‘Still living in fear’: Domestic abuse survivors on wait for justice
Forced into a chair against the living room wall, Lee Holmes could feel the nylon cable ties cutting further into her wrists as she struggled to sit up.
After almost a year of severe physical and emotional abuse, the 41-year-old was used to these violent outbursts, learning to pacify her then-partner in a bid to prevent attacks from escalating.
*Trigger warning – this story contains details of violence and sexual abuse
But this time her abuser returned, holding a knife just centimetres from her throat – she knew her life was in danger.
‘He took my phone away from me and said he was going to look at it to see if there were any messages to me or my ex with kisses,’ she recalls. ‘He said if he found anything, he would kill me.
‘I went to scream on a number of occasions but he just smirked, and suddenly his eyes went black. He told me that no one would ever hear me, and that if I carried on he would tape my mouth closed.’
Lee was saved by a chance text message from a friend, asking her to come home. When her partner saw it, he reluctantly untied her hands and agreed to let her leave. This message quite possibly saved her life.
After her ordeal, Lee found the strength to approach the police and report her abuse – however she soon discovered it wasn’t going to be as straightforward as she’d hoped.
‘The local station was closed for the night, so my friend and I drove to another one and I had to press the intercom,’ she explains. ‘I was put on hold for ages and when someone eventually came back, they didn’t ask if I’d like to speak in private.
‘The officer said there wasn’t a lot they could do. They told me they would go to my then-partner’s house and tell him not to contact me for a period of days, but they made it sound as though doing so would be a lot of hassle.
‘I didn’t hear anything from the police for days. When I chased them, the officer I spoke to said they hadn’t even contacted my partner. It’s only when I followed-up again that they had served him with a notice to cease contact.’
Although Lee’s former partner was convicted of various harassment and domestic abuse offences and served 18 months in prison – it only happened after her friend received a death threat from the man, not through any of her own numerous reports of his dangerous behaviour.
That’s why Lee feels she is just one of the countless number of women across the UK who have described feeling ignored, let-down and in fear of their perpetrator after reporting their abuse to the police.
According to a 2021 report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), there is a ‘staggering variation’ in the way domestic abuse is dealt with across police forces in England and Wales.
It comes as shocking statistics from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) show that only 67,703 referrals from the police were received between 2021-22, compared to 77,812 in 2020-21, a decrease of 47% compared to figures from 2014-15.
Meanwhile, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that while the number of domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes has doubled in the last five years, prosecutions have fallen.
Kirsty Richards, Head of Family at the National Legal Service says poor experiences of reporting abuse to the police are often compounded by a lack of training around coercive control.
‘When survivors come to me for relief in the family court — having not had coercive control dealt with through prosecution — they are concerned that they have not been believed and, thinking they cannot get any help, are exposed to risks of further incidents of abuse.’
When *Abigail found the confidence to come forward and report her then-partner for stalking and harassment, she knew her life was at risk.
‘He always said that if I ever spoke about the abuse he would kill me and take our son away,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Still now I live in fear, and because I reported him to the police, I always think there will be a day where something happens to me.’
Abigail’s partner attacked her for the first time just weeks after the couple moved in together.
‘He pushed me up against a hot radiator. I had tears rolling down my face, and I told him that it was burning me, but he just continued to laugh,’ she recalls.
In less than a year, the abuse worsened into a combination of daily violence and psychological manipulation.
‘He’d always put me down and never call me by my name,’ Abigail recalls. ‘He pulled my hair and would break drinking glasses on my hands. And if I ever said I missed family, he’d smash the house up.’
Six months after the pair split up, Abigail’s ex, who had come over to babysit their child, drugged and raped her in an attack so vicious, it left her unable to walk for two days.
‘I woke up in the morning in huge pain and there was blood all over the sheets,’ she recalls.
At first, Abigail didn’t go to the police, but eventually she made a report about his behaviour seven months later, as he had continued to harass her.
‘I wasn’t actually reporting him for rape when I first reached out to the police,’ she explains. ‘It was because he was ringing me and threatening me.
‘However, the police said that they couldn’t act unless there had been any violence, so I decided to speak out. It was only when I told them everything that had happened that they arrested him for rape.’
Abigail was told by officers that she and her children would be safeguarded. With an application for a non-molestation order granted by the family court, she was promised her case would be heard.
However the CPS dropped her case due to a lack of evidence.
‘When I received the letter, it felt like another kick – I had been let down by the system and again, my family and I were no longer protected,’ Abigail says.
Since then, her former partner has breached multiple non-molestation orders intended to protect her from intimidation and, using a variety of fake social media accounts, even posted her address online.
‘I made sure the children were safeguarded at school and that no one picked them up. I installed cameras, security lights and the police came out and marked me as high risk.
‘I feel as though the perpetrator gets protected and treated more like the victim than the actual victim does,’ adds Abigail, who has made 38 separate reports to the police. ‘They don’t take abuse seriously.’
