Domestic violence: a national crisis

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
© (U.S. Air Force photo- Airman 1st Class Shane M. Phipps)

The UK is currently facing a national domestic abuse crisis as it is now reported that the number of people killed as a result is at its highest level in five years.

Last year, 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides, according to data obtained from 43 police forces across the UK – an increase of 32 deaths on 2017. Devon is not isolated from this issue, as it has now been revealed domestic violence abuse numbers in the county have risen by a quarter in the last four years.

In the first six months of 2019, 3,704 victims of domestic abuse in the county had been referred to a specialist service.

The figures showed a 24% increase than for the equivalent time frame in 2015, but also showed that a quarter of those seen were repeat victims and that for 30%, the abuse continued.

Across Dartmoor, there were 123 people considered ‘high risk’ in Teignbridge, 135 in Mid Devon, 111 in Torridge, 62 in South Hams and the same in West Devon.

Professor Jo Little, an international expert on gender, violence and rurality and who helped produce Devon County Council’s domestic violence strategy, commented exclusively to The Moorlander: “The figures highlighted in the report on levels of domestic violence in Devon confirm the argument that Domestic Violence Abuse (DVA) affects people in all areas and across all walks of life.

‘As a predominantly rural county, Devon’s data highlights the particular issues faced by rural communities – not only remoteness and fewer services but also traditional cultures which mitigate against the recognition of DVA. In rural areas violence in the home is often seen as a private issue and there is a reluctance to draw attention to problems in the family. We need to encourage a culture of recognition and to challenge existing silences.  We also need to invest in services to support those living in remoter areas.”

The issue of domestic violence was an issue raised at a recent Devon County Council meeting when Councillor Roger Croad, cabinet member for public health, said that the vile crime of domestic abuse was something that had largely been hidden but was something the council needed to take seriously.

He had been asked by Councillor Rob Hannaford,  leader of the Labour Group, for an update on the current service pressures, overall trends, numbers and gender balance of clients for those involved with the domestic violence services. Cllr Croad’s report said: “A comparison from the first six months of 2014/15 to the first six months of 2018/19 shows a 24 per cent rise in referrals to specialist domestic abuse support services.”

He said that the gender split in 2018/19 was 89% female and 11% were men.

The LEESAR (Listen, Engage, Empower Support, Advocate, Recover) Partnership were commissioned in 2017/18 to provide support to high and medium risk victims of domestic violence and abuse. The LEESAR Partnership comprises of; North Devon Against Domestic Violence and Abuse, Stop Abuse for Everyone, Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Service and is led by Splitz Domestic Abuse Service.

SafeLives collected and analysed the outcomes of those who had been supported by the service, and said that 70% of clients experienced cessation of all abuse at exit compared to intake and 88% of clients were no longer living with the perpetrator.

However, the report said that 25% of clients were repeat victims, explaining this is largely because the repeats coming through are from those originally referred as medium risk, who do not engage or refuse a service and then come back into the service at a higher risk level.

Cllr Croad added: “My worry is the 25 per cent repeat victims. It is a vile crime and something that is largely hidden and something we need to take seriously. We recognise there is a hidden problem somewhere along the line and the really worrying thing is that 25 per cent of victims come back again and we need to shut that down.”

These latest numbers come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government was “fully committed” to tackling domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is a public health crisis, with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experiencing domestic abuse in their lifetime.  Whilst both men and women are killed by domestic violence, the vast majority of victims are women. In England and Wales, between April 2014 and March 2017, around three-quarters of victims of domestic killings by a partner, ex-partner or family member were women, while suspects are predominantly male.

However, the millions of children who are exposed to domestic abuse in their home remain overlooked, considered merely “witnesses” to the abuse rather than victims themselves.

Hestia, an organisation who support adults and children in times of crisis, commissioned Pro Bono Economics to explore the long-run cost to UK taxpayers from the additional use of public services by children that have been exposed to domestic violence:

•    The number of children living in the UK that
    have witnessed severe domestic violence
    during their lifetime is around 500,000.

•    This exposure to domestic violence could
    increase the number of children with conduct
    or hyperactivity disorder by 35,000
    to 100,000.

•    The long-run cost to the taxpayer of
    supporting these children to the age of 28, is
    potentially in the range of £0.5 to £1.4 billion

•    This is equivalent to a cost to the taxpayer
    per child exposed to domestic violence of
    £1,000 to £2,900

The damage to children’s mental health from exposure to domestic violence could potentially result in a significant increase in the cost of public services.

