JACKIE doesn’t live here any longer. Associating Cumbria with memories of cruelty, she hasn’t set foot in the county for more than five years.

Hers is a harsh judgement – but forgivable. Having been a victim of sustained domestic violence, she fled what she describes as a culture without care.

“I’m not supposed to call myself a victim, am I?” she says. “It’s unfashionable now. But that’s what I am. What happened to me stays with me. I don’t trust anyone. I am therefore close to no-one – by choice. My life is limited, yes. But it’s safer that way.

“The only help I found was at the Women’s Refuge in Carlisle. It was enough to give me the courage to run. And I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

Jackie (not her real name) had met a man while on holiday. Their romance was a whirlwind. He told her he wanted her to live with him in Cumbria, where he had a lovely home, a great job… and he didn’t want to live without her.

“I was in love,” she says. “Within three months I had moved north to be with him. I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been to find this man – a professional man – who was kindness itself.

“But things changed. It started when he decided he didn’t like the clothes I wore. He insisted I looked better without make-up, didn’t like me phoning my mum, disapproved of any friends I made. Then it just went from bad to worse – he started hitting.

“It was my fault for not understanding the pressure he was under at work, he said. And he was always sorry afterwards. But then the hitting got worse, more frequent. Then he raped me.

“Almost as bad was that when I confided in women friends, they told me that was what happened in rural places. I should keep my head down, be nicer, quieter... and for God’s sake don’t get pregnant.”

Her short spell at the refuge, now looking likely to close in a little more than two weeks, gave Jackie the time, space and understanding guidance she needed to make her decision to reclaim her safety and her life somewhere else.

“He controlled the money, so I had none. I knew it was going to be hard. But I was one of the more fortunate women there. I had family willing to help – although my mum still refers to my ‘big mistake’. Like I chose it.

“Others in that hostel, the ones with no-one on their side; goodness knows how they have got on – or will, if and when it closes.”

Carlisle’s Women’s Refuge serves domestic violence victims – women and children – from all over Cumbria and from other counties too. Opened in 1999 by Women’s Aid but since run by Impact Housing Association, with funding support from Cumbria County Council, it’s not the most luxurious accommodation. But it is a lifeline.

Annette Harman worked there. She has seen close-up the women, of all ages and from all social backgrounds, who have sought safe haven there.

“Don’t let anyone fool themselves,” she said. “In many cases they are running for their lives. Most have been made to feel utterly useless, worthless, they arrive with deep mental health issues and they are terrified.

“They tend to stay for between three and six months. While in the refuge they receive the support they need to build a little self-esteem, confidence to make decisions they can trust. But they don’t necessarily lose the fear.

“I saw a former resident in Carlisle the other week. She had her four-year-old in a pushchair. I jokingly said it was time the lad was walking, not riding.

“She told me: ‘No. If I see him (her ex-partner) I need to be able to run. It’s easier this way.’

“Domestic violence is a huge, complex problem. The effect it has on children is awful – especially for boys. They often become overly protective of their mothers and can end up controlling them in similar ways. Violence breeds violence, without proper intervention. That refuge is the eyes and ears of agencies unable to spot looming escalation. Closure will be a disgrace we will long regret.”

Annette’s name has also been changed for purposes of this article. All conceivable measures to protect the identities of women using the refuge – and its location – have to be taken in the interests of safety.

Perhaps not for much longer though. Time is running out for the refuge and – Annette believes – for the women who need it.

“We have had women and girls in there who have been trafficked from overseas. We’re talking escape from modern-day slavery, here. What will happen to them without it?”

Police and Crime Commissioner Richard Rhodes – a staunch campaigner for help for victims of domestic violence and sex abuse – is also bewildered and angered by the closure decision.

“I believe there is an inherent cultural problem across the county in relation to domestic violence and abuse,” he said. “There is a willingness to believe we don’t have a problem. We do.

“Anyone in need of help can, of course, contact the victims’ advocate at the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. But I see closure of this refuge as a retrograde step.

“A recent example of how poorly victims are served came when, having been informed there wasn’t a problem in west Cumbria – Allerdale, specifically – I was told that a young woman in Egremont, removed from home for her safety, had been taken to the hostel for homeless men – because there was nowhere else for her to go.

“How terrifying must that have been for that victim? Rescued from an abusive man, to be taken to a place where she was surrounded by men?”

He hopes a charity might be set up in the nick of time to run the service no official body seems to want anymore. And since neither councils nor housing associations have statutory obligations to keep domestic violence victims safe, perhaps that might be the only way.

Reasoning behind the refuge’s closure is by no means clear. Though money – or lack of it – figures largely.

Impact Housing has not sought to renew its contract to run the refuge, since the county council decided to reduce funding by £500,000 in its new budget. Neither has any other association stepped up to the plate.

For its part, the county council says: “In September the council’s Cabinet agreed changes to how it funds support attached to short-term accommodation. The change resulted in a redistribution of funds to ensure a more equitable split across all parts of the county and involved a retendering of the service.

“The owners of the refuge chose not to bid for the new contracts. We are now working with local support providers and district councils to ensure that people currently accommodated or in need of refuge accommodation in future, continue to receive support until it is no longer required.”

Carlisle councillor Jack Paton has urged four major housing associations operating in the county to get together and thrash out a plan of rescue.

His call met with little immediate enthusiasm from any.

But Helen Gore, head of supported housing at Riverside Housing Association, was a little warmer to the idea than others.

“We would consider any new opportunities, particularly to prevent the closure of a service. Cumbria County Council has yet to contact us in relation to this service,” she said.

As for Annette Harman – she’s less than optimistic for the futures of endangered women, once the refuge has closed.

“Closure will mean that in the county there will be one hostel, in Kendal, supporting only single women – no children.

“Women trying to rebuild their lives are easy targets. They are necessarily hidden, therefore largely unseen and you do have to wonder whether, in the end, anyone really cares.”

Related articles:

Call for united action to save Carlisle women's refuge from closure

Women's refuge in Carlisle to close due to funding cuts