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Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Impact of domestic violence and abuse on children

The majority of the women we interviewed had children, ranging in age from nine months to over 30 years in age and sometimes from a previous relationship. Seven women did not have any children. We did not talk to the children but women’s accounts revealed many ways in which living in a household with domestic violence or abuse impacted on them. To find out what women did to protect their children, get help for them and keep them safe, see ‘Getting help for children affected by domestic violence and abuse’.

Research which has involved children demonstrates the many different ways in which abuse can impact on them. It affects their relationship with the abuser, the non-abusing parent and other people around them. Children’s development can be impaired which can have a knock on effect on their education and ability to develop and maintain relationships with others. Key to addressing these impacts is support for the non-abusing parent. Children can experience a wide range of impacts from bed-wetting to lashing out. 

When asked what the main impact of domestic abuse had been for them, the majority of women said ‘the effects on the children’.
 

Jane saw the effects of her abusive marriage on her children once she was out of it. She regretted that their childhood was ‘a battleground’ not a place of ‘nurturing’.

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Age at interview: 46
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So just reflecting back now, what do you think have been the biggest impacts of your experiences on you as a person, on your life?

My health and the health of my children, especially the mental health. You don’t always realise it when you’re in a domestic abuse relationship. You think the kids are going to be OK and that they’re going to cope. But in reality they don’t cope, you know, especially with the constant arguing between one parent and the other parent and where one person is saying one thing and the other parent is saying something else. They don’t know who to trust, who to believe and who is telling the truth. Because quite often in domestic relationships there’s a great deal of control, and how the control is gained is through emotional and through financial and also through making the abused feel that they’re worthless and that they don’t know what they’re talking about and, you know, just generally trying to gain that sort of mind control over the person. So they lose who they are, the abused loses who they are for the abuser to take control. And that sort of mental shift, as it were, is where you don’t trust yourself, where you don’t believe in yourself. It happens over a short s-space of time, but quite quickly, but you don’t usually realise it. It happens just a little bit and then a little bit more and a little bit more, and before you know what’s happened, suddenly you’re this person that you don’t recognise. And if that’s happening to you, then you can be sure that’s happening to your children as well.

So did you see that in your children, that shift?

You don’t when you’re actually in the relationship. But when you leave the relationship and you actually realise just how close you got to maybe not being here for your children, because it got so serious that, you know, you got a really severe beating that time, and also on your child’s behalf as to what they go through emotionally. A childhood should be one of growing up and being nurtured and be loved. It shouldn’t be one of where it’s a battleground. And if a child gets forced to grow up too early because they get to deal with adult emotions and adult feelings, then what happens is they don’t grow as a person, like as a child would. So there’s a great deal of mental health issues there that could happen. My oldest child, she was very badly damaged by my partner, my ex-partner, mentally and physically. And when she, when we finally left the relationship, she suffered from nervosa bulimia. And she got down to about six stone, and she was being sick all the time, she had no self-worth in herself and it was actually pitiful to see that that was the direct impact of domestic abuse. And, you know, you don’t realise it at the time, but these are really serious issues. You mustn’t just think of yourself; you must think of the children and what they could go through later on in adult life just because of domestic abuse. You have to be strong for yourself and for your children, even if it’s really hard to do. There’s lots of support out there. And the minute you make that break, you think that you’re not going to be able to cope, but you will, you will. And you’ll find that friends that come out of the woodwork that you lost contact with, family that you didn’t really tell will all rally round and they will all help you. And, you know, it’s so much easier when you’ve actually left, but you have to make that break and you have to make that decision that this is the right thing to do. And you have to think, not just of yourself and the impact on yourself, but also of your kids. 
As Charlotte said, she had 20 years of life before she experienced an abusive relationship, but her children 

‘Have lived with that from the minute they were born … that’s going to take a long time to rebuild. There is no quick fix for this’.
 