•    £150 – £460 million Foster and Residential Costs
•    £260 – £790 million Educational Costs
•    £40 – £110 million Crime Costs
•    £20 – 70 million Health and Adult Social Care Costs
•    Total costs = £480 – £1,400 million

Indeed, speaking with the Moorlander, Sasha Nathanson, Operations & Volunteer Manager for SAFE, a domestic abuse charity who help with prevention and recovery, said; “Statistics show children who have experienced domestic violence tend to repeat the pattern either as a perpetrator or as a victim,” and will therefore offer therapy for children affected by domestic violence as they would for the direct victim.

Discussing the issue more widely, she continued: “The age group most likely to be in an abusive relationship are the 16 to 24-year olds…and we know that 30% of domestic violence starts when a woman gets pregnant…it’s a real trigger for men to behave abusively toward their partners. Unfortunately, it is a gendered crime.

‘There are a variety of triggers like marriage, getting pregnant or even children leaving home – these big shifts in the family dynamic.”

Alison Hernandez, Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, who herself was a victim of domestic abuse, said to the Moorlander: “According to recent Crime Survey data only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in the 12 months to March 2018 reported it to the police.

‘This under-reporting presents a multitude of problems. Unless police forces, Police and Crime Commissioners and government departments have a good understanding of the levels of different types of crime it is very hard to know what resources, both in terms of policing and commissioned services for victims, to put in place.

‘On an individual case level it means perpetrators get away with it, victims go unrecognised and the cycle of violence continues. The good news is that the police and the criminal justice system have year on year become better
at making sure those who use violence against their partners are brought to justice, and more people are reporting domestic abuse than they used to. In Devon and Cornwall the number of domestic abuse crimes reported to police have increased by 9% in the 12 months to August 2018 when compared with the equivalent period a year earlier.

‘There’s still so much work to be done. A report by the Rural Crime Network published this summer made for sobering reading.

‘Episodes of domestic abuse are likely to last longer in rural areas as it is harder for victims to get away from their abuse partners in rural situations. The report’s authors found that rural isolation and rurality are likely to be used as ‘weapons’ by abusers, who may have financial control over their victims.

‘Isolated communities are less likely to alert the people that can help victims to the fact that a crime has been committed – something that needs to change.”

Mel Stride, the Member of Parliament for Central Devon, praised the number of prosecutions for domestic violence: “The percentage of convictions for domestic abuse prosecutions is at its highest level since 2010, with 76% of prosecutions now resulting in a conviction. But there is a lot more that needs to be done to reduce domestic violence, increase conviction rates further and keep serious offenders locked up for longer.

‘The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, has been welcomed by organisations such as Women’s Aid and will improve legislation in a number of key areas.

‘The Bill will end the practice of victims being cross-examined in court by their accused abuser and provide more support for victims during court cases, such as being able to give evidence in court via video link. The bill will also create a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to better hold local authorities, the justice system and other statutory agencies accountable for tackling domestic abuse and will turn the guidance supporting the existing Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme into law.”

However, Luke Pollard, the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, was critical of the Government cuts to services:

“One in four women and one in six men will be affected by domestic abuse during their lives. On average two women are murdered every week and 30 men are murdered every year due to domestic violence. This epidemic of abuse must be stopped and that means reversing the cuts to the Police, our courts, support charities and local councils. We need the cuts to refuge beds in the South West to end and for victims to know that they will be believed and supported when they come forward. There is a lot of work still to do.”

Boris Johnson’s first Queen’s Speech since becoming prime minister included a commitment to reintroducing the previous Government’s domestic abuse bill.

The bill introduces the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative behaviour that is not physical – as well as including measures which mean perpetrators will no longer be able to directly cross-examine victims in family courts. The legislation introduces new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further safeguard victims and also includes provisions to place a legal duty on councils to offer secure homes for those fleeing violence and their children.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We are committed to ensuring that all victims of domestic abuse receive the support they need and the domestic abuse bill is a once in a generation opportunity to ensure that this is provided.

‘The bill will include a new legal duty for local authorities to provide essential, life-saving support services in safe accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse and their children.”

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland MP, said: “ is a challenge that has been too big for too long, and the Government have consistently made clear our continued determination to tackle the scourge of domestic abuse.

‘Legislation, including the Bill, whatever its landmark status, is only one aspect of the work that needs to be done and that we are undertaking across Government to diminish the prevalence and impact of domestic abuse, and to make it clear to the public that we have zero tolerance of abusers.

‘This is not just a matter for the Ministry of Justice—it is for the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health and Social Care. I am glad to be supported by
Ministers from all those Departments and, indeed, all of Government, as we need to put our metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

‘The Bill puts the needs of victims front and centre, by providing additional protections, strengthening the agencies’ response, and amplifying the voice of victims. We are determined to ensure that victims feel safe and supported, both in seeking help and in rebuilding their lives.”

