Domestic Violence: A Sister’s Story

As we are dealing with social isolation, here in the U.K, we have seen a spike in intimate partner homicide and family annihilation.  (16 cases, by my reckoning, in less than a month.) This is sadly not unexpected. Agencies which support women fleeing perpetrators warned that Covid19 would see women isolated, with their abusers,  and at elevated risk.   And So it came to pass.

This piece is about my own Sister’s experience, though from an external vantage point. It will cover our interaction with the police force, prison service and the Judicial system.  This experience is over twenty years ago and, roughly, spans a period of about seven years.

At the time my youngest sister reached  16 years of age I was living in Australia.  We were a large family (6 girls and 2 boys). Relations with our dad had not always been easy and, for the girls, tended to become particularly fraught when preparing to go onto higher education. The males didn’t come out unscathed but the experiences were highly differentiated by sex.  I cannot do the details justice in this post, suffice to say, I was not happy to leave her in that situation.

My  “baby” sister is 7 years younger, than I, and was a favourite of our father. We would tease her, relentlessly, about her special place in his affections. At the same time we were not above deploying his affection, for her,  to calm fraught situations.  I have no doubt that we all used her, consciously or otherwise, as a peacemaker, from a far too young age.

{I guess this started from age 6 and, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense it was around this age, she made us call her Sean for two years and said she was a boy. That is both another story and inextricable caught up with this one} 

Certainly my  gratitude, for her role in protecting me, comes with a large dollop of guilt.  I have often wondered if this contributed to what we call her “social worker” complex. To this day she has an almost pathological need to fix other peoples problems. To this day she can’t turn a stray dog away.  This is an estimable quality and it was used against her, the fault, however remains his, and only his.  I believe the way we used her, as a human shield, contributed, along with other factors, to the situation which arose in her early teens.

By the time I returned to England, and brought her to live with me, it was already too late.  It was soon clear she was in a relationship with a man 7 years older than her.  He was controlling, jealous, violent and generally abusive.  He already had two children and an ex partner who had suffered much the same. Naturally, at the time, she was characterised as a bitter ex partner and her reports were not given much credence, by my sister. Her family were a little bit more sceptical.

I was completely out of my depth in any practical sense.  I had  read many feminist texts so I had some, rudimentary and wholly theoretical,  knowledge. I knew not to let him isolate her. It soon became clear this was his aim. Many times it seemed situations were engineered such that we would, as a family, wash our hands of her. We never did.

The details of the abuse and violence were largely hidden from us.  Suffice to say I saw enough to suspect what was going on.  Her later disclosures confirmed my suspicions.  The details are hers to share, or withhold, as she sees fit.

For seven years there followed a pattern of leaving and returning to her abuser. Contrary to mythology she was a person of great character and strength. During this same period she also managed to get a flat, live independently and pass three A’Levels.  {She had a fantastic social worker and a charity paid her rent during this time}.  She still repeatedly returned, to him, which is a common pattern, though  difficult to understand if you have not been through it.  Each time the abuse recurred and escalated.  Somehow during this period an incident brought the matter to the attention of the police.  Once again my sister wished to leave.

The two police officers, who dealt with my sisters case,  went over and above the call of duty. It’s possible  the atypical nature of my sister as “victim”  played a role. She was educated and had strong family working, tirelessly, to extract her. Whatever  the motivation those two policemen stepped up.  The abuser had an outstanding “bench warrant” which, I was given to understand, were  not a high priority to enforce.The police officers deployed some resources to effect an arrest, and co-ordinated, with me, to enable us to move her while he was detained.  My partner hired a van. My boss let myself, and a Colleague friend leave work to assist. Rescue her we did.

Not long after  he turned up at her work, kidnapped her, at knife point, and took her to his house.  My brother rescued her at this point.  The perpetrators rib was broken during the struggle.  We know this because he turned up at the local hospital and a cousin (big Irish diaspora family) nursed him.  The nursing staff were deeply sympathetic to him as a forlorn victim of an assault. So convincing was he that one of the staff paid for a taxi to get him home.  Abusers can be very charming to others  and it was only later that my cousin knew the full account.

