Domestic abuse: GRT communities need more support

By Andrea Gilbert

Domestic abuse in the UK is on the rise. It is estimated that two women are killed by their partner or ex every week.

 In ethnic groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, domestic abuse is not really spoken about but kept within the community until it is too late. This is not just because of cultural reasons such as divorce being highly frowned upon and stigmatized, but also because Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women’s experience of domestic violence help from charities and the state is often filled with prejudice, prejudgement, stereotypes and racism.

Women do not feel comfortable seeking help where they feel unwelcome and judged. This has led to some survivors from the communities specifically setting up services just to provide support to their communities’ survivors. Seeking help is further deterred when there is a very real threat that mothers will lose their children.

Within the South East region it has become even more commonplace for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women to lose their children to social services. Often it is because of poor ability to follow court orders to keep the children safe. One of the biggest issues is that court orders are not being read and interpreted by legal aid solicitors to the parents who often have low educational attainment and literacy so they are not able to understand the processes of child protection orders and why social services are involved with their family, which sometimes leads to the removal of the children, often unnecessarily or prematurely.

Another big issue is that social services overlook suitable family members and authorities are prejudicially set on adopting the children away from their culture. All the research within the social work profession regarding Gypsies, Roma and Travellers points to a high level of discriminatory and prejudiced attitudes.

This has led to parents feeling anxious, depressed and suicidal. In one case a young mother took her own life after her two year old son was ordered into adoption. Her last contact was on his birthday. The social worker said she overfed the child milk and let him stay up watching cartoons rather than nap. The mother’s family tried to take the child into their care but the court opted for placing him into adoption. The family is not giving up and will continue fighting for the child to return home.

Families are not having child protection orders explained to them adequately or told in simple terms why they are being placed on the children in the first place, causing confusion.  Parents are often misled and left with false hope, thinking there is a way to get the children back after they have already been adopted, when it is in fact virtually impossible.

In the majority of these cases, the members of the community are illiterate or uneducated due to girls being taken out of school at the age of 11 to stay at home and learn how to run the household and look after children, unwell family members or the elderly. This is one of the leading reasons why girls and women from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community are missing out on vital education on abuse and male violence, which means they are unable to identify when they’re in abusive relationships and find support networks to get them away.

A lot of the time, girls and women are afraid to use services outside of their community because of a history of experiences they have had in places like schools, being bullied or racially abused and then not listened to by teachers and those in positions of responsibility. On the whole they’ve been vastly let down by people that they are meant to be able to trust.

There needs to be more awareness in the community, particularly amongst men. As is the case with perpetrators from all communities, they need to be educated on how their behaviour is impacting on the family, in particular the children who are witnessing what is happening. Fathers sometimes lack understanding that it is their violence that is getting the children taken away from families.

There are limited services across the country to help perpetrators of abuse, so early, constructive steps to change their behaviour isn’t happening. There is the RESPECT helpline, and they also provide courses. However, the course is not available in all local authorities, which is potentially contributing to more women being abused or killed in these hard-to-access isolated communities.

For this year’s Labour Women’s Conference I have successfully moved a motion in Putney CLP for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women to get more support from local services when fleeing domestic abuse. These services need to empathise and talk with the women in a way they can understand so they can go on to identify when they are at risk and know how to reach out to services that can support them. Services need to provide resources that they understand and aren’t racist to them. Please support the motion so we can spread awareness of this issue and not use it as an opportunity to bash a vulnerable community who are excluded.

Conference resolves:

§ As part of the next Labour government, to provide funding towards specific training to social workers to deal with specific issues affecting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women fleeing domestic abuse.

§ As part of the next Labour government, to provide funding to legal aid budgets to support Traveller women fleeing from domestic abuse.

Andrea Gilbert is a Labour candidate for West Putney ward in the upcoming London council elections.

Image: Caravans at Appleby Horse Fair. Source:  geograph.org.uk. Author: Sara Hunt, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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