Last year an HMIC investigation found there were “unacceptable failings” in the way police are responding to domestic violence. Sam Wonfor talks to a young woman who found the courage to leave and report her abuser, only to be failed by the system.
Natasha* met her first proper boyfriend when she was a teenage student at college. Three years later she was living with him and suffering regular violent assaults and controlling behaviour. Her friends, together with her faith in the message she had seen in police domestic abuse posters, gave her the strength to report him. But that was just the beginning of the battle.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
“I was 17 when we got together. I met him at college and I was with him for about three years. He was three years older than me. I thought I was the bee’s knees.
The first year nothing happened. Things were fine. Then there were warning signs, which I only recognise in hindsight. He suggested I leave college so I could get a job and we could save for somewhere to live together. That’s when it all started to go wrong.
In the second year he had to be careful in terms of what he did to me, because I had to go home. In the third year, he didn’t have to be careful anymore because, by then, that was my home.
He did frighten me. He did play on the fact that he had a lot of issues. He told me he’d had anger management when he was younger.
I think I felt sorry for him and wanted to help him.
Before I met him, I had lots of friends, I was very close to my family, I was always a very confident girl… chatty, loud, all of that.
Once I got with him, he’d work his way into all those parts of me. I had to tell him everywhere I was going. I fell out with my parents because they didn’t like him and I couldn’t understand why. Of course I do now.
I broke away from my family and some of my friends, which was good for him because there were less people involved who could see what was happening.
The main assaults were black eyes, bruising and there was an incident where he held my foot against a radiator until the skin had broken and it had caused a lot of bruising. Then there was the incident when he decided he was going to try and set me alight, which he did, but I managed to put myself out. I thought he was going to kill me.
“I wasn’t upset; I was angry to think I’d been put through all of that and then they were telling me I didn’t have a case anymore. They’d created the delays that meant I could no longer access justice.”
After three years I decided to report him to the police. The only reason I had the confidence to do that was because I had a lot of friends behind me. They realised what was happening when I moved in with him. They noticed bruises, personality changes, him not letting me go out by myself.
When they started asking me about it, I broke down and told them what was going on.
It shocked me when they said every time I went into the house, when they said “goodbye” to me, they thought it was the last time they’d say it.
I had also seen a lot of police posters around, saying stuff like, “If you’re in a domestic abuse relationship you must phone straight away… It’s not right,” and that kind of thing.
I looked at the girl in the poster, crouched down and frightened and I thought, “Yes, that’s me.” That did help me get the initial confidence to report him too.
When I went to report it, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I’d never reported anything before. They sent me to see a special type of police officer who deals with domestic abuse. When I spoke to her she was very nice and said they’d get me set up with a refuge. Then she sent me on my way with a phone number.
At this point I’d moved back home with my parents and I had texted him to say it was over. He didn’t respond, which made me nervous because I was worried he was going to come and take it out on my family.
I called the refuge the next day and they were absolutely brilliant. They gave me an appointment and explained everything that would happen. I was given a support worker who was fantastic.
After two weeks I still hadn’t heard anything from the police, so I called them. They told me they’d closed the case. I couldn’t believe it. They said it was because they’d sent me to a refuge. But I said I’d reported domestic abuse.
It wasn’t the woman I’d originally spoken to, because she’d gone on maternity leave. The male officer I spoke to seemed like he couldn’t care less. He said there was no such thing as ‘domestic abuse’ and that it had to be an ‘actual physical assault’.
I listed all the things he’d done to me and he said: “So are you telling me he’s actually hit you?” I said: “Of course I am!” It was absolutely ridiculous.
Finally, they agreed to reopen my case and brought my ex in for questioning. Of course he completely denied it.
I gave them photos I had taken. Some of them were from ages ago and some were more recent, but I didn’t have photos of every time he’d hurt me. When you’re going through something like that, you can’t just stop to take a picture. If he knew I’d been taking photos of what he was doing to me, he would have just deleted them off my phone.
They were asking me certain things and telling me that I couldn’t report this or that because I didn’t have evidence. I felt like screaming at them. There are a lot of women who don’t have any evidence at all. How are they supposed to have the confidence to report what is happening to them?
“I didn’t get the justice result, but I got the result for myself. By me reporting it, he knows that I’ve taken back my control.”
After they reopened the case, he did try to contact me through text messages and I reported that as well. Again, they didn’t get back in touch with me to keep me updated. I had to call them to be told he had been given a warning by the police not to make contact, which he’d agreed to.
All this time, I was still working with the refuge and my support worker, who was brilliant. I was having counselling and taking part in different groups, which really helped me – particularly with my confidence.
When the charges of assault were brought to him, he pleaded not guilty, which meant I was going to have to go to court.
It was really helpful to talk to people about what would happen in court and everything, because that was terrifying to me. I got assigned an independent domestic violence advocate – a woman from the refuge who would stand with me in court. I went for a look around the court room and was absolutely past myself.
The police did say that I could only have six months before all my evidence would expire, so the woman officer I was dealing with said we’d have to try and move it along because of this. In magistrates’ courts, which deal with crimes like assault, there is a six-month time limit from when you report the crime to when you can take it to court.
My court date came through and I was working with the CPS, who asked if they could have a meeting with me the day before my court date to ask some questions. The questions that they asked were absolutely ridiculous.
Things like: “Was there a third party involved in taking the pictures?” Of course there wasn’t. You could see I was taking them myself.
