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Behind Closed Doors: How the Housing Sector Can Tackle Domestic Abuse

It is estimated that domestic abuse affects around 2 million (or almost 6%) of adults in England and Wales. It is often called an ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ crime because it happens behind closed doors and leaves marks beyond the physical ones.

Survivors are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety or substance abuse. Children affected by domestic abuse are 4x more likely to experience or perpetrate it later in life.

Those working in the housing sector often get to peek behind the door. Maintenance, inspection and helpline staff can be the eyes and ears on the ground, alerting relevant staff to signs of domestic abuse. Organisations are then in the opportune position to report the crime and support survivors through the referral and recovery process, breaking the cycle of violence.

Identifying Domestic Abuse

As ‘hidden crime’ suggests, domestic abuse can be hard to identify. In many instances, domestic abuse is first reported as anti-social behaviour (ASB): screaming and shouting, slammed doors, damaged property. It is estimated that 40% of tenants suffering from domestic abuse have had ASB complaints made against them.

This ‘misdiagnosis’ can be detrimental: the response to domestic abuse should be empathetic while the punitive approach for ASB compound feelings of isolation and vulnerability.

In order to successfully identify domestic abuse, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we see domestic abuse. Although women are most frequently the victims, this is not always at the hands of a male partner. Parents, siblings and extended family can also be abusive. Similarly, 1 in 4 same-sex couples experience domestic abuse.

Furthermore, domestic abuse is also not always physical. It can also be sexual, psychological, emotional and economic, with some forms harder to identify than others.

What Progress Has Been Made in the Housing Sector?

Domestic abuse is complex with subtle signs and intricate legislation. In 2014, Domestic Abuse in Housing Alliance (DAHA) launched to raise the profile of the issue among the housing sector. The result has been a sector with widened eyes.

Since 2018, more than 300 housing providers have taken the ‘Make A Stand’ pledge in the UK. Organised by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) in association with DAHA and Women's Aid, this commits them to four actions that support survivors of domestic abuse who live and work in social housing.

These four action points include developing and embedding a policy to support survivors and their children. Organisations have also committed to clarifying internal responsibility by appointing a champion for the cause. Breaking the cycle of violence can begin in the place it is enacted.

The realities of this might be difficult with limited property and shoestring budgets but it is imperative to preventing further harm. Domestic abuse is one of the leading causes of homelessness among women and children in the UK.

Working in Partnership to Tackle Domestic Abuse

By no means is tackling domestic abuse the sole responsibility of the housing sector. After the crime has been identified, a multi-agency approach must be taken to ensure the physical and mental safety of all survivors, including children.

While the justice, health and voluntary sector will rightly take over the case, the housing sector has the key responsibility of opening the door and holding out a hand to survivors.