Charlotte wished she could go back in time and ‘fill them [the children] up’ differently. She regretted not leaving sooner (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
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When you live with someone who is constantly, constantly bashing that [self-esteem], to build that back up again is really hard.

Yeah.

That’s really hard.

So again, a long-term…

Yeah.

…impact of what you lived with for so many years?

Absolutely. And, you know, I had 20 years of not living with it. So I had 20 years of normal life.

Yeah.

My girls have lived with that from the minute they were born. They’ve got nothing different to fall back on.

Yeah.

I almost feel like, with them, I almost need to go back to you know, I need to almost tap back into them as babies and toddlers and start filling them back up again from there. You know, my eldest one is going to be 17 in a few weeks. She’s borne the brunt of a lot of damage from him. That’s going to take a long time to rebuild. There is no quick fix for this.

And that’s what makes me really sad and that’s what makes me really angry. You know, and there’s a big part of me that wishes I had left way before I did, just to lessen the damage on everybody. But I didn’t know.
Children were often a reason for women to leave a relationship, as they wanted to protect them from abuse, and could also be a reason for staying in a relationship, as women wanted to keep the family together and hoped their relationship with their partner might improve. Some women had to leave the abusive relationship, taking their children with them, to retain custody of them. Children caught up in domestic abuse had to cope with the temporary or long-term separation from one or both of their parents. Some women experienced a conflict between what was best for themselves and what was best for their children, as described by Catherine.
 

Catherine wondered whether her son might have needed his dad around more, as he was ‘big and stronger than him’, when at times she felt unable to control her son’s behavior (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 46
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What’s the biggest impact that abuse has had on you and your life?

It’s changed throughout my life. I think, you know, I felt like a crap parent when he was small. I think I was made to feel like a crap parent by teachers, some of the time. I think, you know, culturally and, you know, from the media you feel like it’s your fault because you can’t control your child. But then, I think as things changed ... you know, as time went on it changed, you know, sometimes I felt like ... you know ... you know, that I just couldn't cope with it and, you know, I’d have to put him into care. Should I contact his father to deal with him, because I thought even though I don’t agree with the way his father thinks, maybe he needs somebody who’s big and stronger than him so that they hit him back. I don’t know. You know, I considered everything. And, you know, and some of it was ... you know, you’re trying to protect your relationship with this ... with your other, you know, adult significant other. It became clear when my older son got to about 16 that he ... you know, had actually suffered a huge amount from the fact that, you know, you’ve got this Tasmanian devil of a child living in your midst, and you never get any of the attention. So that made me feel, you know, really guilty. You know, his relationship with me wasn’t very good for a long time. He disappeared off, you know. He decided to go and live in [Country] for a year. That was like ... [laughing] you know. You know, and it was like, “I’m never speak to you ever again. You never looked after me properly.” You know, and that just ... that was devastating, absolutely awful. And then ... you know, and I think when he got to 18 I just ... mentally I just ... because I knew that, you know, he’s an adult now... 

Yeah. 

... it’s not my responsibility anymore. It was a massive kind of sense of relief and I think I was some of the time able to deal with it much more, but the trouble is, you know, when you find out that your child is, you know, homeless and ... and all of this sort of thing, and it’s like you can’t ... it’s very difficult to say, “No, you can’t come back home.” 

Mm.

So, I think we went through a lot of cycles of he would come back and be really good for a bit, you know, I would try and be really understanding for a bit and then gradually it would all kind of break down again.
Witnessing violence in the relationship between their parents

Children were sometimes present when violent attacks took place so that they saw an adult (usually their mum) getting hurt. Some men also frequently caused damage to property so children saw their homes being damaged or even wrecked. Min’s partner verbally abused her children and things came to a head one day when he smashed a window in the house following a violent argument. Min cut herself very badly on a piece of glass. Her daughter was terrified her mother would die while her son helped to save her life. Nessa said how hard it was to bring up her children after they witnessed their dad arguing all the time and threatening their mum with a knife.
 

Witnessing domestic abuse had left Nessa’s daughter with really low confidence and her son copying some of his dad’s violent behaviour.