However, domestic abuse campaigners have said that the bill does not go far enough. Andrea Simon, of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “The bill does not adequately provide for life-saving services for victims of domestic abuse. They need to give them much more money. In many cases, refuges are running on their reserves to keep open.

‘It is not a sustainable situation. Failing to sustainably resource the sector puts the lives of women and children at risk. Women are being turned away from refuge services every day and this is putting them in very dangerous and precarious situations. Women and children have nowhere to go so they are staying with their perpetrators or becoming homeless and destitute – this is particularly for migrant women.

‘We have seen a huge rise in homelessness for migrant victims of abuse. They can’t access housing benefits or refuge space and often can’t access private rental options because of immigration checks on private landlords. Specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have experienced the most cuts.”

SAFE’s Sasha Nathanson was clear about what more can be done to tackle this national crisis: “Funding is a critical issue, prioritising services for women and children…which uplifts whole communities and is an investment in the future. Investing in equality is also vital. A lot of the  issues about abuse and control and abuse of power come out of a fundamentally unequal foundation of society in the first instance.”

The Moorlander spoke to three survivors of Domestic Violence to understand better what they go through. Sam and Jackie were abused by their partners, while Rebecca saw her mum suffer. Names have been changed to protect their identities. Please see their accounts on the below.

Sam’s Story:

Sam met Adam through a mutual friend. He seemed wonderful in the beginning, but two months into the relationship red flags began to show. The first verbal abuse was the warning sign Sam wishes she’d heeded.

A month into their relationship, they were out together one evening and he verbally attacked her over dinner. Sam was upset and went home alone. No one had ever spoken to her like that before and she knew it was wrong. However, the next day Adam turned up at her house with a bunch of flowers, apologised and promised never to speak to her like that again, but it was only the beginning.

Sam knows now, with hindsight, that she shouldn’t have accepted his apology because after 6 months of him carrying on with similar behaviour, he stopped apologising and “turned everything around that happened to be my fault”.

He warned her that he was monitoring her routines so that he would know if she was cheating on him, but then said “I’m only joking”, (Gaslighting her). He continued scrutinising her routines and regularly accused her of being unfaithful, going through her diary and phone to “gather evidence”, but the accusations were always so irrational.

He even took issue with the books she read and in the end she just stopped reading to avoid arguments. Sam played a lot of mixed team sports but had to give them up so as not to upset him as he wouldn’t tolerate her spending time with other men, so she tried to compromise by playing in an all women’s team, but there was a male coach, so she had to give that up too. Within 6 months, verbal abuse had escalated to physical, and within the year she had lost contact with all of her family and friends, suffered serious weight loss and become so isolated that she had lost all sense of her own identity.

“The physical violence began by him grabbing the top of my arm, very tightly one evening during an argument. He just told me very quietly never to walk away from him again. And that was it. It just escalated from there. Once he grabbed me by the throat and threw me against the furniture so hard it broke. Scared of the consequences of reporting it, and worried that my children would be taken from me, I remained silent and told no one, not even the one friend I had managed to keep.”

Adam also accused her of having a mental health issue, which her GP dismissed.  However, she began to believe him and continued trying to alter her behaviour to avoid angering him.

Her self-esteem was so low that she didn’t have the self-belief to leave. He hit her and on one occasion cut her hair so violently she feared he would kill her next. Another time he woke her up by spitting on her and pouring water over her whilst videoing her and threatening to post it online to “show everyone how pathetic she was”.

“They’ve made themselves the centre of your universe. You hang in there because they’re the only person you’ve got left.”

Adam jeopardised Sam’s job by publicly accusing her of having an affair with her manager on a review website and then caused criminal damage to her place of work. Sam once summoned the courage to call the police anonymously but refused to give a statement or tell them about the abuse.

“This crime happens behind closed doors and without a witness I was too scared that the police wouldn’t believe me if I went to them.”

Adam went on to have an affair and left her without money for food or presents for the children one Christmas. Sam finally ended the relationship when he subsequently reappeared and made threats towards them. It was the protection of the children that prompted her to call the police at that point to report everything.

Rebuilding relationships with her children and family have helped her come to terms and recover, but two years after ending the relationship Sam is still triggered by associations and suffers from PTSD, causing her to leave her job.

The physical act of washing her hair now triggers her anxiety, and she has to live with CCTV and police fitted safe doors in her home.

