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At Gateway we often find ourselves “filling in the gaps” – in funding and in service. And on Thursday last week we were faced with a very stark reminder of this.
Julie (not her real name) was referred to the Gateway Pregnancy Outreach Workers Service (POWS) by her midwife, and assigned to Denise. They met for the first time on Thursday, at the house Julie shares with her partner.
Within minutes of meeting, Julie told Denise that she felt unsafe in the house, especially now that she was pregnant. She explained that her partner was extremely controlling and regularly violent. Although the police had been involved already, she’d denied the abuse when questioned in front of him because she was frightened. She told Denise, “right now, he’s asleep upstairs. If I leave him, I need to do it now.”
In a situation like this, the plan is always the same, and POWS know it by heart: get the woman to a place of safety, give her an opportunity to talk, and find her somewhere to stay.
Denise immediately called a colleague to pick them both up and let her manager know what was happening. While they were making their way to the Gateway offices so that they could talk openly, her manager was calling the relevant agencies to find Julie some accommodation.
However, it soon became clear that all was not going to go to plan.
Not pregnant enough
Denise and her manager Michelle made nearly 30 phonecalls on Thursday and not a single agency was able to accommodate her. Julie fell outside the criteria for every organisation.
None of the places of refuge, charities and other organisations – and yes, we tried them all – could take her because she is an overstayer (she had originally come to the UK on a short term visa, and hadn’t returned at the due time).
Apparently the fact that she is here illegally – despite having lived in the UK for many years and having a National Insurance number and NHS number – overrides the potential danger to her life.
Birmingham MASH (Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub) can help pregnant women, even those with immigration issues… but only from 20 weeks. At 15 weeks, Julie is not yet pregnant enough.
We are absolutely not looking for blame here; we are looking for solutions. Each organisation has to have boundaries, and for good reason, but… where is someone like Julie supposed to go?
By late afternoon things were looking desperate, so Denise took Julie to the police station (although of course this met with some resistance from Julie). After waiting to be seen for an hour, Julie told them everything; how she was trafficked here in the first place, why she can’t return to her home country, and the history of violence with her partner. But, again, it came down to “this is an immigration issue”.
We asked again, where is she supposed to go?
The police suggested many of the places we had already tried and eventually persuaded the Salvation Army, who had already refused her a place, to give Julie a bed for that night. But it was for one night only, and she would have to leave by 9am on Friday. They also suggested we go to the Neighbourhood Office first thing the next day.
In the morning Denise picked Julie up from the hostel. Together with a council officer at the Neighbourhood Office, Denise, Julie and Michelle spent another frustrating day speaking to agencies – many of which they’d already tried – and coming up against the same barriers. Referrals would go so far, only to be refused due to Julie’s immigration status and the fact she has no recourse to public funds.
By the time the office closed, Julie had had enough. She was tired.
That evening, she went home to her partner.
What’s the answer?
We don’t know what else we could have done for Julie, but her situation is by no means unique. It’s so frustrating to see someone in need and not be able to help them.
We are still supporting her, of course; we’re helping her to find out if she has grounds for citizenship and helping her to put together all the paperwork and information she needs to “become legal”. In five weeks’ time she will be able to re-apply to MASH for housing because she will be 20 weeks pregnant – and we will help her through that process too. We are giving her food and toiletries and ensuring she has access to her midwife, despite what is now an even more dangerous situation at home.
But we can’t make sure she’s safe, and that is incredibly, horribly frustrating.