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Age at interview: 22
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First relationship, what impact do you think that had on those around you, like your children, being in that relationship?

My daughter hasn’t got no confidence at all. She has now because we’ve been out of the relationship, well I’ve been out of the relationship a while, but she hasn’t got, well now she has, but she didn’t have much confidence with adults and men especially. She was quite wary only because she used to see me and her dad argue all the time and everything. Like it was in front of her when he threatened me with the knife. Like she’s really quite wary of men and her confidence is really quite low. But that, that would, I’d say that’s it really.

Yeah.

But my son, [Name], his behaviour where he’s seen my ex-partner be violent and stuff too …

Yeah.

… he’s more quite boisterous and quite, if he don’t get his own way, he’ll throw things, he’ll have a paddy, he’ll even like try slapping and stuff like that, and I’ve just got to say to him, “No [Name], like that’s not nice. You don’t do stuff like that,” but it’s quite hard because when you see that, you can’t really use words like, “No, stop being a bully,” and stuff like that, because what he’s seen, and you don’t really want to like make them think about that too much. So it’s, it’s quite, it’s really hard really to bring up your children after the domestics.

Yeah.

It’s really hard.
 

During an attack involving her ex, Min unknowingly cut an artery in her neck. Her fifteen year old son witnessed the scene, called 999 and had to hold a clamp in place to save his mother’s life (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 47
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I remember thinking this [crying]. I remember going up the stairs [sniffs] and he was – he went to the bathroom or I don’t know [sniffs]. And then I heard some gurgling and I thought, “Shit, what’s that? What’s, what’s that? I’ve never heard that noise before. What’s that?” And then I thought, “There’s blood.” And then I screamed [sniffs]. I’d cut myself. I wasn’t even aware I’d cut myself. My son, who was 15, came out of the room, shouted, “What is going on?” He was in the bathroom. Didn’t say anything. My son looked at me and he said, “I’m calling the, I’m calling for an ambulance.” He rang 999.

Your son?

My 15 year old son. Apparently he had 999 in the bathroom too. I passed out. When I came to, I heard the paramedic, he was over me and the paramedic said to him,

Yes.

 “I’m on my own here. I need your help until the ambulance gets here. Can you please hold the clamp?” He [my husband] stood over me, he stepped over me and he said, “No, I can’t. I have to go and see my baby.” He stepped over me and walked up the stairs. And the paramedic said to my 15 year old son, “I’m sorry, son, but I have to ask you to help me.” My son held the clamp. The ambulance came, took me to the hospital.

The clamp was on you for a cut from the glass? Right. 

I didn’t even know I’d done it. I thought it was in my hand. I thought I was doing this [demonstrates squeezing].

Yes.

So in what way would you say the abuse in your relationships has impacted on your children specifically?

They’ve seen it. My 15 year old son saved my life. He actually saved…

On that occasion when he rang 999?

When he held the clamp.

When he held the clamp.

The paramedic was terrified. He was terrified, he couldn’t cope with the blood loss. And my husband refused to help. And he had to ask my son. And there was blood everywhere.

Had you cut an artery?

I was very close to cutting the I can’t remember, I’d have to look at the notes, but I think I cut the carotid, and I was very close to cutting the jugular. There was a lot of blood.

Right. So your son saved your life and

He hates that.

He hates that?

Yeah, he hates, he, he hates that. He hates talking about it. And it has affected him. He my other children were affected directly by abuse, by their stepfather. He’s called them liars, he’s called them cheats, he’s called them all kinds of things. His children from his first marriage have surprisingly escaped unscathed.

Because he never really spent much time with them. So they’re lucky. He, my ex, my first ex-husband has been affected by all of this. Because after he, that one, broke in with a crowbar and, you know, the police were called and everything he accused, he made an allegation that my first ex-husband was a paedophile who had fiddled with our daughter, who is now 13. And social workers had to investigate that.

