CUTTING the number of ‘safe havens’ and closing three refuges means women and children fleeing domestic violence in Ellesmere Port could be put in danger, it is claimed.
Opposition councillors have accused Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) of taking an “appaling gamble” with the lives of vulnerable women and children.
Refuges in Ellesmere Port, Chester and Northwich are to close and will be replaced with a single hub with the number of refuge places available falling from 17 to eight.
Ruling Conservative councillors have approved the changes – which will save about £55,000 – but the Labour group has slammed the “disgraceful” decision.
Cllr Louise Gittins said: “Incidents of domestic violence are on the increase so the last thing we should be doing is closing our doors to its victims
“These proposals cut the places of safety available and represent an attack on the security of vulnerable women and children.”
CWaC argues the changes will provide an improved support, better accommodation and cater for a much wider range of families.
New caps will be brought in limiting the accommodation available to domestic violence victims from outside West Cheshire.
Cllr Gittins called that change “immoral and arbitrary” and fears there could be a knock-on effect resulting in women being turned away all over the region.
She said: “This policy is an appaling gamble with people’s lives.”
CWaC said the new service would include intervention work with families at an earlier stage and mean families no longer have to share bathroom and kitchen facilities. There will also be an increased focus on providing families with permanent homes.
Cllr Lynda Jones, executive member for commissioning, said: “This is about modernising a service, with our public and voluntary sector partners.
"Domestic abuse is a major problem across the UK and the supporting services available are too fragmented, old-fashioned and not centred on the needs of the victim. It is a very emotive issue but if we continue to resist improvements in modernising the service things will never get better.”
Cllr Jones said she was disappointed with the “short-sighted” response from the Labour group.
She said: “This is an incredible opportunity to significantly improve the services to victims of domestic abuse and address the vicious cycle of repeat victims and the devastating impact it can have on the children and family members involved
“It would be a travesty if party politics and clinging to an out-dated, old-fashioned service denies Cheshire West this opportunity to lead the way with high quality support to some of our most vulnerable residents.”
But those who work with domestic abuse victims are far from convinced the changes will result in an improved service.
Sandra Rudd, president of charity Chester Women’s Aid, said: “The council’s plans are based on a new early support system which aims to work with local families before situations get to the point where women have to leave the family home to escape violence.
“But at the moment there is no evidence that this new system is working or that it is effective in supporting local families.”
Mrs Rudd, who represented Labour on the former Chester City Council, added: “It is worrying that the contracts with the existing refuges have been ended before an evaluation of the new system has been undertaken.”
Val Armstrong, a public health specialist based who has worked with domestic abuse victims for more than a decade, has concerns over the potential implication of some of the changes.
She said: “Putting a cap on the number of people from outside the borough who can access places in our refuges goes completely against the ethos of safe havens. It works against reciprocal arrangements for refuge referrals which we have with other neighbouring local authorities.
"These arrangements keep our women and children safe when they are forced to leave the area served by this council.”