DeafHope: A safe harbour for deaf domestic abuse survivors

woman hiding from man

As the festive season kicks off, the UK is set to see a spike in domestic abuse over the next few weeks as financial pressure, increased time spent with family and alcohol consumption make Christmas a peak time for incidents of violence. Sadly, deaf women are two times more likely to experience abuse in the home – and because so many services for domestic abuse are not accessible they become trapped. A glimmer of hope for these women began in 2009 when DeafHope was set up. The BDN has invited its Service Manager Lynn Shannon to explain what domestic abuse is and tell us about the service DeafHope provides.

Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic abuse and it is estimated that 22 deaf women are at risk of domestic violence every day.

So, what is domestic abuse? Too often people believe it relates to a person drinking too much or when they lose control if a partner winds them up. These are actually just excuses for abuse, and there are no excuses for violence. Domestic abuse is when a person uses power and control over their partner, using extreme measures to take over their life, including the use of violence. Abusers can actually control where they hit and usually aim for parts of the body that are not visible.

Abuse is not only physical – it can be emotional, psychological or sexual. Whilst physical abuse is difficult to cope with, quite often women say the emotional, psychological or sexual abuse and the isolation these cause can be worse as they are relentless and can destroy their confidence and self-esteem, affecting their physical and mental health.

Most of our clients have debt issues due to financial abuse, where partners have forged their name or forced them to defraud benefits, or take out large loans.

Why not just leave?

Many people wonder why doesn’t a woman just leave an abusive partner. Sadly, it is not that simple. A lot of women are not always aware of what they are experiencing is abuse, or realise they have a choice and can seek help. Some will feel they will not be believed, or will lose their children, their homes, their jobs and their pride and dignity. They feel they will be judged.

The Deaf community being very small, it is common for friends to take sides and blame the victim, after all perpetrators can always be very charming in public. Other reasons women stay is because they still love their partner and hope the abuse will stop or they fear what will happen to them.

For so long I felt the abuse was my fault” – DeafHope Client

Leaving can be like jumping out of an aeroplane, the initial free falling, tumbling feeling before the parachute opens and things slow down and you are more in control again. It’s a truly terrifying experience and it’s a difficult step for women to take.

Deaf women, like disabled women, can be at twice the risk of suffering abuse, as partners will use their Deafness, the communication barriers to abuse and control them. They are less able to speak out and seek help. The challenges to seeking advice can come from mainstream services lacking awareness of the community, culture and linguistic issues that can increase risk of harm and also prevent deaf women from seeking help. Recovery can be slow and the emotional and psychological scars can stay for many years after they have moved on. It was clear there was a need for a specialist service for deaf women in violent relationships so SignHealth set up DeafHope in 2009.

65% of deaf people had received sex and relationship education at school but only 35% of them felt that the information had been accessible to them (Deafax survey 2012)

Responding to need 

DeafHope would best be described as a rosebud developing to a full-blown flower! The service has expanded over the years, starting out with a project focused on young people and expanding into other areas of need.

Young DeafHope, our first project, is a prevention programme which delivers six-week-long workshops to young deaf people aged 11-19 in deaf schools. The aim is to educate young people on what healthy relationships should be and how to stay safe or leave when relationships start to go wrong. It also helps us to identify those young people who are at risk in families where domestic abuse is happening.

I enjoyed the Young DeafHope workshops because I know now how to stay safe in a relationship” – YDH workshop participant

We also were able to support young deaf women aged 16-30 in abusive relationships. “Jessie” (see case study) was one of those young girls and her story can be found on our website, an example of how we can support survivors of domestic abuse to turn their lives around.

I will feel safe all my life” – Young DeafHope client

In 2012 we secured more funding to further develop DeafHope and with this we were able to expand services to cover the Greater London area, Kent and Surrey as well as recruiting and training Deaf workers to become Independent Domestic Violence Advocates – or IDVAs, and also Outreach workers. It takes around two years to fully train a worker to the highest level and can cost up to £5,000 per person.

This group has been so helpful to me and much better than counselling because I’m meeting others who have been through similar experience” – Survivor workshop participant

More recently we have started to run the first deaf women survivor workshops in the UK. These are six-week programmes to help women understand what they have been through and help them build confidence and self-esteem. Importantly we support them to rebuild their lives and have a future. They fear new relationships and knowing who to trust, but with the support of Clare’s Law, they can check if new partners have a background of domestic abuse.