So your…

And he was he put my children through that because he is a thoroughly horrid human being.
Shaina’s children remained scared of their dad after he left and did not want to see him as they had witnessed so much violence, including seeing him smash up the house.

Children receiving physical abuse themselves

Domestic violence or abuse that was mostly directed at their mum was sometimes also directed at the children. In some cases this included sexual abuse. Tanya’s children both witnessed and experienced violence.
 

Tanya’s husband beat up their daughter in front of her brothers, then threatened to slit Tanya’s throat if she told anyone or took her child to hospital.

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Age at interview: 45
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What was the biggest, just during those years together, all of those years, all that abuse experience, what was the biggest effect, what was the biggest impact or effect on you and on your life?

Right OK, that’s hard to say, because I think it’s every little bit adds up. It’s like a building block, isn’t it? That, that I know that the main thing that happened was when he absolutely battered our daughter and really, seriously could have killed her. And the boys were there witnessing it, terrified and crying. One was saying, “Daddy, stop it. You’re going to kill her.”

Yeah.

And I was just, I was really trying to stop him. I kept physically trying to stop him from hurting her. He was just hitting her all over and dragging her all around the house. And after that he said just to get me, I’d calmed the kids down, got them all in bed and my daughter went to sleep quite quickly, I think she was exhausted. I know we should have gone to hospital. You can’t just leave, you can’t just leave. He’d have killed us. He’d have killed us. You can’t leave. Anyway after that he said if I ever told anyone about it he would find me and he did this, slit throat, he would slit my throat. And I remember him doing the action [laughs] so that kind of scared me a bit [laughs]. And he told the boys that he was very sorry - to get me, that evening, to get me to come out to leave the boys’ bedroom, he told me that – he told the boys that he was very, very sorry about that and daddy shouldn’t have done that, and daddy won’t do that ever again. Right, he said that just to get me to come away from the boys. So I went in the dining room. And he said he just threatened me in a very calm, calculating way, which is even more scary. When they’re calm and they threaten you, that’s so scary. And he said something like, “I only said that to get you out of there,” and then he threatened me with slitting my throat, he said, if I told anyone about it, about him battering our daughter. Yeah, that is scary when they’re calm, that is terrifying.
Several women feared that their children had been abused by their partners, but children were reluctant to talk about it or were told by the abuser to keep it quiet. Alonya tried to shield her daughter from her partner’s violence but she was concerned that he might have abused her while Alonya was at work. Liz’s daughter told her mother she was frightened of her father because he hugged her, put his hands down inside her leggings, and sometimes hit her.
 

Alonya’s concerns were raised when her daughter confided in her that she had a ‘secret’ with her daddy that she couldn’t tell.

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Age at interview: 31
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And how was he with her?

Well, he was OK. 

Right.

He was, he was, although there was a time, I started to think, because I was so tired mentally, I probably didn’t see things through and I wish I was stronger, and I wish I didn’t leave her with him, because sometimes I think, “Well maybe he was hurting her”, but very cowardly.

You mean you left her when you went out to work, that type of thing?

That’s right. 

Yeah.

There was the moments when he would look after her.

Right.

And there was a time I think like he could have done something, because my daughter was really affected by all of that.

Really, in what, what ways do you think?

School found her behaviour very different. And we had a specialist working for, was with her for two years. 

There was a moment sometime where we left, she started to feel more free in the house, I remember we, she would take baths, she would draw a bath. It, it started it, she felt all that pressure inside although I tried not to scream or cry much, even at all in front of her. One time, when we left, a week after or something, she told me that they had a secret. And I said, “What sort of secret?”, and she kind of wouldn’t explain, wouldn’t be able to explain, but he said, she told me that, “He told me not tell mummy”, and that did concern me. 
 

Liz discovered that , while she stayed overnight in town for work, her seven-year old daughter regularly slept in her father’s bed at home and he made her watch him masturbating.

