|Written by Erin Pizzey||Wednesday, August 22, 2007 3:05 PM|
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While I was in America, Hounslow Council launched an Appeal to the High Court in the Strand in London to have me jailed for over crowding my refuge. I lost the Appeal and my lawyers decided to take the case up to the House of Lords. I knew this would give me breathing space to get on with the work I had to do at my refuge.
Now that we were in the ‘big house’ as it was called, we could legitimately house thirty six mothers and children but in reality that was never the case. Across England I met a wall of hostility and silence from the councils all of whom steadfastly refused to take responsibility for any of the fleeing mothers and children. I needed to rethink my policy of trying to reason with the housing departments and plan for a future for the refuge and its inmates.
When I first opened the refuge I made contact with a squatting group that were helping homeless people and families to ‘squat.’ I attended several of their meetings with my mothers and they taught us the basic rules that could ensure that once we had rehoused families, they would not be evicted. At one of our mornings house meetings the mothers voted that this was a viable method of getting rehoused. It was decided that we would only take houses owned by boroughs that had renovated properties but left them lying empty. Thus began our contraversial history of becoming the biggest squatting agency in England.
At this point we had nothing to lose. The only government money that we received had been removed as soon as the feminists created the National Federation and made themselves into a national refuge movement even though we still took in families from all over England. Without our meagre grant we were totally dependent upon the charity of the public and of course our prayers. I always felt it was a miracle that however much we needed, the money arrived to cover our costs. Sometimes walking up the road to my house I would despair – so many mouths to feed and nothing in the bank but sure enough by the next morning the post would bring cheques and cash and we could eat and pay our bills.
News of our squatting programme soon attracted many volunteers. The most valuable were a group of men calling themselves ‘We People’. They were out of work artisans, plumbers, carpenters, painters and decorators. They offered to help us renovate the houses we took for free. We were delighted. Our first major squat was a row of houses in Notting Hill Gate. It was then a run down area with hundreds of derelict empty house – now of course it is a millionaire’s paradise. We hired a large van and moved the mothers and children into the houses that were habitable and I posted the legal notice on the front doors. The notice had to state that we had taken over the properties and it would require a court order to remove my families. Because the mothers had children any borough I squatted would be required to rehouse them and I made it a daunting prospect by squatting in such large numbers that the boroughs preferred to leave us alone.
Our squatting policy was such a success that we moved on to bigger venues. A musician visited me one night and told me that the Palm Court Hotel on the river in Richmond was empty. I knew this beautiful old hotel. The back garden led down to the Thames and it was huge. It had been empty for years and various political parties argued over how it should be renovated. He offered to put on an impromptu pop concert for us but I declined. This could be our major squat. It had seventy four private suites and could house an enormous number of our community. We laid our plans carefully. We invested money into all forms of camping equipment so every time we needed to squat we had lights, cookers, portable lavatories, sleeping bags and kitchen equipment ready to move at a moment’s notice.
I telephoned The Observer and asked them to send a reporter and a photographer to act as back up for us. When the press were involved the various hostile bureaucrats were more likely to be careful in their response to our squatting operations. That night at ten o’clock when I knew the caretaker would be in his local pub, I sent my colleague Ann Ashby and a van load of mothers with their children off to the hotel. Ann telephoned as soon as they managed to get in. The only causality was the Observer photographer who was arrested by the police and taken down to the police station – they let him go pretty promptly. The next morning the people of Richmond awoke with the Palm Court now back in business. The response was extraordinary. Crowds of people came to visit the hotel bearing with them food, clothes, furniture and cooking equipment. Many of them stayed to help the mothers and the men repair the hotel. Before long we had a working kitchen and the heating and the lights put on.
I was particularly keen to have the Palm Court squat because I needed to keep some of our very vulnerable families nearby. One of my favourite mothers was a beautiful red haired woman who had three children with her. She had been taken into care when she was very young after being brutalized by her mother. Like so many of the mothers who had been raised in a care home, she was illiterate and had no parenting skills at all. She made her living as a prostitute and was taking time out with us after a particularly violent pimp had battered her almost to death. What she needed was a programme where she could live with her children and experience the kind of parenting she never had. Unlike the Social Services departments in the country, we did not believe in taking children away from their parents. As far as possible we believed we should ‘parent the parents so that they could parent their children.’ I always remember Julia sitting at the table in the kitchen on that freezing first morning, carefully painting freckles onto her tiny upturned nose.
