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I wasn’t used to the freedom, but I couldn’t look back – my story out of domestic abuse

Here Amber*, 28, tells her story of escaping from an abusive partner and starting a new life with a new type of domestic abuse support; Shared Lives.

Please note: TW – sensitive content about domestic abuse that some readers may find distressing.

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Amber says, “I was living with my partner and had experienced violence, financial and psychological abuse from him for years. It was really hard to get out of and I felt trapped. I’d escaped to a refuge before but, it didn’t last long. I couldn’t bring my dog, and while I was there, he hurt my dog Baz*, to punish me.

“I was in a bad situation though as I’d been caught stealing with him to fund his drug addiction. I was on probation, trying to recover and also on methadone. It was at one of the probation meetings that things started to change for the better, when I met people from the Shared Lives scheme. I didn’t see it at the time, I just thought it was another meeting and I was feeling hopeless.”

While the concept of shared living is not a particularly new one, Shared Lives is much more than this. It is a fully regulated care system, offering full-time or respite care in a professional host’s own home. Currently more than 14,000 people across the UK benefit from such arrangements, enabling those with any kind of support need – mental ill health, learning or physical disability, dementia or other ongoing needs, to share their carer’s home and family life.

Positive Steps are an established Shared Lives service in Shropshire, and through the Shared Lives Plus project were approached by Shropshire Domestic Abuse Service.

Amber continues, “They kept asking me what I wanted, what I enjoyed doing and what I needed to feel safe. Their questions were so different to the way I usually thought about things, I made it quite hard for them! But they won me over, as they were kind and understanding. Most of all, I could bring Baz, so I started to hope that it might really be a fresh start and I could make a break from my partner.

Key to its success is an extremely personalised matching process.

Sheryl from Shared Lives Positive Steps Shropshire says, “Once we met Amber and understood what she needed and would be open to, we were able to match her with a host who had a lot of experience and understood her circumstances.

“We found a good host as their family home was remote and not at all accessible by public transport. The entrance to the property doesn’t look as though it leads to anywhere, as we needed to reduce the risk of the perpetrator finding out where Amber was.”

But even though it was all arranged, it needed precision planning and two attempts to help Amber finally leave.

“We tried to meet Amber numerous times, but not all were successful as the perpetrator only allowed her out when he saw fit, this put her at risk of breaching her bail conditions which meant she would end up back at court with a possible custodial sentence.

“We worked with Shropshire Domestic Abuse Service and arranged that they would pick her up and take her to her Shared Lives host’s home. It took two times as the perpetrator became suspicious, so we waited a couple of weeks again. Leaving the home can be the most dangerous part of ending abuse, so we needed to be sure it was the right time. Thankfully, our next attempt to help Amber to leave was successful.”

Amber recalls the experience, “I was relieved and scared to leave my house. I just hugged Baz in the car until we got to my host’s house. It was a massive change arriving there. I had so much freedom, I didn’t know what to do with it. They were so kind to me, always offering me things I might like, and giving me choices. I really struggled to start with, even over what I might want for lunch in a sandwich. I’d always just had what was leftover, and nothing of my own. The Shared Lives scheme worker and host had regular catch ups and worked out a way to help me get used to this new life.

“I had a setback when my ex attempted suicide a few weeks later. My world crashed around me again and I felt so guilty. I knew I had left him for the right reasons, but somehow I thought if I hadn’t left it wouldn’t have happened. My Shared Lives host and worker were so supportive and spent so much time consoling me and reassuring me I wasn’t to blame and I was on the right track. I wouldn’t have got through that without them.

“When my own mental health took a downturn, they got me fast-tracked back into support with the mental health team. I’d missed so many appointments they’d closed my case, but they got me re-referred. It gave me confidence. Over the next few weeks, they also helped with my housing application. I would have been on the highest priority if I had gone to a refuge, so they made sure I put things in place for my future too. Because of the links Shared Lives had to the local DWP, they helped getting Universal Credit benefits too, so that gave me some money of my own. Being with my Shared Lives host meant that all the foundations for a new life were being put in place.

“I was so proud when the probation team said to my Shared Lives host, “We can’t get over the difference in this lady”. It showed how far I’d come in a couple of months.

“I also started the Freedom Programme with my SDAS worker and dropped a dosage level of methadone, so now I’m nearly finished the withdrawal programme. I’m feeling loads better about myself, physically and about my future and can’t thank everyone in Shared Lives enough.”

Read more on Shared Lives support for domestic abuse survivors.

*All names have been changed to protect identities