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Age at interview: 46
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And she kept trying to explain to us why she was angry. We just couldn’t get it. So in the end she said, “I’ll show you.” So we went upstairs into my bedroom, and my au pair sat, lay on the bed, and she showed us what he’d do. And what he was doing was that he was physically waking her up when he went to bed, or sometime in the night, I don’t know when, but some, she was being woken up quite violently, she said, and then she was, because she doesn’t sleep with clothes on, being pulled over to his side of the bed and he would wrap her round him, into him, his arm around her. And then she would be, he would hold her chin or her face and he would, she said he would put his hands underneath the covers and he would be masturbating and force her to watch the covers going up and down. And that’s what we couldn’t understand, because she kept saying, “Up and down and look.” And she said, “He kept making me look.” We were like, “What were you looking at? What were you looking at?” And it was like, “Look, look, look at me, look.” And it was like [deep breath].

And, and I said, “Well, what was going up and down?” and she said, “I think he was wiggling.” And I went, “OK.” And she knows, because she would sometimes wiggle in her bed and I’d had to say to her about doing it in her bed. And so it turned out he’d been masturbating in front of her three nights a week whenever I was away. And but you see she didn’t understand.

How old was she?

She was 7 at the time. She just was angry with him for waking her up. Because it was, she said because sometimes she’d fall asleep on him and he’d physically wake her up again or bang her on the head to wake her up, and holding her chin.

Oh.

That’s what made her angry. She didn’t really, she still doesn’t understand what he was doing [deep breath]. So again, the police became involved in another ABE. And at this point we’re hoping to get the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], it’s now with the CPS for a decision. But the abuse continued. He denied it all. And then he’s taken me to family court because he wants her back in that house with him and it’s really frightening.
Coercive control over children

Children were influenced by the controlling behaviour that was happening, mainly towards their mum, but also to themselves and the whole way the household operated. The accounts of women revealed some direct effects of this, such as children not being allowed to make a lot of noise, to have their friends round, or not being allowed to have a birthday party. Controlling behaviour was often more subtle, for example their dad would discipline them quite harshly, while their mum took on the role of protector.
 

When Charlotte’s teenage daughters realised how controlling and abusive their dad was, they decided they did not want to continue seeing him (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
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The girls are now all saying, “Actually, do you know what, suddenly we’re aware now…

Yeah.

…of everything that’s been going on.” And they then went, they went to [Country 4] to stay with him for a week. It was awful. They had a terrible time. By the last night they were sleeping with their passports under their pillows and they had a grab bag by the door, because they were scared, they thought they might have to do a runner in the middle of the night. He was behaving really badly. Didn’t feed them properly, there was no proper food in the house. Lots of lectures about respect and the way he expected them to behave. Lots of, he would go out, leave his phone at home, go out, get drunk, 4.00 in the morning. Just frightening, they just were frightened of him. He’s unpredictable, he’s volatile and they’d suddenly, all their memories of their childhood had been blown open again.

Yeah.

So since then, since they, since that week, they’ve decided, they’ve even said they need to not see him, not even – they don’t want to. They need to have some space from him. He’s barely been in touch with them. I think he’s probably – I think actually he’s relieved, I think. He even said to them when they were over there, “The thing is, mum’s always been better at the looking after and the love bit. I’m just better at the fun and the adventures really. So I’ll do that and mum can like look after you and love you and stuff.” And they, I think because they went there - we had, we had had a few conversations before they went about domestic abuse, and I’d started talking to them and using that language and kind of getting them to look at different tactics that he has and different ways that he, that he manipulates people and tries to control people.

Yeah.

