The day my mother’s conviction for the murder of my father was quashed marked a turning point – for our family and for society. Yet why, a year on from the landmark case that recognised the abuse my mother suffered, are we still failing victims of coercive control and seeing her story as unique?
My mother, Sally, 66, is now discovering life as an independent woman for the first time since the age of 15, free from the coercion and control she experienced for over 40 years from my father. Watching her learning to make her own decisions while slowly unshackling from his spectre have been moments to cherish. Our journey has not been without difficulties – we’ve had to learn how to acknowledge a life lost in my father and how to rebuild our relationships.
My mother’s story represented one of the worst cases of coercive control reported. She was only 15 when she met my father, who was 21. He was charismatic, funny and charming, and young love bloomed. However, early on, my mother challenged him about seeing another woman. He responded by dragging her down the stairs and throwing her out of the door. For the rest of her life she was scared to confront him in case he did it again. A culture of fear and dependency followed over the next 40 years. He bullied and humiliated her, isolated her from friends and family, controlled who she could socialise with, controlled her finances and restricted her movements.
Coercive control, which was added to the statute book in 2015, is no longer a new offence. Extensive training has been provided to police forces in England and Wales, yet we are still failing to correctly record it. Following recent reports of disparities between forces, Clare Walker, a domestic abuse consultant, said: “The police record domestic abuse wrongly. I know they do from reading their logs … name-calling and the like are not logged as domestic abuse.”
Coercive control offences doubled in the year ending March 2019, from 9,053 to 17,616. Considering that coercive control is the bedrock of domestic abuse, these figures show gross under-reporting. They represent a fraction of the 1,316,800 domestic-abuse-related incidents recorded by the police the same year.
Calls to domestic abuse helplines have increased by up to 700% during the lockdown. Rachel Williams, who was shot and severely injured by her violent partner in 2011, says the government doesn’t understand coercive control. “Government needs to recognise coercive control because at the moment the impact to them of [physical]violence seems to be more severe, but when you speak to a victim they will tell you the mental torture far outweighs the physical. It certainly was for me,” she says.
This failure to raise national awareness and correctly record offences of non-physical forms of abuse such as coercive control and economic abuse not only silences victims, it abandons them. Furthermore, the sustained mental impact on victims can raise the risk of suicide or – as in cases like my mother’s – cause people to lose control and strike out at their abusers.
It is a reality that my mother’s case is not unique and that there are more women still in prison whose abuse has not been properly explored. The Centre for Women’s Justice is currently supporting 13 women serving murder sentences and two serving excessive manslaughter tariffs where their abuse has not been taken into consideration. The charity plans to publish key research later this year on what is and isn’t working within the justice system for women who kill in situations of abuse.
Opportunities to better understand and tackle domestic abuse consistently present themselves in the voices of survivors and specialist services. Time and again these voices seem unheard and the urgency to tackle this epidemic is absent. The long-awaited domestic abuse bill, now at the committee stage, offers a once-in-a-generation chance to change our approach. Not only do we have an opportunity to better tackle domestic abuse, but to provide strategies and awareness to tackle its very heart: coercive control. Through relationship education and by including amendments that cover post-separation abuse (something my mother was subjected to), the chance to do this is now.
Not being able to see my mother on the first anniversary of her freedom has been difficult, much as it has been for many families at this time. But, it has been a stark reminder of the near-decade she spent in prison. It has served as a reminder, too, of the many victims who remain isolated with their abusers, and the women in prison whose abuse has not properly been explored.
David Challen is a domestic abuse campaigner; davidchallen.com
National Domestic Abuse helpline 0808 2000 247