The abuser was ultimately arrested and held on remand. The charge of kidnapping is serious and it was to be held at Crown Court,  By the time it came to court he had won her back with contact allowed, or at least  not prevented.  by the prison. I wrote to complain to the prison and received a rather dismissive response.  I was furious, at the time,  but too ignorant of the system to, successfully, contest it.

To my sisters credit she didn’t back out of the court case,  so it went ahead.  At some point he had claimed he would plead guilty to save her from testimony if she wrote a letter of support, which she did.  On the day, predictably, he pleaded not guilty.

At some point in the proceedings the Judge realises the victim and the perpetrator live at the same address, again a patter of returning women is not uncommon. I remember inwardly fuming at how out of touch and supercilious the judge appeared. Returning women are a standard patterns in domestic abuse. I felt he should have known that. He then sent all parties out to see how the case should proceed.  

The Barrister discussed  the case with both of us, at her request.  I presume some horse trading went on between the Barristers. After some probing it became clear that they didn’t feel she would be able to stand up and testify. This would be in open court in the presence of her abuser, so she was,understandably,  distraught and tearful.  I felt testifying against him in open court was potentially dangerous so it was not my decision to make.  My sister insisted, if he didn’t plead guilty, she would testify against him.  The barrister relayed this and he agreed to plead guilty, to a lesser charge, and kidnapping charge could be held “on file”.  To a person without any legal training this sounded as if it would be similar to a suspended sentence. I hoped this would be an incentive for him to restrain himself from any further offences. (Looking back I was making a rather naive assumption about her safety).

I remember feeling quite patronised by the tone of the legal team who clearly thought this was a waste of time so I questioned him about the legal status of “held on file”. Turns out the offence remains on file, and only in  extremely rare cases, following a legal appeal, is it resurrected. Without this it can’t be used to inform any future sentences.  It seemed a pretty meaningless concept to me.  The Crown is offering no evidence but the charges are not legally dismissed.  I can’t see that this does anything for the victim at all, but maybe it justifies the CPS resources.

I have hazy recollection about what the chronology is for the next development. She left court with him that day and things continued much as they always had. At  some point we managed to secure an invitation, from another sister, to spend a year living in Australia.We are a family of globe trotters and going overseas was a family rite of passage.  Our older sister was 14 years older than “the baby”  and they had not spent much time together. The family  clubbed together to consensually “deport” her.  Quite why her partner agreed was a bit of a mystery at the time.  Away she went. He kept in touch with her, by phone, every week. She seemed to be getting on great and it all felt very positive. A year later we got in touch to arrange to pick her up,  Once again he beat us too it. I found out, from a taxi driver, that the “friend” who picked her up was actually the kidnapper.  I was on my way out to meet people when I discovered this and remember having to go straight to the loos and have a good cry.

The good news, I found out later, was that as soon as he picked her up she knew she had made a mistake and had outgrown him,  The mystery of him “agreeing” to her trip was revealed. He now had another child conceived before she left.  She left again.  We found a house together and I moved in with her. He tried again to threaten her at work. She was, by now,  working on a construction site and he was seen off by the men who worked there. Like many of these men he was a coward.

The next man she brought home was a work colleague. He would come to our us and I acted like a 1950’s chaperone to suss him out. He was from a large, Irish Catholic, family and didn’t take my protective behaviour amiss. In a very short time this man became a part of both our lives and, eventually, he asked her to come back to London with him, when his site job ended.

My sister seemed like a different person and was keen to get away.  I don’t think I worried about her making such a big move.  I knew the ex boyfriend had not got the resources to move to London. I did trust her new boyfriend and, frankly, I was also relieved. I was emotionally wrung out with it all.

Fast forward.  She is back up North. Married to the Irish man. Has two children and a law degree.  The physical distance allowed her to demonstrate her resilience and sheer determination. Her new partner definitely played his role but it was living at a safe distance that allowed her breathing space.

She has never forgotten this experience. During Lockdown she did a 100 squats a day to raise money for Refuge.  She raised £1100!

I am trying to extricate my son from an abusive cult right now. I’ve done it before. I know it’s also likely to be at least seven years.  I know it can be done. I will never give him up.  I see many women suffering severe stress during this fight. I feel for you one and all. I would never wish my sister’s experience on anyone but I do think her story has shored up my resolve. I know this is going to be a long fight. I am not in control of how it ends. But I know I won’t give up on him. Ever!




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