The Lost Childhoods: ‘I’ve lost my friends. They can’t play here — we have to keep our safe house secret’

David Cohen
In hiding: Erica, her sister, her half-brother and mother live in a refuge for seven families run by charity Hestia. Picture posed by models

Ten-year-old Erica was upstairs playing with her half-brother Sam, five, when she heard the downstairs window shatter. She instantly recognised the voice of the intruder and froze. Sam’s estranged father, a violent criminal who had served time for domestic violence, was not supposed to know where they lived. Somehow he had tracked them down.

“I heard my mother screaming as he started to beat her,” said Erica. “Sam started crying and I held him and tried to keep him quiet and calm him down. The beating went on for about 15 or 20 minutes. Afterwards there was a horrible silence. Then I heard my mother and older sister Carol sobbing. The police came and took us to a hotel and from there we came to this safe house.”

Erica perched on the sofa in the communal lounge, her shoes barely touching the ground as she recalled the events five months ago that left her mother with a battered face and caused the family to be taken to a secret address in west London. It was the second time the family found themselves living in hiding from Sam’s father.

For Erica, it meant losing everything — her home, her friends and her school — for the second time in four years. “I had five close friends at my old school but I have lost touch with all of them except one who sent me a card,” she said. “Making new friends is hard. At my new school I am not allowed to say where I live, or to bring children home to play, because we have to keep this address a secret.”

The refuge she now calls home is a detached house surrounded by a high wall in a suburban cul-de-sac. It looks like a regular house and the neighbours have no idea it accommodates seven families in crisis. It is one of 32 London refuges run by Hestia, a charity that last year provided temporary safe houses for 2,551 people fleeing domestic abuse, including 669 children like Erica.

MORE than 118,000 children in England live in insecure housing or are homeless, according to a report this year by Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, although there is no data on how many of them have fled domestic violence. Hestia chief executive Patrick Ryan said: “Children are the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. We expect children’s services to support them but all too often they fail to do so.” But how does domestic violence impact children, many of whom spend months in temporary shelters?

For Erica and Carol, 14, the disruption has been total. At first they blamed their mother Barbara, a night cleaner at a university. She in turn resented that she was being punished for the violence of her former partner, who had threatened to petrol-bomb the family and was still at large. Barbara was so frustrated that she made plans to return with her children to their old home, but social services stepped in and placed the children on a child protection plan, threatening to take them into care if Barbara left the refuge.

For three months they were a family in turmoil. Barbara refused to engage with Hestia. Erica withdrew into herself and would not speak to key workers. Paula, a Hestia family support worker, said it was only recently that Barbara began co-operating — prompting social services to downgrade her children from “at risk” to “in need” — and that Erica had begun to find her feet.

Their living conditions are impossibly cramped — the family of four share a spartan single bedroom with a tiny basin and two metal bunk beds. There are no chairs or tables so the bed is used for everything and is piled high with bedding and clothing. “We try to be positive,” said Barbara, hoovering the bits of carpet not covered with clothing. “We arrived with nothing except three bin bags of clothes. We try to make it work.”

Erica climbed onto the top bunk where she sleeps above her mother and said: “It’s annoying because there is no place to do my homework or put my clothes.”

Carol was blunt. “It sucks,” she said. “There is no privacy. There are people from other families wherever you go — on the landing, in the family room, in the garden. At night we argue about sleep times because mum has to get up at 3am to go to work as a cleaner. Me and Erica set our alarm for 6am but you hear doors slamming from the communal bathroom and the other families so I always wake up in a bad mood.”

Both girls have had to change schools but for Carol, a teenager approaching her GCSE years, the interruption has been especially damaging. “I missed most of year nine because the council could not find me a new school when we moved, but I no longer care,” she said. “I’ve changed high school three times in four years and each time I’ve made friends that I’ve had to leave. You learn to cut people off. It doesn’t get to me no more.”

Carol has struggled to stay engaged with her education, getting caught up in west London gang culture and receiving a police warning for possession of cannabis, but Erica has kept up academically. Does she feel life is normal? “It’s not been normal since Sam’s dad came into our life when I was three,” she said. Carol added: “Is living in a single room normal for a family of four in London? I don’t even know what normal is any more.”

Meals are cooked in the communal kitchen. “We often eat dinner with other families,” said Erica. “At first I didn’t like it but now I don’t mind.” She has made friends with the other children in the refuge, all younger than she is: “I do a gardening club with 10 kids and I give them lessons on how flowers get wonky if they don’t get water. I teach them to hold a watering can and not to put all the water on one plant.”

Erica has felt settled of late, but their six-month respite placement at Hestia comes to an end in a few weeks and — with Sam’s father recently caught, tried and sentenced to three years — she must brace herself to move again. Where will they go? Paula, the Hestia support worker, explained the procedure. “On their last day here, the family will pack their bags and go to the council housing office to declare themselves homeless and they will learn their fate.”

But surely the council can offer something in advance, especially with children involved? “The council refuses to prioritise families fleeing domestic violence or take applications until the end of the tenancy agreement,” said Paula. “Only then do they say they have a duty to house them, but it is likely to be an emergency bed-and-breakfast to begin with and then they could be moved anywhere in the country and they can’t turn it down or they will be declared intentionally homeless.”

The prospect of being made homeless yet again distressed Erica, but she bravely focused on the children who will move into the refuge when they leave. “What I want to do is take photos of the fun stuff we did here, like gardening club, and put them on a welcome board. That way, when the new children arrive to take our place, they’ll see the photos. I want them to feel happy and welcome to be here. Because when you arrive, you feel very, very sad.”

Names have been changed.