By the end of the nineteen seventies I had come to the conclusion that we needed to think about the programmes that we had developed to meet the needs of the mothers and their children. By now we had in place a very experienced team of men and women taking care of our children. At the back of the refuge I bought a series of houses one of which was called ‘the play house.’ This was a four story building which housed the under five play group in the basement and the other floors constituted a semi formal school house. After a massive battle with Hounslow education department, I finally managed to get them to agree that many of our children were so traumatised by the violence they had witnessed or experienced they were not able to immediately be sent off to local schools.
Across from the play house I bought a big white square building which I reserved for the ‘boys’ in our refuge. Unlike most of the feminist refuges, we never excluded male members of the families. I was outraged to find (and it is true even unto this day) that refuges banned boy from the ages of twelve upwards. This meant that many mothers who could not bear to be separated from their sons had to find refuge in homeless family hostels. We had boys coming in of all ages and it became apparent that many of the boys were already affected by the violence they had experienced in their homes.
Some of the boys were as violent as the fathers they left behind and others were not only victims of their father’s violent behaviour but also suffered from their mother’s violence. What the boys needed was a space of their own and good kind gentle men to help them come to terms with their past and build a new future. To this end the boy’s project relied heavily upon the men who were working with us on our squatting project. The boy’s project resembled a refuge in that it was the boys who made their own rules and managed their own affairs. I remember that the first rule they put in place was to ban all women from their house. If one of the boys wished to have a female visitor he could issue an invitation, but no girl friend or mother could move in or take control.
My job was to help the boys learn to cook, and the staff visited regularly to spend time with the boys. I apprenticed three boys to each man who worked on our buildings. When the boys reached sixteen they were paid by the hour for their work and at the end of every day. No work, no pay. And they could not apply to the welfare state for money as they all had jobs on offer. The men made a huge difference in the boy’s lives and many of them went on take up professions in all the various trades.
I had one more project that was close to my heart and I succeeded in getting a building that I called ‘the house for indefinite stay.’ I had several mothers who had been diagnosed as suffering from ‘learning disabilities.’ One of them Norma, had spent most of her life locked away in a back room of her middle class parent’s house because she was illegitimate. By the time she came to the refuge she was enormously fat and had two children with her. She was completely unsocialised and so were her children. All three of them were filthy. The children didn’t know how to sit at a table and preferred to put their dinner plates on the floor. The father of the children was suffering from a mental break down and was in hospital. Norma’s social worker knew that her only option was to take the children away from Norma but she knew of my work and was keen to see if I could help this family.
The children responded well to the play group and to the staff. Before long they were able to fit in with the community and became great favourites with all the mothers and children. Norma was a very difficult individual and we struggled to help her. About the same time Eileen came into the refuge with six children. She was diagnosed as suffering from a mental health condition although nobody could quite explain what it was. She was married to a man who suffered a similar condition and in between beating her up with the children, he went in and out of the local mental hospital. When Eileen described her own childhood it was the familiar story of her own violent parents and sexual abuse. Again I didn’t want to see her lose all her children because they were very attached to their mother and in her own way she did her best for them. My new project was designed around the needs of these mothers and I advertised for a married couple to come and take care of my mothers so that they could mother the mothers and teach them much needed parenting skills.
A very gifted couple arrived at the house and they settled in immediately. Their first job was to teach Norma how to wash herself. This involved physically getting her into a shower and showing her the basics of washing between her legs and all over her body. Norma had lived since she was tiny with her own feral smell and it was difficult for her to live without it. Gradually with clean clothes and bath salts, Norma began to take a pride in herself, and her fearsome swearing and shouting began to lessen. Her children now found their mother less frightening and the small family unit began to gel. The children’s father once out of his mental hospital paid regular visits and with coaching he was able to take his part in fathering the children.
