IoS Christmas Appeal: Silent shame of domestic violence in Britain

One in four women will be abused by a partner. Many are failed by the police, and now cuts to services are leaving women and children open to more attacks. As The IoS launches its Christmas appeal, Emily Dugan and Jane Merrick report on the dangers women still face

One in eight emergency phone calls made to the police relate to serious domestic violence incidents, new figures show today. In some areas, as many as one in five serious 999 calls are connected to domestic abuse, a survey of police forces has revealed.

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The statistics show the chilling levels of domestic violence that women in Britain continue to face. Experts say these represent the tip of the iceberg, since many are never reported. A quarter of women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and every week two women are killed by a current or former partner. Three women a week kill themselves as a result of domestic abuse – and another 30 try to.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is investigating 11 cases around the country where serious failings are alleged in the police response to domestic violence. The domestic violence charity Refuge – which The IoS is supporting for this year's Christmas appeal – is working to prevent more women from adding to these grim statistics.

Sandra Horley, the charity's chief executive, said: "We hold ourselves up as the pinnacle of the developed world and yet, in Britain today, thousands of women and children are brutalised and terrorised in their own homes. And services to support them are vanishing."

The figures for emergency calls, published today by Labour to highlight International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, cover "grade 1" incident 999 calls – those that require an emergency response – that forces in England and Wales responded to between April 2010 and August 2012. Of 20 forces that responded, an average of 12.5 per cent of these calls were related to domestic violence. The highest rates were recorded in Merseyside, with 21 per cent, Lancashire and West Mercia, both with 18 per cent, and South Yorkshire and Humberside, both on 16 per cent.

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, an estimated 1.2 million women experience domestic abuse every year, a figure that includes verbal as well as physical abuse. It was estimated that last year, about 392,000 of these incidents were violent, a figure 35 per cent higher than in 2010.

Among the casualties was Sabina Akhtar. The 26-year-old had warned the police that her husband, Malik Mannan, 36, was planning to kill her two months before he burst into their Manchester home and stabbed her through the heart.

She explained to officers in graphic detail how Mannan had assaulted her 25 times, throttling her and saying: "One day I will kill you." But he was arrested and released without charge. After he repeatedly breached his bail conditions to threaten Ms Akhtar, she made a second terrified call to the police and he was re-arrested. Again he was questioned and released without charge. Four days later Ms Akhtar was dead.

Earlier this month, a coroner ruled that "serious and significant failings" by the police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) "possibly contributed" to Ms Akhtar's death in September 2008.

Every year, IPCC investigations show forces making the same mistakes, repeating failings in the most basic police duties. Amerdeep Somal, the IPCC's commissioner with lead responsibility for gender abuse and domestic violence, said: "Sadly, I have seen through my work that [police] protection is not always provided. It is a great scar on our collective conscience when a woman's fears are not taken seriously and she is not given the protection that she deserves.

"If we are to see any fall in domestic violence deaths, year on year, it is crucial that the police and other agencies take domestic violence seriously – by listening to the concerns of the victims and taking appropriate, timely action. It is not enough that police officers should simply take a report and then file it, leaving a woman to her often inevitable fate."

Dr Reaz Talukder, Ms Akhtar's uncle, is clear that while Mannan killed his niece, the police must also take responsibility for their failure to help. He said: "The police knew that her husband was a violent and dangerous man. And still they did not protect her."

Professor Carol Hedderman, a criminologist at the University of Leicester, said: "When the police respond, they respond per incident. It's like they've got collective Alzheimer's and they have no institutional memory."

Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan, from Merseyside Police's Public Protection Unit, said that the police were trying to make things better. He said: "Domestic abuse is a terrible and damaging crime and one that the police and other agencies out there are keen to reduce as much as possible."

The CPS also comes in for criticism over the lack of convictions against perpetrators. But this year there have been some improvements. In cases of domestic violence referred to prosecutors, the conviction rate last year was 73 per cent compared with 69 per cent in 2007-08. Tomorrow the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are issuing a checklist for domestic violence cases to all CPS and police staff. It will remind them to make sure they've collected all possible evidence, such as recorded 999 calls and photos.

Professor Sylvia Walby, a sociologist specialising in gender-based violence at Lancaster University, was surprised by the apparent rise in reported domestic violence. She said: "More or less every year for the last 20 years there was a small but steady decline [in the number of people reporting domestic violence], but last year that seemed to stop. We have a project now to try to find out why."

If the rise is more than a statistical anomaly, then the recession, as well as cuts to services that could help keep women safe, may hold possible explanations. Many of the recent local government cuts fell on relatively new services put in place to protect women and children.

A recent Freedom of Information request found that councils in England and Wales cut annual spending on services aimed at helping vulnerable women – such as refuges – by an average of £44,914 each last year. In London alone, the budget for refuges and domestic violence services has been slashed by £1.9m.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Domestic violence is a hidden emergency for over a million women in Britain every year who call out for urgent help but are not properly heard. In government Labour made tackling violence against women and girls a priority. Measures such as specialist domestic violence courts, specialist police units and prosecutors, and partnerships with councils and housing to support victims all helped to tackle incidents of domestic violence. But a lot of that work is under threat."

