Funding cuts putting abused women's lives at risk, warns charity
Women's lives are being put in danger by funding cuts that are forcing domestic violence victims to return to abusive partners, according to the head of the Women's Aid branch that helped tragic Concepta 'Connie' Leonard.
Connie, who died at the hands of her former partner, Peadar Phair, on May 15, had been receiving assistance from Fermanagh Women's Aid until two months before her death.
In the wake of her horrific murder, the number of women seeking help over domestic violence from Fermanagh Women's Aid doubled.
Despite this, and the record high of almost 30,000 reports of domestic abuse to police in Northern Ireland in 2016/17, funding for the Supporting People programme for the nine Women's Aid organisations across Northern Ireland has been slashed by £136,423 this year.
The scheme's budget is allocated by the Department for Communities (DfC) but administered by the Housing Executive (NIHE).
The reduction has forced Fermanagh Women's Aid, which has lost £3,488, to turn away vulnerable women and children who have summoned the courage to escape dangerous situations.
There are currently 30 women on the waiting list, waiting an average of eight weeks, for the Fermanagh group's floating support services, which help individuals and families live independently,
The group is currently assisting 72 women through its programme, and in the last year helped 167 more women than it received funding for.
Its small refuge, a three-bedroom council house, is permanently full to capacity.
"We are operating on an extraordinarily tight budget, the smallest of any Women's Aid in Northern Ireland," Mary McCann, chief executive of Fermanagh Women's Aid, said.
"Last year we turned away 28 women and 27 children from our refuge, which was absolutely heartbreaking for us.
"Imagine women who have suffered years of abuse and finally get up the courage to come to us, then are turned away.
"Many of these women and their children return to the house where the abusive parter is, and the abuse continues.
"We put those women onto our community floating support service, which is stretched to the limit.
"We have endeavoured to keep frontline services - the staff working face-to-face with the women and children - but we have a waiting list of 30 women and you can't have a waiting list where domestic violence is concerned. It can escalate in a few hours.
"Last year, we worked with 362 women and 310 children. I would be calling on the Executive to protect the funding to Women's Aid. It's a key, life-saving service."
Mary added that the funding cuts meant they would struggle to meet running costs for a planned new refuge.
"We're getting a brand new refuge to run, on a budget that didn't have a pay rise in seven years and took a pay cut in the eighth year," she explained.
"But we won't allow it to affect the delivery of frontline services - all of the budget has been moved into delivering them."
Mary also told how workers often broke down in tears because of the situation.
"The emotional strain on staff is horrendous," she said. "They're at their tether's end, but their level of commitment is astounding."
A DfC spokesperson said: "The department has not applied any reduction to the Supporting People budget for the 2017/18 financial year.
"Instead, the allocation has been maintained at £72.8m.
"The Housing Executive administers the Supporting People programme, and we understand it has written to Supporting People providers advising of a 5% funding reduction and asking the sector to work with the NIHE to minimise the impact on vulnerable clients.
"This is to enable the NIHE to manage additional financial pressure arising from the scheme that it does not believe can be managed within the department's current financial allocation for the year."
A NIHE spokesman added: "The Supporting People programme provides housing-related support to help vulnerable people to live as independently as possible, and through this we fund nine Women's Aid branches across Northern Ireland, totalling £4.4m annually.
"While the baseline of the overall Supporting People budget, which is ring-fenced, was protected at £72.8m in April, there are a number of inescapable new financial commitments which need to be met.
"This has necessitated a review of the funding previously provided for a number of schemes.
"Regrettably, we have had to advise providers of a reduction to some budgets in the order of 5%.
"This reduction will not be applied to floating support schemes, where we have been able to maintain the budget at current levels.
"We are very mindful that users of Supporting People-funded services, including Women's Aid, are some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are working with providers to attempt to mitigate the impact of these funding reductions."