Our Communications Manager, Aissa Gallie, recently spent the day shadowing a colleague from our Durham team, Helen. Helen is a Domestic Abuse Navigator, delivering outreach support across Durham to victims of domestic abuse. Aissa’s report from the day follows:

*all of the customer’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

As Communications Manager, it’s my job to share Foundation’s story. On the surface it appears that this is all about an organisation, the programmes it delivers, the role it plays in the communities it serves. But actually, it’s more about people and their individual stories, both our customers and our colleagues.

I went to shadow Helen Johnson, a Domestic Abuse Navigator (DAN) for our Durham team. My aim for this activity was to get more of an insight into life on the frontline, for our colleagues, and to understand more about the field of Domestic Abuse. My background has been primarily in homelessness services, and so my experience of outreach has been at street level, looking to support and house rough sleepers in the main. However, domestic abuse is an inescapable topic in that field. It seems that the majority of people Foundation works with, have experienced domestic abuse at some time in their life, either as a witness, victim or perpetrator.

Helen is one of eight DANs across a sub-regional, co-ordinated and innovative program to better address the identified needs of domestic abuse victims who are particularly vulnerable or sometimes excluded from current refuge provision; specifically women with complex needs, and victims from BME backgrounds including those with no recourse to public funds.

There is a particular focus on the vulnerability to homelessness for these women who have fled domestic abuse, identifying where they may not be able to find suitable accommodation or secure safe tenancy due to a range of complex needs. The DANs provide extra support to tackle those issues, their work often straying into the realms of mental health and addictions. Helen works across four refuges to provide outreach, with different partners responding in different ways to the DAN role.

Helen not only has to navigate with the many different women she supports, but also the different working methods of partner organisations. She has to be somewhat of a chameleon, shaping her remit and her communication style to meet the multiple and far ranging demands on her as a professional. Helen has over 15 years’ experience working in the field of domestic abuse and has seen how the funding for these kinds of services have changed. She explains how in the past women were supported for long periods of time, from the moment of crisis, right through until they were living securely and all associated issues resolved, sometimes over many years. Helen says her work currently is far more crisis management than long term support.

Before we leave the office in the morning, Helen has received a phone call regarding a woman whom she supported for just a couple of hours a few weeks ago. She had helped this woman to move into a property outside of area, and made referrals to the local agencies to pick up on support. This woman, many weeks later, had found herself in crisis and as none of the other agencies had yet been in touch, despite Helen’s referrals, she had no-one else to turn to. No family, no friends. She turns to Helen, a woman whom she met for a few hours, around five weeks previously. Hearing this is a huge wake-up call as to the extreme isolation of these women, something I don’t think I had really comprehended previously, despite having used the term ‘social isolation’ in my work, time and time again. It also raised for me, that although Helen has her distinct patch to operate, it is inevitable that her work load will run beyond that – because there is no way that Helen or Foundation, would ever want that woman to go through crisis in isolation. Helen’s day has just begun and already she has extra calls and emails planned for this afternoon.

Our first outreach appointment is to meet with a young mum and her baby, who have fled from domestic abuse and moved from out of area into refuge on Helen’s patch. Stephanie has had a tough upbringing. She has described to Helen in the past the mental abuse she received at home from a young age. Her partner, and the father of her child, subjected Stephanie to physical and emotional abuse. He was, in Stephanie’s own words, ‘completely obsessed’ with her and controlled every aspect of her life. Stephanie wants to find accommodation out of Helen’s area in order to be nearer to her sister. She also needs counselling and support for extreme anxiety and has a court case coming up, so that she can have legal boundaries placed around her and her daughter to protect them from her ex. Stephanie is young in every respect, and extremely vulnerable.

Due to Stephanie having a young daughter, Helen has accessed funding to pay for childcare so that Stephanie can access counselling and have some time to do 1-2-1 work with Helen on the Freedom program. Helen believes the Stephanie is capable of arranging her own appointments for counselling and has encouraged her to do so, but the weeks are going by. Still, on our visit Helen persists with Stephanie, encouraging her to make the appointments herself so that Helen can then arrange childcare. Later Helen explains, “It’s important that she takes responsibility for the things that she can organise herself, otherwise she’ll just become dependent on me and that doesn’t help at all.”

During the visit, Helen tries to lead Stephanie towards future aspirations. It becomes clear that Stephanie is a talented artist, her work up on the walls of her small, self-contained unit in the refuge. She can also cut hair. Although Stephanie talks about taking back control of her life (she wants to move to live near her sister, even though her ex-partner knows where that is), she is incredibly resistant to any talk of future education or work. Stephanie herself reveals that no-one else in her family has ever worked – she has no role models to follow. Her social isolation is profound, she currently has no way of conceiving an independent future for herself. Hopefully with Helen’s encouragement this will come. Stephanie is clearly a great mum, her daughter is thriving away from the stress of their previous life, a confident and social chatterbox! Stephanie keeps her daughter immaculately dressed and takes huge pride in her. In some ways, I think it will be her daughter who inspires her for a better future, in time.

