following long-term domestic violence.
In the long-term, ASIRT will be able to help this woman apply to have access to public funds. In the meantime, she will need accommodation and subsistence support to ensure her own and her child’s survival while we help her to negotiate the complex obstacles in the way of her access to public funds by the Home Office and by the DWP. Legally, the situation there is unequivocal; children’s services have a duty to support under section 17 of the Children Act.
Our partner agency had, accordingly, referred the family to the local authority’s Children’s Services team for an assessment of need under section 17. Children’s Services had declined to conduct an assessment, as often happens. In this instance, the reason given for the refusal was that the woman in question was in possession of a modest sum of cash – significantly less than might be expected to meet her own and her child’s accommodation subsistence needs for even a fortnight- and so was not classified by them as being destitute.
When the assessment was refused, the partner agency had been told that no safeguarding concerns could be identified in relation to her child, since the mother had left the abusive relationship, and therefore required no support.
Our client was advised to approach food banks and children’s centres to get food parcels, so that she could reserve the modest sum in her possession to pay for a hotel – for how long a period was unspecified, but this could never have considered a remotely sustainable option given the paucity of resources actually available to her. Finally, she was advised to present at a police station when her money ran out and she needed support with accommodation costs – a potentially traumatising action for an abused woman with precarious immigration status, and an inappropriate and irrelevant piece of advice to give since the police do not accommodate people and have no statutory duty to do so.
Children’s Services is, in fact, bound to work in accordance with the West Midlands Domestic Violence and Abuse Standards document. This document explicitly states that victims of domestic violence and their children are most at risk from perpetrators when they leave relationships, and so therefore then most at need of support. This is completely contradicted by the approach actually taken in this instance, in which it was suggested that any potential risk to the client had passed, precisely because she had left – and, in doing so, had become homeless, with no ongoing support measures in place to support her family.
We challenged the refusal to assess or support the family by means of pre-litigation correspondence – a letter to the local authority’s legal services team, setting out the ways in which its statutory duties to our client and her child had been breached, and asking that immediate interim support be put in place pending a full assessment of need. Our request was accepted in full, and the family is now accommodated and supported, with an assessment process underway.
Without our intervention, it would have been inevitable that this family would be homeless, destitute and precarious – and so at risk of needing to return to the perpetrator. This is precisely why access to qualified, competent legal advice and support is so essential.
And this, in turn, is why ASIRT is supporting the 2021 Birmingham Legal Walk, raising essential funds to help frontline access to justice organisations like ours to carry on defending the rights of those at risk of exclusion and abuse.
Please support us if you can.