'He would threaten to kill me, but I thought it was normal': 13-year-old domestic abuse victim speaks out

Chlo Winfield, now 20, tells The Independent how she spent three years in an abusive relationship as new figures reveal teenage girls most likely group to fall victim to abuse in England and Wales

May Bulman
Thursday 23 November 2017 23:51
Chlo, now 20, says the domestic abuse she experienced at the hands of her boyfriend left her isolated and had a major impact on her self-esteem, as charities call for better access to support for teenage victims of domestic violence
Chlo, now 20, says the domestic abuse she experienced at the hands of her boyfriend left her isolated and had a major impact on her self-esteem, as charities call for better access to support for teenage victims of domestic violence

Chlo Winfield was 13 years old when became a domestic abuse victim. Her boyfriend, three years her senior, would tell her she was stupid, call her a “slag” if she didn’t do as he asked and threaten to stab her, among other threats. But Chlo, only just a teenager, didn’t realise she was being abused; she thought it was normal.

“Because I was so young, I just didn’t think it was something that would happen to me. It just didn’t cross my mind. I just thought we argued and that was what all couples do,” Chlo, from Bristol, tells The Independent. “He always had a reason why he was acting how he was. I always felt like it was something I was doing.

“I would spend all my time trying to be who he wanted me to be and behave in the right way so he wouldn’t get angry again. I’d constantly be replying to messages from him because if I didn’t reply he’d get angry. He threatened that he and his friends would stab me, and he described fantasies about luring me to his house and killing me."

A couple of years into the relationship, Chlo decided to phone the police after an incident in which her boyfriend threatened to kill her. She was shocked when an officer told her she was being abused.

“I called the police, but not because I thought it was abuse. I was just so fed up of him threatening me, so I thought I’d do something. But then the police officer said that what he was doing was abusive. It was the first time anyone had said that to me," she says.

“I started looking up domestic abuse online, and read about cycles of abuse and think wow,that sounds just like him. I had thought he just had issues and that I needed to stay with him and be a good girlfriend.

“Stuff had built up and I’d got caught in that cycle without realising it. When you’re so involved, it’s much harder to see than it is for someone on the outside.”

Chlo is one of many teenage victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales. A new report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states that more than one in 10 women aged 16-19 say they have been subject to domestic abuse in the past year, making them the most likely group to fall victim to abuse.

Eleven per cent of females in this age group experienced domestic abuse last year, compared with 8 per cent of women aged 16-19. Seven per cent of men in this age group said they had been domestic abuse victims, compared with 4 per cent of the general male population.

Yet young victims and charities warn that while women and girls of this age are most at risk of being abused, they are also the least likely to access support services, with only 5 per cent of them resident in refuge and 6 per cent accessing community-based support services.

Chlo says her conversation with the police officer helped her realise what was happening, but she didn’t end the relationship straight away. The abuse carried on for another six months before she went back to the police after her boyfriend threatened to kill her and told her she deserved to be raped.

He was later handed an 18-week prison sentence, suspended for 24 months and ordered never to contact her again.

Chlo, who is now 20 and in her first year of an undergraduate degree at Bristol University, says the abuse she experienced – much of which took place over the phone or online - left her isolated and had a major impact on her self-esteem.

“He never physically hit me, so I didn’t think of it as abuse to start with, but the psychological abuse had a big impact. He was constantly putting me down and manipulating me. The control and emotional abuse just messes with your head,” she says.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women's Aid, said: "It is worrying to see that an estimated 10 per cent of 16-19 years olds have experienced domestic abuse. From our work with survivors, we know that this age group are most at risk of being abused and also the least likely to access support services.

“We are calling on the Government to ensure that their work around the landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill breaks down the barriers facing young women in disclosing abuse and accessing help, and ensures that all survivors get the support they need, when they need it.

“The welcome commitment to compulsory relationships and sex education from 2019 in schools must be delivered with a clear focus on recognising domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls, and teaching all young people what a healthy relationship looks like.”

The ONS report shows that overall, an estimated 1.9 million adults aged 16 to 59 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year, equating to a prevalence rate of approximately six in 100 adults, with the majority (seven in 10) of victims of domestic homicides recorded between April 2013 and March 2016 being females.

The police meanwhile recorded 1.1 million reports of domestic abuse over the same period, which probably includes repeated instances of abuse against the same victim.

The ONS findings also reveal worryingly low arrest and conviction rates for such crimes, with less than half of domestic abuse cases reported to police leading to arrest, at 43 per cent.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) by the police meanwhile led to a decision to charge, and convictions were secured for 76 per cent of domestic abuse-related prosecutions.

The figures come after an Ofsted report stated that “far too little” was being done to prevent domestic abuse or repair the damage it causes afterwards, and accused the Government of failing to implement a long-term strategy to tackle the issue.

The report said there was a lack of a long-term strategy to the “public health issue” and highlighted a “lack of clarity” when it came to agencies sharing information.

Domestic abuse includes non-physical abuse, threats, force, sexual assault or stalking by a partner or family member - the most common of which is abuse by a partner.

It is not classed by the Government as a specific criminal offence, so domestic abuse-related offenses are recorded under the respective offence that has been committed – such as assault with injury.

The Home Office has been collecting information from police on whether recorded offences are related to domestic abuse since April 2015, but it is not possible to determine how many crimes were domestic abuse-related prior to this date.

The ONS states: “Domestic abuse is often a hidden crime that is not reported to the police, which is why the estimated number of victims is much higher than the number of incidents and crimes recorded by the police.

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“Of the cases which do come to the attention of the police, many, although still recorded as incidents and dealt with as required, will fall short of notifiable offences and are therefore not recorded as crimes.

“Evidential difficulties often relate to the victim not supporting the prosecution. This reflects the challenges involved in investigating domestic abuse-related offences and demonstrates the importance of a robust evidence-led case being built for the victim.”

It also highlighted that the data presented in the report shows variations across areas and highlight that while agencies such as social care and health care services are already involved in the response to domestic abuse, such involvement is not widespread.

The policing areas which saw the highest number of domestic abuse incidents and crimes last year were Durham, Cleveland, Gwent, South Wales and London, while Cheshire, Dyfed-Powys, Surrey, North Yorkshire and Thames Valley saw the least.

Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims lead at the Association of Police and Crime, said in response to the findings: “This report provides fuller data and a more comprehensive impression of the scale of domestic abuse and the impact it has on police forces in England and Wales.

“We know that domestic violence is still seen as a hidden crime; it is under-recorded which makes comparisons difficult. However, we have seen a considerable improvement in the overall police response to victims of domestic violence, in part because Police and Crime Commissioners have made protecting and supporting vulnerable people a priority.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Domestic violence and abuse is a devastating crime that shatters the lives of victims and families. This Government is determined to ensure anyone facing the threat of domestic abuse has somewhere to turn to.

“The action we have taken to tackle domestic abuse includes introducing a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour and rolling out Clare’s law and domestic violence protection orders on a national basis.

“Until 2020, the Government is providing £100 million of dedicated funding for tackling violence against women and girls. This includes a £20 million fund to support refuges and other accommodation-based services, providing 2,200 additional bed spaces.

“We will publish a landmark draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to protect and support victims, recognise the life-long impact domestic abuse has on children and make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse.”

If you are a teenager and need advice about domestic abuse, you can contact Women’s Aid or access their guide to healthy relationships for young people.

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