Children Heard and Seen

A Parent’s Story 8: Emma

Below is the eighth in a new series of blog posts created by those caring for children with a parent in prison that we have supported. The series aims to shine a light on the harms experienced by children and families when a parent goes to prison, and highlight the benefits that providing good support can bring.

It was only when my ex-partner was sent to prison in 2018 that I was able to begin to process the years of abuse and trauma he had perpetrated against me; comfortable for the first time, that I had been believed. As the judge handed down a 2 year, nine-month prison sentence, it was stated that I was in such a position of danger, I was one step away from having to flee the country.

I have still not been able to divorce him. He continually files for postponements and adjournments, refusing to be served the papers even during his prison sentence. He is eligible for legal aid, I am not.

I fled the family home in 2016, the second time I had tried to leave. Despite a domestic abuse charity determining me to be in legitimate fear of my life, and unable to guarantee the safety of my children, there was not a single available place in a refuge, nation-wide. Even if there had been, my eldest son, aged 11, would have been viewed as too much of a risk to other residents, on the basis of his gender and age, to allow us to stay.

I took my 4 children to a friend’s house and the battle to stay safe intensified. Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time. I was not told this. A professional man, working in security services, he was able to track me and my children, gain remote access to my phone and unbeknownst to me had placed a tracker on my car. This is a fraction of the control he exerted on me. During our relationship, I was subject to intense supervision. He would regularly check how many miles I had driven on the commute to work, and if this exceeded what he expected, if I had to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home, I would be punished. I often had to sleep in my car because he would lock me out if I arrived home any later than an arbitrary curfew he had set. There was CCTV, alarms and as I was forced to pay all the bills on a part-time wage, I was rendered almost completely dependent.

After I left he began to attack from afar. He would phone and post flyers around my work (an attempt to trap me in a public place if I tried to take them down), calling me a slut, a paedophile, a risk to children. He would inundate me with taxis and takeaways to my door, knowing that I would be too scared to answer and knowing that I would have to face the frustration of drivers who’s time I appeared to have wasted. He would call from different phones and arranged for other men to make calls to me, threatening to kill me.

I was continually making phone calls to the police. Often when he would be outside my door, trying to break in. Each time I was told that there would be nothing the police could do, but log the incident, with the aim to catalogue enough examples of abuse to bring about a charge. Between leaving and his first arrest I called the emergency services over 20 times, each time fearing for my life and the safety of my children. I was reluctant to call the police over something I felt I could protect us from, scared that I would be deemed negligent and unable to keep my children safe. In times of extreme fear, I was constantly required to prove the danger this man posed to me, both to social services and the police. In short, despite the very real threat to my life and that of my children, I was not believed or even given the benefit of the doubt. Threat is more easily identified by third parties in retrospect, after the event, but that is when the recognition becomes useless.

He was exceedingly clever in knowing how much abuse he could get away with, always stopping short of what would be an indisputable offence. He would threateningly sing chilling, violent nursery rhymes down the phone, make me aware he was watching and slash the tyres on my car. At one point he remotely wiped my phone and I lost all the photos of my children.

He was also skilled at presenting his case to other agencies. He had a good reputation at my children’s school and our situation was treated as though it was a domestic dispute rather than abuse; as though it were ‘tit for tat’ and I was at least equally responsible. He was also capable of providing an incredibly distorted view to social services. Behaving when he knew he was observed, he was able to manipulate social services during child protection meetings and artificially reduce his risk. He claimed that I attacked children and manipulated one of my children to allege this claim also. The night after one such meeting, when it was agreed by social services that a child protection plan didn’t need to be put in place, he smashed my front door down.

From the time I left, to his conviction, I had over seven social workers. Not only did this mean that there was no continuous support, it meant a different opinion and nerve-wracking assessment of my ability to look after my children every time I engaged in protective services. It also allowed more room for error; it is easier to be manipulated on a first impression, and as that was what my abuser was skilled in doing, it led to an insufficient appreciation of the danger I was in. I was accused of being mentally ill and an addict, allegations that were given equal weight in the face of his own alcoholism, and as I discovered after sentencing, cocaine use.

 He was denied contact with our children and as a result his behaviour escalated. This meant that despite the catalogue of abuse and threatening behaviour, the countless calls to emergency services and that a charge had officially been brought, I was still at risk. He would try and smash windows, stalk my family and send me pictures of weapons and fields, suggesting they would be good locations to bury me. He threatened to kill my brother, sent pictures of a man bound in a front room, claimed to be chasing and beating up men he alleged were my new partners.

He was eventually arrested when he drove to a police station to accuse me of harassment, was searched, and found to be in possession of the necessary weapons and tools to kill me and dispose of my body. He was kept for initially 24 hours, then three days, but couldn’t be kept on remand.

Legislation has recently been put in place to recognise children who witness domestic violence as victims. This was not in place at the time of the trial and even the belief in the restricted version of victimhood, only applying to me, felt feeble. The special measures offered during the trial were so improperly explained and negligent that I passed my perpetrator outside the courthouse. During his sentencing, I was provided no special measures and he had sent a man to sit in the court and intimidate me. When you have been isolated by friends and family through domestic abuse, many too scared to support you, the consideration of your victimhood by agencies and the criminal justice system becomes critical. It is monumentally difficult to leave a domestic abuser, let alone prosecute them, and without consistent, informed and specialised support, it can be too hard a journey for some to take.

The abuse continued even after his conviction. He would pass veiled threats through my children, letting them know he was getting stronger whilst he was inside. He would them send pictures with an undercurrent of violence, for example a character in a film they liked, but holding a knife. He would both minimise the severity of the situation, telling the children that he ‘lived next door to Santa’ with ‘bouncy castles everywhere’ and also upset them, saying that he was ‘forced to eat poo’. Eventually, I had to remove all contact from him to my children in any form.

Even though the threat would no longer seem immediate, the fear was still perpetual and any reduction in my level of panic was immediately allocated to process the trauma I’d endured. I became unwell during this period; as sole carer of my children, there was no time to process the trauma inflicted by my abuser, the process of leaving or passage through the criminal justice system. Systems and organisations to counsel and protect me and my children, to provide a plan for release, were non-existent. It eventually fell to the probation service to tell me when he would be released, which they did, on the very same day he walked out of the prison. After he was recalled and again subsequently released, I was not informed by probation until two days after.

Given that, due to the field that he had worked in, moving away would be futile without changing our identities, and even this might be no guarantee, I chose to remain in the same area where I had family support and the children were settled. Probation informing me that he would be released immediately, leaving me no time to prepare, was unconscionable. When I heard from probation, one of my children was out with friends and I had to immediately make sure she didn’t speak to him or anyone she didn’t know, scrambling to locate her and remove the risk.

The gaping void in support or even consideration, for me or my children, was completely unexpected. For a crime that, not only did I not commit, but was the victim of, I have had to fight at every turn to be believed, keep my family safe and receive any support.

The abuse is still not over. As I mentioned earlier, I am still trying to divorce him, which has meant that his solicitor has been able to request comprehensive bank details and transaction records, identifying exactly where I spend my money and what on. The impact continues past leaving, conviction, release and divorce. Structures that recognise this, support families beyond immediate crisis management and recognise the long-term effect this level of distress can have on families, particularly children, are so desperately needed.

Children Heard and Seen have offered complete wraparound support for me and my children. Sarah came with me to court, when all my friends and family were too scared to, and my children have been offered 1:1 support and opportunities to meet other children in a similar situation. Attending groups has helped me gain a support network where I felt understood, without judgement. I am now working to help other women process the trauma sustained from domestic abuse.