Victims of domestic violence are abused for almost three years before they get the help they need, and some are subjected to more than 50 incidents during that time, according to a study of the largest database of domestic violence victims in the UK.
The figures from the domestic abuse charity SafeLives reveal that almost a quarter of “high-risk” victims have been to an A&E with injuries sustained during violent abuse, and some went as many as 15 times before the problem was addressed.
Analysis of the SafeLives database, which has records of more than 35,000 cases of adults experiencing domestic abuse since 2009, found that 85% of victims had been in contact with an average of five professionals in the year before they got “effective” help from an independent domestic violence adviser (IDVA) or another specialist practitioner.
“Time and time again no one spots domestic abuse, even when victims and their children come into contact with many different public agencies. It’s not acceptable that victims should have to try to get help repeatedly. This leaves victims living in fear and danger and risks lifelong harm to their children,” said Diana Barran, the chief executive of SafeLives, which was previously called Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (Caada).
Barran said the study was “more shocking evidence” that domestic violence could often be stopped earlier. “Every conversation with a professional represents a missed opportunity to get victims and their children the help they need,” she said.
SafeLives estimates that there are at least 100,000 victims at high risk of murder or serious injury in England and Wales, 94% of them women.
The study found that victims and often their children lived with abuse for an average of 2.7 years. Three-quarters reported abuse to the police, and 23% went to A&E because of violence sustained in abusive relationships.
Frances Wedgwood, a GP in Lambeth who provides training on domestic violence to health workers through the national Iris project, said a challenge for doctors was that many women did not come to them to disclose domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is still a very hidden problem and in my experience women do not disclose if they are not asked,” she said. “We need to get better at asking people directly if they need help.”
The study sheds light on the long-lasting impact of living in a family coping with domestic violence. According to the survey, in about a quarter of cases on the domestic violence database the victim has a child under the age of three. The study estimates that 130,000 children in the UK are living with domestic abuse, and that children are directly harmed in 62% of cases.
Among teenagers who suffered domestic abuse in their own relationships, almost half had grown up in households where violence was commonplace, the study found.
Vera Baird, former solicitor general and the current police and crime commissioner for Northumberland, said professionals needed help and training to have the confidence to deal with domestic violence.
“Domestic abuse is not a one-off violent attack. It is deliberate long-term use of coercion to control every part of the partner’s life. Violence, sexual abuse, financial control, constant criticism, isolating from family and friends are all familiar tools,” she said.
“People in that situation do not find it easy to speak and need those who could help to be alert. The alternative is what these figures suggest: victims and their families locked unnecessarily into cruelty and ill-treatment for years.”
Rebecca, 34, lived with domestic abuse for eight years before she sought help
One time I was having a nap in the afternoon, the baby had been teething so I’d been awake all night, and I woke up he was standing over me with a mop handle carved into a point, like a spear. He was pushing it into my throat, accusing me of cheating. Then he picked me up and threw me against the wall. I ran downstairs but he followed me, kicking and punching me and split my lip.
I locked myself in the bathroom and called 999. When the doorbell rang I heard chatting, calm talking. There was one young male officer, and my ex-partner was telling him that I was postnatal, that I’d gone mental and he was just defending himself. I started shouting at the officer: ‘Why aren’t you helping me?’ I swore and the officer said people could hear me, and it was a public disturbance so I swore again. He put handcuffs on me. He wouldn’t let me put my shoes on, so I wouldn’t move, and he lifted me up by the handcuffs and put me in the back of the car.
I was in a cell for hours asking for a solicitor. The duty sergeant finally came and when he opened the hatch he could see I’d been attacked. He got the officer to come and apologise to me and asked me if I wanted to file a complaint, or if I wanted to press charges against my partner. But I said no. I was exhausted and my baby was at home with my partner, who’d been drinking since the morning. It got worse after that. He was sort of smug, saying he could do what he wanted. I know there’s more training for police now, but that put me off calling the police for years.
By 2003/4 the abuse was worse. We had two girls by that time. I was hospitalised with concussion after he’d kicked me in the head wearing steel-toe-capped boots. The police and the paramedics came and I was patched up and sent home. They asked me if I wanted to press charges but I didn’t want to go through all that, I thought it would make it worse. I didn’t know where the support would come from, where I could get help.
Another time I went to the hospital walk-in. I had a black eye and it wasn’t getting better. A doctor asked me what had happened and I said I’d been punched in the face. He repeated what I said: ‘You were punched in the face.’ I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. I was ashamed, I didn’t want to say my husband did this to me. If he had asked, I’d have told him. But he didn’t.
Social services got in touch because of the paramedics’ reports; he got put on an anger management course. But Christmas Day night he’d been drinking. He grabbed me by the throat and I stumbled and fell; he kept kicking me over and over again. My teeth went through my lip, my nose was bleeding, I couldn’t see. He picked me up and carried me to the bathroom saying: ‘Look what you made me do. Why did you do that?’ I crawled to the living room and phoned the police before he ripped it out of the wall.
I did press charges that time. He was sentenced to four months for ABH. He served two. We were separated, but we got back together. Why? I had such low self-esteem and he was always there, always pestering me, grinding me down. He’d be so nice, helping with the children and I was exhausted, I needed the help. I thought it might be OK.
It was OK for a while. The kids had been on the at-risk register because a couple of incidents had been reported, but they came off that and social services were visiting less. His behaviour just went back to the way it had been before, and that’s when I decided to leave.
I remember the exact moment when I saw the sticker for the Women’s Aid helpline: it was on the back of the toilet door in Asda. It took me a couple of months to call but when I did they offered me refuge. I didn’t even know that existed. They organised transport when he was out. It was quite surreal, but it was such a relief.
Women’s Aid were so helpful, they gave us so much support including counselling. My eldest daughter was seven when we left, her sister was three and their brother was nine months. That was the main reason I left, I was terrified for my kids.
I do think professionals should offer support. If they can’t support victims themselves, they just need to know who can. I think if I’d had that information I would have left earlier.
I was 16 when we got together; he was 23. By the time I was 17 we had a daughter. I thought it was a good relationship, he helped with the parenting and around the house, but about a year later, in 1999, slowly controlling behaviour crept in. He wouldn’t like certain friends, or me going out without him, wearing certain clothes or makeup. It was quite subtle at first, but then when we argued there was pushing, then hair-pulling – each time it was a little worse than before.
Soon it was normal to have slapping, kicking, punching, throwing things. At first I didn’t tell anyone; my self-esteem was very low. I just tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, I didn’t know anything about domestic abuse.