Eileen was scrupulously clean but very delinquent. For all that she was supposed to be ‘learning disabled’ she was able to think up some very successful scams down the high road. She was nimble shoplifter and employed her children as her small private army. To her consternation when she was apprehended and gave her address, the Manager’s of the shops telephoned us. We went storming down to the shop where we asked the Manager not to take legal action against her, but to allow us to take her back into the shop with her booty and her children and publicly make her return her ill gotten gains to the shelves and apologise in front of an astonished public. We did this with all our shop lifters – a good dose of old fashioned shame worked far better than a quick visit to a local magistrate’s court and a slap on the wrist.
The day to day running of the refuge by the whole community and the volunteers and the staff created a feeling of a big unruly family and a family that could accept and care deeply about all its members. Because all the mothers and the children were responsible for what happened in the community, I had the time with my carefully trained therapeutic staff to do the work that was necessary with the very dysfunctional families that needed our care. As the years went by we specialised in these families. If women came in who were genuine victims of their partner’s violence, we were able to move them on to refuges that acted as hostels and they in turn sent us the families that otherwise they might well evict. In fact many of the feminist hostels screened out women with drug or alcohol problems, and should a violence prone woman come in with her children, she was very soon evicted. Thus many of them could religiously say that all of their women were ‘innocent victims of their partner’s violence.’ but in truth the women who most needed their help, who were violent themselves, were barred because they did not fit the political criteria for refuge.
Many of the mothers had very little memory of most of the terrible things that happened to them in early childhood. In some cases it took many months of gentle exploration to take the mother back to her own early life and search for the events that so distorted her perceptions of reality that she found herself blindly repeating patterns that constantly directed her towards violent and abusive partners. One of my main arguments with the feminist movement blanket label that domestic violence was perpetrated by only men was my experiences of lesbian women who came to the refuge seeking sanctuary from their violent female partners. As far as I was concerned there were three very clear types of relationships and each needed to be understood independently.
- Women who were innocent victims of their partner’s violence. Here there were no arguments. The feminist movement and ourselves recognised that these women, given support, legal advice, refuge and rehousing, were able to move on and not find themselves in repeated violent relationships.
- Men who were innocent victims of their partner’s violence. Here we parted company with the feminists. We knew, because we had many women coming into the refuge who perceived themselves as ‘victims of their violent partners’ but when they had to face the fact that they were violent themselves and to their children, they were willing to admit that they had to take responsibility for the violence in their family.
- Consensual violence where both partners are violent to each other. Again this would never be admitted by the feminists because their argument is that women only physically attack a man in self-defence. As one woman who murdered her husband said to me, ‘the knife sort of jumped into my hand.’ Another time one of my mothers who stormed into the refuge dragging six children behind her announced that her husband and blacked both her eyes. Why did he do that I asked. ‘I stabbed him,’ she said triumphantly. I kept her in the refuge and for many years in one of my nearby flats – she never managed to become more peaceful but she did live in a surrounding community of women and children and near enough to the main refuge to bring her children to the play school and take part in all the holiday activities. Like so many women that went through the refuge, we often could only help some of the women to learn less destructive patterns of behaviour but we were able to offer the children a very real chance and a new future without violence.
Then as now governments and agencies don’t want the lack of provision for victims of family abuse to become public knowledge. All Western countries have inherited a puritan ethic that says anyone, whatever their circumstances, have to be held accountable for their behaviour. This boot strap philosophy means a total denial of the evidence that we know to be true – violence and sexual assault in childhood severely destroys the chance of some children growing up to become responsible loving members of their society. As our English poet Auden says ‘to those whom evil is done will do evil in return.’ We are quite content to lock people up in mental hospitals or in prisons but we refuse to look at the root causes of dysfunctional behaviour – domestic violence and sexual abuse. Instead of locking people up in punitive institutions, we need to look at the roots of violence and create more therapeutic communities where the unloved, the unlovable, those adults and children who were never exposed to love and kindness, get a second chance.
Copyright © 2007 Erin Pizzey, All Rights Reserved
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