Opening the door to a different way
23 November 2018
Women and children arrive at Amber House to escape abuse. They leave Metropolitan Thames Valley’s refuge in Nottingham with the chance of a better future.
A heap of backpacks props up the wall. A Swingball rally gathers pace in the garden. Indoors, some furious thumbwork keeps the Xbox baddies at bay.
It’s a typical after-school scene – children hanging out, chilling out and zoning out. Only these children live at Amber House, Metropolitan Thames Valley’s women’s refuge in Nottingham.
The Nottingham City Council-commissioned service supports up to ten families at a time in four shared flats within a single building. They come from across the UK – the women the victims of violence, intimidation or coercive behaviour at the hands of partners or extended family, the children the collateral damage.
Children are top priority at Amber House – the only refuge in Nottingham that employs a full-time children’s worker, Anna, who delivers tailored sessions for newborns through to 16 year-olds.
“They all need me for different reasons,” says Anna, who has revamped the dedicated children’s area into a bright and appealing environment for all ages. Alongside the Lego, playdough and crayons, there are now consoles, comfy chairs and table football. “It used to look like a crèche,” she admits. “Now, children want to hang out here with their friends. I just supervise the hanging out.”
She does a whole lot more, of course. As soon as new families arrive at refuge, she sees to their immediate needs. If they left home in a hurry, they might be missing baby monitors, changing mats, clothes or food. New school and nursery places have to be found and appointments made with health visitors and social services.
“After we’ve sorted the essentials, I can start to get to know them, find out how they feel about being here and identify how I can help,” explains Anna. For one teenage resident, that means providing revision guides and access to the wifi-equipped office for some evening study. For one of the younger children, it’s encouraging mum to get his eyes tested, after Anna spotted him struggling to see the tv.
“The biggest problem we have is neglect,” she admits. “And that can come with their parents’ lifestyle choices or inability to focus on their children due to everything else that’s going on.
“The children’s area is a private, safe space for them to express anything and realise that it’s not all doom and gloom.”
Baking, water play, computer games, football and fruit tasting boost the fun factor. The children take advantage of free activities in the city, while fundraising facilitates holiday treats like ice skating, trampolining or circus skills workshops.
“I try to show the mums what an impact these days out can have on their kids,” says Anna, who insists they come along. “They should be there to see their faces and share the memories.”
Most residents come to Amber House via national database Refuges Online – accessed by police, social care and local authorities – and sign a licence agreement with Metropolitan Thames Valley.
“If there is anti-social behaviour, we have to be able to move people out,” reasons team manager Sarah. “The licence means we can manage the risk to ourselves, the woman and the other customers.”
The licence runs alongside house rules – no drinking, smoking, slamming doors, leaving the washing up or breaking the curfew (11pm weekdays; midnight at weekends). Staff may laugh off occasional high jinks – but some misdemeanours are never tolerated.
Like revealing the refuge’s address. “We’ve had perpetrators turn up outside. Any breach of security and you have to go,” insists Sarah, whose phone is on 365 days a year in case of any curveballs.
Some women regard refuge as sanctuary. Others don’t want to leave abusive partners, friends, families, homes and jobs; they are obliged to by social services who deem that children are at risk. “Some customers hate us from the moment they cross the threshold,” admits Sarah. “It’s a daily struggle for them to stay here. It’s our job to break down that resistance.”
The four senior support workers – who staff Amber House between them on weekdays from 9am-8pm – support two to three women at a time. During weekly sessions, they help them secure benefits, apply for local authority housing, register with a GP, manage child protection or care proceedings and access specialist services for issues like debt, addiction or mental health.
“We’re here to be used by them,” explains support worker Hannah. “I tell the women to take advantage of the fact that they’ve got somebody fighting their corner.”
But despite their best efforts, some residents will return to abusive relationships – and to refuge (although never the same one). Others seize the chance of a new start. “Just being here has given them the headspace to recognise that what they’ve been through isn’t their fault and isn’t the norm,” says Hannah.
For Sarah, it’s the children who are the real measure of success. “We can make a huge impact on their lives because of our approach, our commitment and our consistency. We’ve opened the door to doing things differently.”
One of the female officers nearly broke down in tears when I stripped off for them to photograph the bruises on my body. It was really, really bad. The police got called round a few times over the years.
I was frightened to walk down the street and I always held my head down in shame. At the time, I thought I did everything wrong, because that’s what my husband said. And what he said went.
The last straw was when he threatened to kill me if I didn’t do it myself – and he wasn’t going to do it in a nice way. I rang the police and Women’s Aid and, luckily, Amber House had a space for me.
My daughter is here with me now, but she had been living with my mum and dad. I wasn’t in a mentally fit state to look after myself, never mind her. She got a holiday with her grandparents and I got a few weeks to think about what had happened.
My mum and dad didn’t know anything. I had hidden everything from them. Like any daughter, I just wanted them to be proud of me. If I showed up head to toe in bruises all the time, it would have been really disappointing. They broke down when they found out.
Coming here was a huge change. I’d been used to having my own kitchen, my own routine and a part-time job, but anything was better than what I’d been living through.
My support worker, Shaz, is amazing. I love her so much. At first, I didn’t trust anybody, but she has given me so much support, it’s unreal. She’s just been there for me and I’ve really opened up to her. We have a weekly meeting and, even if it’s rolling along and there’s not much to say, it’s nice to have a chat. I like the routine here – even the rules. It’s some structure for me as I get back on my feet.
I feel so safe here. When I first moved in, my self-esteem and confidence were zero. Now, I go into town. I don’t walk with my head down any more. Shaz introduced me to the local wellbeing centre where we talk about emotional resilience and how to resist going back to the old familiar stuff when you’re having a bad day.
I’m waiting on a council house. There are a lot of forms going back and forth, but it takes a long time. I’m looking forward to it. It’s nervewracking, but exciting – getting a new place, starting again. This period is about getting myself together, getting to know the old me.
I’m speaking to friends I’ve not spoken to since I got married. They’ve messaged me saying they’re so glad to have me back. I feel I have friends now. Being in that relationship, being controlled, I didn’t – I wasn’t allowed. I am my own person now and make my own decisions.
Amber House has got me into a positive state of mind. I feel like someone’s got my back. Even when I move on, I know they will make sure I’m OK. I’ll be upset to leave because they’ve helped me so much.
I didn’t think I’d get this far. It’s been amazing. I didn’t know how to smile when I first came here. I’m doing plenty of smiling now.