Honour-based violence and forced marriage affects a large number of our clients from BME communities, and DeafHope has started to deliver workshops to Deaf community groups to help raise awareness. Our website will feature details in the next few months.

fist ready to strike

What happens if I get in touch?

So if someone in a crisis situation contacts DeafHope, what happens next? The kind of service a crisis client would get from our IDVAs varies from case to case but will typically involve an initial assessment to see what risk they are at and, if necessary, looking for space in a refuge or other emergency accommodation. Moving a client to a refuge involves teamwork – the IDVA works with the client herself as well as a service manager finding refuge space, an outreach officer to sort temporary equipment (e.g. a flashing fire alarm, doorbell or baby alarm), toiletries/food and paperwork and an admin or coordinator to sort details such as a taxi. If a non-molestation or another protection order is needed the IDVA will gather evidence for this.

Survivors also get practical and also emotional support from our IDVAs and outreach workers.

My family have been controlling me all my life and now at 32 with DeafHope’s help I can live independently and for the first time I have been able to talk with my GP with an interpreter and find answers to all my health worries” – Survivor workshop participant

The risk assessment is vital to our work, particularly where children are involved. The highest risk time is when a deaf woman decides to leave and the few weeks after this, as the perpetrator will try everything to stop her leaving or stop her disclosing and exposing him as an abuser. The risk of homicide can be high. This is very challenging for the workers as quite often a woman can be too frightened to follow through and decide to stay or go back. We continue to work with them through this to help them stay safe and until they feel strong enough to leave. The statistics are shocking – 750,000 children in the UK witness domestic abuse every year. We supported over 500 children in the last four years but considering we only work in a small geographic area this is just the tip of the iceberg – many lives are being destroyed daily due to domestic abuse.

Depressingly, funding changes and cuts to domestic abuse services mean it has been a challenge to get more funds to expand to other areas of the UK – we do receive calls from deaf women needing support in West/East Midlands and the North. Whilst we can offer remote support via FaceTime or Skype, and alert police where necessary, we cannot give the same level of personal service for the moment, but hope to be able to set up teams around the UK.

Domestic abuse doesn’t only affect women – lots of men are in abusive relationships and need specialist help. We often are criticised for not supporting deaf male survivors, but we can only do this with funding to train specialist workers. However, we can give information of mainstream services or offer advice, and we have supported several young males under 21 in our funding area. We have met some male survivors to hear their stories and to research what support would meet their needs. Interestingly some deaf males say they would prefer a female worker. This is work being developed. The majority of male survivors suffer abuse from same sex partners or family, with few incidents involving female partners.

We have achieved a lot since 2009. But we are still determined to further expand so more people can benefit from our services.

sign health deaf hope logoDeafHope can be contacted in secret:

Text: 07970 350366

Voice/minicom: 020 8772 3241

Fax: 020 8772 3242 You can find out more about DeafHope on their website.

shattered woman in shadowJessie’s story

My name is Jessie and I’m 22. Young DeafHope have been supporting me for 3 years. When I first met YDH worker I had been in an abusive relationship and was still being abused by my ex. I had also been hiding from my family for a few years. In 18 months I had moved around in 13 different homes trying to stay safe. When I met the YDH worker I was in a bad way, suicidal, very depressed, self-harming, not eating and believed I was very ill. I was unable to go out safely except for a short time at night, and had a lot of debt. 

My ex had abused me in many ways – physically, sexually, financially, emotionally and psychologically. He harassed and blackmailed me and controlled everything I did. I had lost all confidence, self-belief and had no energy to leave.

Young DeafHope found me a safe refuge where I stayed for several months. I found this really hard, often becoming suicidal and I turned to drink to try to block out my bad memories. This led me to being thrown out of the refuge. Young DeafHope helped me with new accommodation.

With YDH support I was able to get help for my depression and drinking and learn new coping strategies to prevent myself from negative thinking. Last year I was reunited with my family thanks to YDH support. I go to the gym to help cope with stress and have stopped drinking. My panic attacks are getting less. YDH have helped me become assertive and confident and back in control of my life. I have now completed my first full year at college and feel really proud of myself.  For the first time in seven years I feel I have a future. I still have a way to go but I know I will be able to cope, and I know I can call YDH any time I need advice. I would recommend YDH to any young deaf person who is having problems with relationships.