Our next visit is to Jackie, who is Helen’s most challenging case. Helen describes how Jackie’s parents were alcohol dependent and Jackie has been drinking alcohol daily since the age of eleven. Jackie was referred to DAN when she came to Durham from out of area. She was in refuge and seemed to be doing okay, following a drink reduction program. After a few days in Durham, Jackie had to return to her home town to make an appearance in court, regarding subletting her previous tenancy. This was not clear cut, as Helen describes how Jackie was under pressure to sublet from her ex-partner, but as the tenant, it is she alone who faces consequences. Helen voiced her concerns to Jackie, that returning to her home town would be unsafe, and offers to drive her up for her court appearance and bring her back. But Jackie insists. She has no friends or family in Durham and she misses her two sons back home. They’re 16 and 19 and although they have lived in care for some time, she still sees them regularly. Her social isolation becomes the driver for her decisions.

As Helen had feared, Jackie’s visit home set off a spiral of heavy drinking. She had arrived back in Durham, assaulted by her ex-partner and with a massive increase in alcohol consumption. The following few weeks had been nothing less than chaotic, with Jackie being moved from different accommodations and in and out of hospital, as a result of her self-destructive behaviour and beatings from her ex-partner (Jackie had revealed to him where she was staying). Helen describes a day she had to move Jackie, yet again. She had found Jackie to be in an incredibly vulnerable state and Helen was at the receiving end of some heavy verbal abuse. Helen had managed to persuade another refuge to take Jackie, who by this time was very disabled due injuries sustained from her ex partners violence and from her alcohol abuse. This refuge has a strict no alcohol policy and Helen has had to push forward with staff an understanding about Jackie’s alcohol dependency. Helen explained to Jackie that this refuge was her last chance. She said to me, “I told her, after this, there’s no-where else.”

Helen shares how with Jackie, she felt like she had used every known tool in her box and was still getting nowhere. She felt as if she was failing. She reached out to other DAN colleagues to discuss the case and came to realise the best she could do was to offer choices to Jackie, and that Jackie has to take decisions to take up those opportunities herself. The problem is that when Jackie is drunk, she can’t make safe choices. Somehow though, Helen seems to be getting through.

Meeting Jackie was not how I expected it to be having heard about her background. Helen’s skill at adapting her communication was incredible and immediately it was obvious that Jackie was at ease with Helen. Jackie is a very sweet and intelligent woman. The last few days she had kept her drinking down and cooked and eaten food, manging well in the refuge. Helen has managed to get her to engage with her local AA group and Jackie seems to be adhering once again to an alcohol reduction program. Thinking innovatively, Helen has also engaged Jackie in a local support group for sex workers. Jackie doesn’t sex work, but her history of abuse has bought forward many encounters where sex has been forced and abusive. Jackie is enjoying the group, which Helen transports her too, due to her current disabilities. The plan for the next couple of weeks is to get Jackie physically back to good health, get her a bus pass and give her a tour of the town. Helen feels strongly if Jackie is empowered to keep busy, she will manage her alcohol dependency better and make huge progress. She also plans to take Jackie food shopping and get two weeks’ worth of food in so that Jackie can continue to progress with this area of her self-care and independence. The main thing is that Jackie herself, wants to get back on her own two feet. She has a past she is proud of, having spent many years working as a support worker herself. The abuse she has experienced at the hands of her ex-partner has altered her life in many harmful ways, but Jackie is now showing signs that she wants to take her life back, and with Helen’s support, she can do that.

Meeting these women alongside Helen has been a privilege. Helen explained how working with the Durham team has opened her eyes significantly. Their work with perpetrators has challenged Helen, but also taught her that there is another vital side to the domestic abuse field, about holding perpetrators accountable and supporting them to change their behaviours. Helen was surprised at her own professional ability to adapt, when working with colleagues to support perpetrators. She was positive about this opportunity that working for Foundation has brought.

Alongside a huge level of admiration for my colleague, my take away from this experience was about the reality of social isolation. I don’t think I had fully comprehended just how important having INCLUSION as one of Foundation’s core values is. During my time with Helen, I saw all of our core values being brought to life, for both the women and for Helen. I also saw how no journey through our services is ever smooth, there is no easily predictable trajectory for our customers. Our colleagues have to adapt to that, meeting the ever increasing demands for them to record and measure their work, with the demands of their chaotic client group. It is our organisational challenge to ensure that the measures we collect deliver a story about the impact of our work. It is also our challenge to ensure that Helen, and all our other colleagues, are able to hold true to their professional integrity in every respect. It’s a tricky balance to strike in our increasingly financially pressurised field, but with colleagues like those in Durham in our team, we can get there.