Keep on surviving

The founder of victim support charity Haven speaks to Shelly Berry

Chris Casey

Chris Casey, founder of Haven – The Survivors of Abuse Network

Like most of you reading this, until recently, I’d never heard of the Walthamstow-based charity Haven.

Set up in 1982, Haven – The Survivors of Abuse Network has been supporting survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence for more than three decades.

While I can thankfully say I’ve never needed to access its support, my work in the public sector has taught me just how valuable such a service is to those grappling with traumatic experiences – something Chris Casey, its founder, has experienced first-hand.

“I set it up because I’m a survivor of abuse,” she explains. “I’d been through all the NHS psychiatrists and psychologists, and none of them could help me.

“They all said ‘we don’t know what to do with you, perhaps you’re making it up’ and said it never happened or ‘you imagined it’. So I knew there was a need [for a charity like Haven].”

It didn’t take long for the word to spread about Chris’ work.

“Social workers would hear about the group and take women to the door. They’d say: ‘Don’t tell them we’ve brought you here, but we think this is the best place for you.’ So women started coming along, and then started to want to work with me on a one-to-one basis.”

Initially known as Waltham Forest Incest Survivors Group, and subsequently Waltham Forest Haven, the charity decided to extend its work beyond the borough when Waltham Forest Council ceased its funding in 2010. It then became known as Haven – The Survivors of Abuse Network, and started to provide a service across London. But it wasn’t the easiest of circumstances.

“For the first year our funding was cut I ran Haven out of my own pocket,” said Chris. “I’d just been widowed and I couldn’t really afford it, but we just had enough money to pay the rent.

“People made small donations, and then five years ago I got funding from the Ministry Of Justice’s rape support fund, a grant from the Lloyds TSB Foundation, and some funding from the Walthamstow and Chingford Almshouse Charity.”

It was support from these, as well as from other small donors, that kept Haven going – along with Chris’ determination and good money sense. But it isn’t just funding that Chris has seen marked changes in over the years; attitudes towards domestic violence have also changed. Despite this, sexual violence and abuse still remain difficult for a lot of people to understand – and accept.

“People don’t realise that behind closed doors, as women are being physically or emotionally abused, there are often children who are being raped and abused as well.”

While Chris welcomes the new wave of survivors coming forward, she is more than aware of the strain this puts in services such as Haven.

“There is an enormous amount of pressure on Haven’s services, because we’re a survivor-led group. As the NHS is closing its waiting lists for counselling, our services are even more in demand than ever. In addition, there is a serious lack of funding for organisations like us.”

In recent years, Chris has witnessed a large increase of victims and survivors referred to Haven from various ethnic minority communities, and has noted that more young people and older women are being subjected to online abuse. There has also been a marked increase of referrals for older men seeking support too. But what makes them come to the Haven?

“I think what’s unique about us is that we are a survivor organisation working for survivors. Research has proven time and time again that victims and survivors who get support through survivor organisations heal and move on quicker than if they go to an outside, clinical setting. We are friendly; we make people feel at home, we work with the person; it isn’t a one-shoe-fits-all approach.”

Whereas a lot of services offer a set number of counselling sessions, it is noteworthy that this is not the case at Haven.

Chris explains: “If someone needs ten sessions they get ten sessions, if they need 30 sessions then they get 30 sessions. If you’ve been abused practically every day for the first 15 years of your life, is 15 hours going to help you move on?”

While Chris is clearly passionate about her work, her ambition is not only for Haven to grow in size, but also evolve in knowledge and wisdom – things she wholly admits she wishes for herself too.

“I’m a specialist but I’m not an expert, there’s always something you can learn. As Haven grows bigger, I would make sure that it never loses its identity and stays true to its cause.

“We’re all in the same boat, we’re all survivors, and that’s how I want it to remain. We are a community here and everybody is welcome.”

With an average of 500 referrals a year, Haven does well to respond to a staggering demand for such a small organisation. It endeavours to make contact with all of those referred to them and prides itself on being available to anyone who needs their help.

“Sometimes people just want five minutes of your time to chat,” Chris points out. “It’s not always that people want one-to-one counselling.”

With such numbers approaching Haven for help, it’s no surprise that those seeking one-to-one support are currently waiting for up to 12 weeks on average. But while most are referred to Haven by other agencies, survivors can self-refer via the website or on the phone.

“We make everyone welcome, we are non-judgmental, we’re here to support as much as we can. Don’t feel embarrassed, everything’s confidential, and people can heal.”

Chris sums it up: “Our strapline is ‘from victim to survivor to thriver’. If I can go through it and come out the other end, and if you think of the thousands of people’s lives that we’ve changed, we must be doing something right.”

And, with three awards (including a ‘lifetime achievement’ award) under her belt, I’m not about to argue with her.

Haven is based at The Peterhouse Community Centre, 122 Forest Rise, Walthamstow E17 3PW. For more information about Haven or to make a donation:

Call 020 8520 0755