“I broke away from my family and some of my friends, which was good for him because there were less people involved who could see what was happening.”
Then they asked about the time he smashed up my phone. I’d told the police that when I took it into the phone shop, the women in the shop had said: “My god, it looks like it has been run over by a car.” They took that and said: “How do we know it hadn’t been run over by a car?”
I couldn’t believe it.
The police sent off the answers and then I got a phone call on the morning of court to say that my court date was changing. After looking at the evidence, they said all of my evidence would have expired by the new court date, which left me no case.
I wasn’t upset, I was angry to think I’d been put through all of that and then they were telling me I didn’t have a case anymore. They’d created the delays that meant I could no longer access justice.
I was told the CPS ‘wasn’t prepared for court’. That really angered me because if I’d turned up and said I wasn’t ready for court, that would have been tough.
I had a meeting with the CPS so I could get more of an explanation. At the end of the meeting they said that if he ever did anything again, not to delete all that evidence because I could use it against him.
I said: “So are you telling me that I don’t have a case now, but if he was to do anything in the future, I could bring all this to the new case?” I couldn’t believe how stupid that sounded.
I got the same thing from the police. The officer told me once the CPS took the case on, it was nothing to do with them anymore. Unless he committed another assault against me.
The only thing I can put it down to is that from the very start, they didn’t think I had much of a case. I felt like once they’d given me the number of that refuge, they thought they’d done their job.
He hasn’t been in touch at all since all that happened, which is a good thing.
I still see him passing in the car, but it’s got to the point now, where as far as I’m concerned, he’s done everything he could do to me, physically and mentally.
If he ever did anything to me again, I could only see it as a positive. I know that sounds strange, but I feel like I could stop him now because I know what to do. I feel stronger now. He couldn’t hurt me again.
“There were times when we lived together where I’d say to him that I was going to report him. He’d put me in the van with him, pull outside the police station and say ‘go on then.’ And I couldn’t get out of the car to do it.”
The police and the CPS made me feel as low as I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Every time I see that poster, I want to go over and rip it down. That sounds awful, but I feel like it’s lies. When you’re that beaten down and you see something like that, it makes you think there is a way out.
What it should say is: in that moment (that you’re crouched on the floor and terrified) report it, otherwise they might say you don’t have enough evidence, or it’s too late.
I’ve found a way to channel my experiences to help other people.
I’m going with someone from the refuge to see a group of women who have been through my situation.
I would never want to discourage anyone from reporting the abuse they are suffering, but what I would say is that you have to do it for yourself. Don’t just do it because you want justice.
I didn’t get the justice result, but I got the result for myself. By me reporting it, he knows that I’ve taken back my control.
There were times when we lived together where I’d say to him that I was going to report him. He’d put me in the van with him, pull outside the police station and say “go on then.” And I couldn’t get out of the car to do it.
That was him taking the control. Me doing it off my own back when he wasn’t expecting me too was me taking it back.
I had to battle through every bit of it, and I thought the way I was treated was horrendous; but he knows I did it. He knows I was willing to see it through, even if the CPS weren’t.
I don’t have a restraining order or anything against him. But he’s never been near me since I reported him.
I’m brilliant now. I’m living at home. My family still don’t know anything about the court case. They know all about the abuse, but my mam is a worrier and I didn’t want her to have the case to worry about. Especially since it never happened anyway.
I’ve literally just got into a new relationship. He’s lovely. Dead laid back and my friends and family love him to pieces.
That’s boosted my confidence – to know that I’ve found someone who really cares about me. I feel strong and happy.”
Domestic violence charity Refuge are campaigning for a public enquiry into the way the police and other state agencies respond to reports of domestic abuse.
Sandra Horley CBE, Refuge’s chief executive says: “Last year in July, HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) came to a stark conclusion: the police response to domestic violence is ‘not good enough’.
“In an investigation into all police forces across England and Wales, HMIC found ‘unacceptable failings in core policing activities’. Its report revealed deeply entrenched problems with police culture and attitudes towards victims, with many officers failing to take domestic violence seriously or even believe women when they report abuse.
“Alarmingly, the report also highlighted that weaknesses in the police response are putting women and children in danger.
“HMIC’s report greatly reflected what Refuge already knew. Day in, day out, we hear about police officers failing to respond to women experiencing domestic violence. Far too many women are disbelieved, ignored and denied protection.
“Evidence is not collected, photographs of injuries are not taken, and a ‘canteen culture’ still exists in forces where domestic violence is not taken seriously. Numerous IPCC reports have further proven that police responses to domestic violence in this country are simply inadequate.
“Day in, day out, we hear about police officers failing to respond to women experiencing domestic violence. Far too many women are disbelieved, ignored and denied protection.”
“With these facts in mind, it is easy to understand why women might lack confidence in the police to protect them.
“We feel we urgently need a public inquiry to uncover the truth about the way the police, and all state agencies, respond to women and children experiencing domestic violence.
“A public inquiry would be broad in scale: it would examine the state response to domestic violence from every angle, impacting on the lives of perpetrators, victims and professionals across multiple fields. This kind of investigation would help to connect the dots between individual cases of police and state failure, to paint a national picture of what is going wrong.
“Women and children have the right to live in safety, free from fear. Refuge is determined to see that right become a reality.
“I would encourage everyone to support our call and sign our petition.”