Services such as those provided by Refuge are in more demand than ever. Every day the charity supports some 2,000 women, providing everything from safe houses to advisers who help them navigate complicated police and legal systems. Now they are appealing for help to keep their services going.

"Refuge's services are in constant demand," Ms Horley said. "Thousands of women and children live in fear. We have to turn them away because there simply aren't enough bed spaces."

'Without skilled professional help it's a nightmare'

Alice, from the Home Counties, was helped by one of Refuge's Outreach Workers. Names have been changed...

"I first called the police in 2009 when Matthew first attacked me at home in front of the children. The police response was pretty poor. I was still breast-feeding my son Paul and I had a young daughter Sophie, and I said 'I'm not going to leave'. I remember feeling that I just couldn't. It was abject fear that held me there, but once I'd said that, that was it. They were out of there and they didn't want to know. One of them said sarcastically when they left 'I suppose we'll see you again soon then'.

We got together after a whirlwind romance. I wasn't interested at first but he pursued me and flew me around the world and it seemed romantic. I'd only known him a few months when he asked me to move in. the violence started gradually. It's like putting a frog in cold water and heating it up - if it had been boiling at the start I'd have jumped out.

Last year there were two serious physical attacks in quick succession and they were both in front of the children. I'm normally quite a capable person. I've had good jobs and I can be quite successful so I should've been able to stop this, but I couldn't.

The first was in November on Sophie's birthday. Matthew was looking after the children in the morning before her party while I sorted the food. I said they should stay local but he wanted to take them to a pantomime. It escalated into an enormous physical attack. He screamed at me 'you can't control me' and the kids were saying 'Daddy don't shout'. I went to leave the room, and he started slamming the door against me with the kids in there with him. All I could think was 'I can't get to them'. I was terrified he'd do something to the kids. When I eventually got back into the room I grabbed Sophie and he immediately grabbed Paul, who was screaming. I was so frightened and when he put him down I was just holding them both on the floor. That's when he started kicking me.

I struggled to pick them up and Matthew knocked Paul out of my arms. When he got up he put his hands on his hips and said: 'daddy, stop being naughty'. No child should ever have to say that.

We left behind Sophie's dress and birthday cake when we fled, so I decided to go back and get them. I went upstairs to the bedroom and he was so angry that his hand was shaking and hot tea was sloshing everywhere. He threw me across the room and I hit my head on the bed and fell on the floor. Then he put me against the wall and put his hands on my throat and was threatening me. I remember thinking 'I'm going to die, but at least the kids won't see it'. I don't know why he stopped. Then I went to my friend's house and did Sophie's birthday as if nothing had happened.

The next day I rang my mum and dad and told them what had happened. The divorce was already going on and my solicitor told him he had to leave the house, but he refused. So me and the kids were sleeping on a friend's floor while he slept in a £1.5m house.

Eventually we went back to the house on the understanding that my mum could be there too. On New Year's Eve I was about to take the children out to a sleepover when he said 'you have to tell me where you're going'.

Sophie was in the bath, which had a glass shower screen. I was half undressed and he flung me by the bra strap into the screen, which slammed into Sophie. He walked out of the room so I ran into the bedroom and dialled 999 but the phone was dead. I discovered later he'd pulled the cable out. We got in the car and that was it.

I went to the police station at 9am on New Year's Day. That evening they arrested him. I had to make sure they weren't going to release him overnight as on a previous occasion they had released him without charge at 1am and we'd had to flee to a hotel.

You have to be so persistent to get something from the police. After he was charged and bailed he was entitled to come back to the house to collect his things. While he was there I went to the key safe and realised he'd taken the house keys. I told the police and they just said they didn't have the power to search him. They let him drive off with the keys. The next day I paid to have the locks changed, potentially criminalising myself, in order to stay safe.

Shortly afterwards I was put in touch with a Refuge community worker, who said to come and see her. It was such a relief. I felt I could sit there and let it all come pouring out. It helped me to see it was an absolute pattern of abuse.

This summer in court eight incidences of domestic violence were put to him. He was found guilty of all eight but he still kept saying 'that didn't happen'.

He coached my daughter Sophie to make a malicious allegation about a relative of mine. He tricked her to say the relative had shown her naked pictures of women in a pornographic magazine, recorded it and then called me up to say he was very concerned about it. I was beside myself, terrified the police were going to arrest the relative.

On advice from my Refuge outreach worker, we alerted police and social services that a malicious allegation might be reported. She got me to realise how dangerous he was and she advocated to the police on my behalf brilliantly, which gave me my sense of control back. He's not allowed to see the children now .

It's impossible for a normal person to get the system to work for them. With skilled professional help you can get the system to work, but otherwise it's a nightmare."

The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: http://refuge.org.uk/independent-on-sunday-appeal/

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