Rebecca’s Story – A Child’s Perspective

Rebecca witnessed her mum’s former partner break into their home. He punched and kicked holes in walls, broke furniture, yelled and screamed at her mum threatening to kill her, until the police came and removed him.

Rebecca felt scared at home and would not leave her mum’s side. She had trouble sleeping and said she had horrible feelings in her tummy.

She would only sleep when next to her mum and was becoming increasingly controlling and aggressive toward her mum as she struggled to manage her fears and worries.

SAFE’s children’s and families worker helped Rebecca to understand and manage the horrible feelings in her tummy, and helped her to identify safe places and people she could ask for help. With this help Rebecca made some worry boxes, a small one for small worries that she could manage herself and a bigger one for big worries to talk with mum about. Rebecca was also given a dream catcher to catch the bad dreams at night.

At the same time mum was helped to understand Rebecca’s behaviour, to recognise the difference between normal five-year-old behaviour and signs of trauma.

Mum was then able to identify strategies and boundaries to help Rebecca feel safe again. Mum put a plan in place including a reward chart for every night Rebecca was able to sleep through the night, slowly moving her back to her own bed as she felt safer.

Rebecca’s mum felt more confident in understanding and meeting Rebecca’s needs and putting in age appropriate boundaries.

Their relationship blossomed again. Rebecca now sleeps through the night, most nights in her own bed and says that home feels safe.

Jackie’s story

Jackie and Nathan’s relationship started going downhill after the birth of their first child. Nathan had a history of depression but it became a real issue once the couple fell pregnant again.

Jackie says: “Nathan suffered post-natal depression but would never acknowledge the fact. He’d also deny his alcoholism, and after a while his behaviour got too much for me to bear. I left him, and that’s when the abuse really started.”

Jackie then suffered four years of systematic mental and emotional abuse which left her physically ill and nearing breakdown.

“It was all so subtle,” she says, “I knew I felt torn apart but thought I deserved it. I’d not handled things well after we separated and knew he was hurting so I thought he had the right to tell me what a despicable person I was.”

But it wasn’t Nathan that was saying these things; according to him, all her friends and those she thought she could rely on were talking about her behind her back, and Nathan was trying to protect her. “I believed him. It was a long time until I realised it was him starting the rumours about me.”

“I decided I’d be strong and not hide away. I’d go out if I could, but was always terrified of seeing Nathan. Even if I didn’t, as soon as I got home I’d get message after message from him, accusing me of sleeping with whoever I’d been seen with that night.  I stopped going out and started having friends round instead. But it made no difference, the messages would still come. Somehow he knew who I was with and where I was the whole time.”

He threatened suicide more than once and would break appointments with the children. This happened so often that Jackie stopped making plans to see her friends as she’d regularly have to cancel them.

“He was so erratic. He’d phone and message me repeatedly, asking the same sorts of questions. I’d answer, but he’d continue to ask them, like he was looking for a specific answer that I wasn’t giving. The more I got it wrong, the angrier he’d become. I tried placating, arguing and ignoring him. Nothing worked.

‘Sometimes it was like he’d turned a corner and we got on well; I’d pretend everything he’d said hadn’t happened and was happy that things were peaceful. Then I’d do or say something ‘wrong’ and it would start all over again. I was exhausted trying to keep up with where he was and had to walk on eggshells constantly. Everything was always my fault.”

It was only when Jackie’s best friend confided to another friend about Jackie’s situation that she heard the term ‘Gaslighting’.

“This person I hardly knew sat me down and asked me to look at a list of things that would constitute Gaslighting. I didn’t know what this was, I just looked at the list and told her that nine out of the 10 points related to what I was going through. She told me I was the victim of coercive control and had to call the police. I was horrified. He’d persuaded everyone else I was this terrible person, he was so adamant about it that I even believed it myself. There was no way the police would believe me, and then I’d lose my children.”

Jackie developed anxiety and her health suffered. She ended up at the doctors one morning, thinking she’d had a heart attack in the night. The doctor told her she’d had an anxiety attack and referred her for counselling.

“I went to the counsellor and told her that I wanted to learn how to be strong again. I felt like there was nothing left of me, nothing for my children. I was sinking and I was terrified.

‘She referred me to the domestic abuse team. Two professionals in a short space telling me I was being abused; that took a while to sink in.”

It took for Nathan to question Jackie’s sanity one time too many, coupled with the threat of him taking the children, that made her report him to the police.

“I found that doing that, alongside the knowledge that I wasn’t evil or crazy, gave me the push I needed to start getting back on track. I still suffer with the anxiety but I’m in a much stronger place now.”

FeaturesLocal Life