Domestic abuse: how victims are failed by society and the state
I have been writing about domestic abuse for over a year now, and have come to realise that the tragic murders which hit the headlines are far from the only aspect of this horrendous, yet everyday, social evil that demands our urgent concern. Hundreds of thousands of victims and their children live with violence, threat, coercion and control every day of their lives. Some of those lives are blighted for decades. The dynamics of abuse within a family home are typically complex, and the effects can be devastating.
I spent four months researching the Guardian Weekend feature which explores how well - or not - victims’ risk levels are identified and addressed by police - and what happens when they get it wrong. Access was difficult: I contacted several police forces and only one agreed to have me in to see their domestic abuse response operation.
The piece was planned to run immediately after publication of what turned out to be a scathing HMIC inspection report into the DV performance of all 43 police forces in England and Wales, and in the week following I received a number of emails in response from victims and relatives.
Some of the research I wasn’t able to use for the Weekend feature led to other articles. In the case-study element of a two-parter for the Guardian’s Social Care Network, I featured "Gillian", whose violent husband had just been jailed. She was at risk of her life on the day of the verdict - in case he got off - and again on the day of sentencing - in case he walked with time served. After her perpetrator was jailed, the Legal Aid Agency refused to meet Gillian’s legal costs as she tried to change her children’s names and flee the area. She was terrified, desperate to move on, but unable to: she was sure she’d be hunted down and killed. It wasn’t an exaggerated fear: women are murdered by a partner or ex on on a regular basis. Sometimes their children are killed too. This was a short piece, but it was the most read on the Guardian’s Social Care Network on the day it was published.
By this point, I was aghast and furious at the various failures in the system that were compounding the risks faced by vulnerable and traumatised people. The damage caused to children also makes me incredibly sad. I wanted a more structured way of exploring the pressures and dilemmas in victims’ lives, rather than the adhoc approach of trying to get one commission here and another there.
Over a couple of days, I wrote a detailed proposal for a campaign, and approached Wendy Berliner who heads up editorial for the Guardian’s online Professional Networks. As domestic abuse is so central to the work of many public sector professionals, I hoped a series of linked articles would reach a good number of relevant and hopefully interested people. Wendy, together with the Guardian’s social policy editor David Brindle, were instantly keen, and invited me to a meeting at which we convinced the Network editors - Social Care, Health, Public Leaders, Housing, Student, Higher Education, Teacher and Voluntary Sector - to take it on. They would commission a range of content over a period of a few months (this is ongoing), some written by me, some by other journalists.
The campaign launched on the UN’s Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, 25 November 2014, with my feature about a multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC), which seeks to bring all agencies together to discuss an area’s highest risk victims.
Gillian’s plight had continued to worry me. I thought about her a lot. By October 2014, almost a year after I’d first met her, I discovered she’d been turned down once again for legal aid. Children’s services were by now concerned for the family’s safety. And women’s organisations were also now telling me that restrictions to legal aid for domestic abuse victims introduced in the recently passed Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act were putting people in more danger. It seemed that every state system meant to protect a vulnerable person who was being attacked - and their children - was letting them down.
Legal aid cuts are a complex topic, however, and I knew it would need a long-form approach to explore the ramifications fully. I approached an editor new to me at the Guardian’s Saturday pages, Susanna Rustin. This section commissions up to 2,500 words. Wonderfully, given she didn't know me at all, she commissioned a piece. I went back to Gillian (in this piece known as Alice) and asked her to talk to me again. This time, we met at her home, and sat on the sofa where she had been repeatedly raped by her husband, to do the interview.
It was an easy interview - she is a remarkable and resilient person - but a difficult couple of hours: I wondered if I was sitting in front of someone I would write about 18 months hence when her ex-husband had come out of prison and killed her. Her local police force were deadly serious about the danger she was in. Social services were so concerned for the children’s welfare at this point that they were prepared to pay her legal costs. The legal aid agency was still saying she earned £27 too much to qualify for state support to access the protection of the court.
This piece got a huge response: 3,145 social media shares and 91 comments, plus a slew of emails offering financial support for Alice, one from a man who had watched his mother being abused throughout his childhood, and who himself was still suffering the effects.
Just before the piece ran, I decided to make a little film for the Guardian’s Professional Networks to try to get across what it's like as a domestic abuse victim to end up in court all by yourself, possibly to be cross examined by your abuser. Making the film was only possible thanks to a week of pro-bono filming and technical expertise generously given by documentary company True Vision, and it went live on the Guardian’s online “front” page on 11 December, the day before the charity Rights of Women's judicial review into the lawfulness of restricting legal aid for DV victims was heard at the High Court.
The Storify I am submitting relates to a recent session at the Public Accounts Committee, in which evidence was given by Ministry of Justice civil servants as to the effects of legal aid cuts. Margaret Hodge was clearly angry. I watched the session live online, tweeted and retweeted others’ tweets as it happened, and then curated and published this Storify of my tweets and relevant others immediately afterwards.
The Guardian, Weekend magazine