The mum admits she has even made a will to protect her children in case anything should happen to her.
‘I’m still living in fear,’ she says. ‘Bizarrely, when I was with him, even though I was walking on eggshells because of the abuse, I knew what was coming.
‘Now, I don’t know what to expect. There are thousands of women out there that suffer with abuse and they’re not heard until they’re murdered.’
For Jess Phillips, Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, the only way to give survivors the confidence to come forward and report their abuse is for the initial response to be effective.
‘At the moment, things are worse for survivors of domestic abuse than I’ve ever known in my nearly 20 years working in the field,’ the MP tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Survivors of domestic abuse in our country will feel that crimes against them don’t matter.
‘What we need is a series of doors to be reopened, whether that’s local housing options, mental health services, the police, or schools – we need doors that, when opened, don’t lead survivors into an enormous empty room.’
When Roxy Freebury’s then-partner put his arm on her throat after months of coercive abuse, she knew she had to leave for good.
‘He pinned me down and pushed his knees into my chest, but I managed to get up,’ she recalls. ‘I don’t even remember grabbing my keys, but I must have, because I locked him in the flat and ran to my neighbour and knocked on her door.’
After the attack, Roxy, 25, rang the police from the safety of the nearby flat.
However, although her partner went on to be arrested, she felt couldn’t leave the house until she knew he had been charged for the assault.
‘I thought if there was no further action there’d be no conditions for him not to contact me, and I knew that if that was the case he would definitely kill me this time.’
Once the charge was confirmed, Roxy left her flat and moved into a new home. She was informed by the officers investigating her case that someone would be in touch with further updates.
However, unable to determine the progress of the investigation weeks later, Roxy involved domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, who offered vital support and warned her that some cases slip through the net.
‘If I hadn’t approached the charity, I wouldn’t have even known when to turn up to court, I wouldn’t have even gone because I had no contact from the police,’ explains Roxy. ‘Then my ex wouldn’t have been found guilty because I wouldn’t have been able to give my side of the story.’
Finally, after seven months, Roxy was notified that her case would be heard in court. However, the lack of contact from the police left her feeling she wasn’t properly prepared for the hearing.
‘It was distressing having to wait this long, and it took over my life for a while because I was researching things that I shouldn’t have had to look through, such as whether I could give evidence behind a screen.
‘Even though I wasn’t the criminal, it felt like I was serving a mental sentence because I couldn’t move on.’
Figures from the Ministry of Justice published in November reveal significant backlogs in crown court cases, with almost 75,000 cases still waiting to be heard.
Meanwhile, findings from the Victims’ Commissioner’s 2021 Victim Survey show only 9% of victims felt cases had been dealt with promptly.
With such knowledge, it’s hard for those impacted by abuse to see any light at the end of the tunnel. However, Ruth Davison, CEO of Refuge, is keen to point out that despite the problems within the criminal justice system, we would always encourage a woman to report her abuse if she feels this is the best option for her.
“For some survivors, a conviction can support them in a range of processes from protective orders to housing and immigration, which will help people rebuild their life, as well as providing physical and psychological safety,’ she explains.
‘Some survivors may also feel they want some form of acknowledgement of the abuse the criminal justice system can bring, particularly if they’ve experienced gaslighting or minimising.
‘Ultimately, convictions send the clear message to perpetrators that domestic abuse is a serious crime and is not acceptable.’
“We know that there are many competing pressures on criminal justice practitioners and we want them to feel able to work with survivors in a trauma-informed way which is sensitive to the needs of women who have experienced abuse. This requires better mandatory training at all levels, which is something Refuge has long been calling for and we hope to see in the upcoming Victims Bill.’
Sharon Bryan, Head of Partnerships at the National Centre for Domestic Violence, agrees.
‘Domestic abuse is akin to terrorism, and the impact of court delays is that more people will be harmed, sometimes fatally,’ she says. ‘It’s very difficult to keep a victim on board with the process when you can’t actually assure them that it will be dealt with in the way it should be.
‘To be effective, we should have an overhaul of the complete system, because it isn’t working for the people that it should be working for.’
*Some names have been changed.
Domestic abuse helpline
If you are in immediate danger call 999. If you cannot talk, dial 55 and the operator will respond.
For emotional support, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. Alternatively, for practical and emotional support, please contact Women’s Aid Live Chat 10am – 6pm seven days a week.
You can also reach the National Centre for Domestic Violence on 0800 270 9070 or text NCDV to 60777.
For free and confidential advice and support for women in London affected by abuse, you can call Solace on 0808 802 5565 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Male victims of domestic abuse can call 01823 334244 to speak to ManKind, an initiative available for male victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence across the UK as well as their friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues and employers.
Alternatively, the Men’s Advice Line can be reached at 0808 8010327, or emailed at email@example.com.
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