Online help in domestic abuse cases

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‘I did not want the children to see me crying all the time but they did. He knows the only way to get to me is my kids, but I won’t let him do that to me any more...”

Sitting across the table from me at Northamptonshire Police’s headquarters at Wootton Hall, Laura (not her real name) wipes away the tears and tries to sum up the story of 10 years of marriage spent with an abusive man.

Laura, from Northamptonshire, is there to share the hidden pain of living in an abusive relationship and to support the police’s new campaign to use Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness of domestic abuse.

It has been at least two years since Laura made the decision to walk out of her family home, taking her children with her and, with the help of support agencies, to take up a place in refuge.

She explained: “In the first five years, it wasn’t as bad, although on one occasion he did throw a door handle at me. But after my first daughter was born, it did get quite bad and we ended up going for marriage counselling.

“You make excuses, but it was a drip, drip effect, over a period of time. I was quite an independent woman. If you had told me when I was 20-years-old what would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Laura admits there was some physical abuse. The time she was grabbed by the back of her head, for example, or the time he hurt her hand. But most of what she described amounted to sustained psychological pressure which left her eventually isolated in the family home, cut off from her family and without any financial independence.

Before having her children, Laura said she had a good job and her own bank account. But eventually she had to let her job go for reasons connected with her husband’s business. She was also persuaded to agree to a joint account.

She continued: “I had to provide receipts for what I bought and he checked it off on the bank account at the end of the month. I bought soap for £1.40 once and he wanted to see the receipt for that.”

She continued: “He had a huge argument with my mum and he made me choose between him and the kids, and my family. I chose him and the kids. I did not see I had a choice at the time.

“I got to the stage when I had had enough. I said we would get a divorce, but it escalated from there. He wouldn’t let me sleep in my bed. He had the kids in with him at night and I would sleep downstairs so I couldn’t sneak them out.

“It wasn’t easy at all to walk out; it is to do with your state of mind. You get to the point where you don’t know your own mind. If someone told you your own name and date of birth, you would question it.

“You are worried about where you are going to live and how you are going to live. He froze our bank account at one point and I couldn’t get money out. I had no petrol in the car. I had nothing and nobody.”

As of March this year, the Home Office definition of domestic violence and abuse is: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.”

But Laura feels that – just as she did – some women may not realise that help is available when abuse is present in different forms.

She said: “Going for help was a slow burner. There are few women who will be hit or abused by their partner who will go straight for help. At the end of the day, you are a woman and in love. On the day you get married, you never expect it to turn out like that.

“I felt there were laws for physical or sexual abuse, but I wouldn’t ring the police saying ‘he has stopped my money’ or ‘I’m terrified he will take my children’. You feel like there is nothing you can do, he stripped me of everything.

“He would hold my face against a wall, but never leave a bruise or a black eye. I would have a sore head but nothing to show. He wouldn’t let me go to the dentist when my front teeth got loose.”

“I wish I had not put so much trust in him. I wish I had been stronger standing up to him with little things like having receipts, because they push it further and further each time.

“There must be loads more people who think because they are not being hit they are not being abused. That is what needs to be changed.”

She welcomed the police’s new social media campaign, saying: “It will be very effective. For women who are isolated, Facebook might be the only way they can communicate.”

In its new campaign, Northamptonshire Police is using Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness about domestic abuse, teenage relationship abuse and stalking, as part of Operation Challenge.

Thought-provoking images, videos and questions are being posted on the police’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to encourage online debate and conversation, as well as to communicate links and numbers for those seeking help and advice.

Det Insp Richard Tompkins, who manages the Domestic Abuse Unit for Northamptonshire Police, said that there are 10,000 domestic abuse incidents reported in the county each year and the number of cases are going down. However, under-reporting is still suspected to be a problem.

He said: “We want to use Facebook and social media more, to maximise the message to the general public. The reason we picked Facebook and Twitter is that we have about 40,000 followers between them and we can show there is help out there. We just want people to come forward as it is believed about one in four women will be affected by domestic abuse.”

A spokesperson from Nene Valley Christian Family Refuge, which works to support victims of domestic abuse, said: “It is for them to identify that their situation won’t get better. Campaigns like this will obviously help people. They will know there are places you can go. I think this is a fabulous campaign. We have families ringing us as a result of it. We have a drop-in on Monday and Thursday and everyone is talking about it and that is what we need, more people talking about it.”

For more info, search for Northamptonshire Police on Facebook.