We have invited our colleague, Sophie Julian, a social work student on placement with us, to reflect on her experiences of working with ‘Sameena’, a young woman who entered the UK as the spouse of a British citizen, and whose relationship has broken down following domestic violence on his part. As Sophie tells us:
‘In my first full week working at ASIRT as a social worker student I was struck by the case of Sameena, a young woman who found herself in Birmingham city centre, 7-months pregnant and a victim of domestic violence. SN had no recourse to public funds (NRPF) which ultimately intensified the situation as she had limited entitlement to welfare benefits, including income support, housing benefit and a range of allowances and tax credits.
In order to gain entitlement to public funds, ASIRT had to submit a destitution domestic violence (DDV) concession application for Sameena. The application is aimed at protecting victims of domestic abuse and emphasising that they require access to public funds while their claim for indefinite leave is decided’.
In the meantime, while she was awaiting the Home Office’s decision on this application, Sameena- having just left a violent and abusive relationship- was destitute and at risk of street homelessness. Her ‘NRPF’ status meant that she was not eligible for homelessness assistance, and so could not access a domestic violence refuge.
While guidance suggests that local authorities may have a duty towards women in Sameena’s circumstances, the local authority in this instance was extremely reluctant to adhere to- or even to acknowledge the existence of- this guidance, with the consequence that Sameena was twice threatened with street homelessness, necessitating pre-litigation correspondence on our part to keep a roof over her head.
Sameena, in other words, having experienced domestic violence at the hands of her ex-partner, went on to be subjected to economic violence from the state, both from the Home Office’s denial of her recourse to public funds, and from the local authority’s refusal to accommodate her following her escape from her ex-partner’s control. It’s difficult, always, to understand the rationale for this. While the Home Office likes to suggest that the denial of recourse to public funds, and the human misery that unavoidably comes with that denial, saves the state money, evidence suggests precisely the opposite..
Again, to quote Sophie:
‘On our first meeting I was put in charge of taking SN back to her accommodation. Despite living here for the past two weeks she acted perplexed by her surroundings, as if she had never been here before. Unfortunately, SN spoke limited English therefore we had to rely on hand gestures, facial expressions, and the few English words she knew to begin building a relationship. When I dropped her at the hotel, I couldn’t help but feel helpless. I tried to reassure her that everything was going to be ok by giving her a thumbs up and a smile. She did smile back but I knew it was short-lived.
Unfortunately, our next interaction was even more stressful because Sameena was set to be made homeless by the local authority, with Adult Social Care refusing to acknowledge any Care Act duty towards her, and Children’s Services refusing to commence any assessment under the Children Act until after the baby’s birth. Therefore, I set up camp in the hotel lobby with Sameena whilst my manager contended with the local authorities legal department. Again, relying on only hand gestures and the few English words she knew I attempted to reassure her it was going to be ok. The long silences were broken up by us giggling at the awful hotel music and watching people get parking tickets from the windows that boarded the lobby. If any positive was going to come out of this situation it was the realisation that just ‘being there’ for someone (literally) was sometimes enough comfort to get them through a dire situation.
We watched the clock turn from 1pm to 4:30 pm and then we finally got THE CALL, her accommodation was confirmed for the next 18 days. At last, I felt like I could give her some good news. Whilst this was a win and a sigh of relief was granted, I dreaded what would happen when the 18th day came.
The following week consisted of catchup calls, GP registration and visits to boots for Gaviscon, until the Friday when we found ourselves in Birmingham Women’s Hospital with an infection. From the outside it probably sounds like it took a downturn but in actual fact it was a bittersweet experience as for the first time I saw her give a real smile- we can thank the pregnancy monitor for that. The room was filled with a strong and healthy heartbeat from the baby and a wave of emotion came over both of us. I finally felt like the thumbs up and smile I gave her was reciprocated. Despite the long wait for the doctor Sameena went home with medicine and the reassurance that baby was healthy.‘
Another period of stress and uncertainty began: arbitrarily, the local authority had extended its support to Sameena for just another 18 days, with the implied threat, yet again, that she might become street homeless, or that we might again need to threaten a legal challenge to protect her from this homelessness.
As luck would have it, however, the Home Office wrote to us just 2 days before the local authority’s arbitrary deadline to confirm that the DDV concession application had been accepted, and that she has been granted recourse to public funds. This means that we could seek funding to get her moved into a refuge, where she has already made friends with other young and expectant mothers. and to begin to rebuild her life. We can now, also, submit an application on her behalf for indefinite leave to remain, and start helping her to apply for more stable and long-term accommodation, to build a home for her child and herself.
We have, in other words, been able to intervene in a genuinely meaningful and transformational way to change Sameena’s life. Had we not been in any position to do so, it appears that she would have had little option, destitute, threatened with street homelessness, denied recourse to public funds and unable to regularise her immigration status, other than to return to the abusive situation she had found the courage to escape- to face who knows what consequences?
Legal aid funding is not available to help women like Sameena to challenge unlawful local authority actions, which leave them at risk of homelessness. These women are entirely reliant on the work of organisations like ASIRT, being knowledgeable, ready, able and adequately resourced to put in that work free of charge.
And that’ is precisely why initiatives like the Midland Legal Walk are so vital, helping to guarantee that organisations like ASIRT have funds in place to fight our clients’ corners, and to guarantee access to justice,
Please support us if you can.