So because they went over with their eyes much more open you know, they were, they were able to see it. So they phoned me up, and as scared as they were, they were still laughing. You know, “Can you believe he said this? Can you believe he said that he doesn’t really do looking after? He’s told us all that we’re a pain in the arse to parent and, you know, ‘Fucking teenage girls, I can’t wait till you’ve got teenage daughters and you know how fucking hard they are to look after.’” You know, you don’t swear like that at your children. He took them all off to the cinema to go and watch a 15, and my youngest isn’t even 12 yet. And it’s so they’re, they’re all starting to see it.
Some women described how their children lived in fear of their dad, never wanted to be alone with him and were frightened of upsetting him, so they were ‘living on eggshells’ like their mum. Others resented their mum for not standing up to their abusive partner, and for not leaving him. Some children bonded to their dad and turned against their mum. Lindsay said her daughter had ‘a lot of resentment’ against her… ‘she seemed to think I allowed this to happen’

We were told about a range of tactics partners used to get children on their side, like buying them expensive gifts and spreading rumours about their mum. Jessica described how her ex manipulated her two adult children against her by giving them money and ‘bad-mouthing’ her.
 

After leaving her marriage of twenty-seven years, Jessica realised that she had lost everything, including her children, but she is now working on rebuilding her life ‘as a new me’.

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Age at interview: 46
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I’ve lost everything really. And I’ve got to rebuild my life as, as a new me. As a single person. My children still don’t have contact.

You don’t have contact from either of them?

No. I was making all the, with my son, I was actually making bridges and we sort of like go two steps forward and one back, and then one day he came to where I was living and he’d just had a meal with my husband and he was abusive. He said to me, I read the divorce papers and your assets are blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and the time before he’d been my place he’d been in the rooms and he said also, your assets are and the bailiffs can take the lot. He said, “Dad’s picking me up and I’m going there”. And with that he got up and he left. 

Was that the place where you are currently living, he came, or …?

Yes. And I changed the locks, I was told to change the locks.

So you’re still getting ongoing harassment and contact?

No, because I’ve stopped trying to make bridges. I’ve decided that he’s an adult I’ve done my bit and if he wants to, he knows where I live and if he wants to make contact he can. So I’ve had to literally cut him out of my life.

And why are you experiencing, do, why would you say you’re experiencing difficulty having contact with your children?

He’s manipulating them. My son has to live, I know I’m making excuses, my son has to listen to him all the time going on about me. And with my daughter, he has put money into an account for her, so he’s buying her.
 

Khalida’s husband helped his daughters out financially and through them he tried to access his son (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 58
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And what contact, if any, do you have with your husband?

I don’t have much contact with him, any contact with him. But he has contact with my daughters. And my daughters have now contact with my son, they are meeting my little, my boy for the past six months now. But they are persuading him to have contact with the brother, with the father. So now he’s trying to get to, get to the boy.

Why are they trying to do that?

Because the dad wants to see his son.

Yeah, so do the

Well they’re kind of trying but my boy doesn’t want to really go back and forth and

No. What’s your relationship like with your daughters?

Well they are taking the father’s side really.

OK.

They’re not taking – they’re not thinking about me. And I think, I’m thinking that they’re quite selfish in that way, while I’ve been lumbered with dad. What they’re doing is, why have we been lumbered with dad, he’s phoning us day and night, he’s alone and phoning us day and night, except when his mother is there. His mother comes and goes, you know.

What about your older sons?

My older sons he was in, well my eldest son was in Vienna, working in Vienna for two or three years, but then he’s come back now and he’s looking for a job. And hopefully next week he’s got interviews and things planned. He’s looking for a job to go back to, back abroad. 

Right.

But then my other eldest son, he’s just, I don’t know what, he’s just editing and he’s just freelance editing and stuff, and he just pays his bills. They don’t really, can’t really help me.

Right.

And my daughters, they’re, the younger one is doing her MBC, so she needs her father to pay for it.

Oh right.

My middle one, she’s doing the other step, the third step to the, the last step to becoming a solicitor, training or something, so she can’t help me. She, she’s got, you know, her own problems and her own stress with her own accommodation to pay for, which is also being paid for by, through my husband and what have you.

Right.

And then my eldest daughter, because she’s found a job, but she’s also quite like my son, the youngest son, so she, she can’t be stressed. And she, and also she’s taking her father’s side. She is saying that, “No, mum, you have to go back home with [participant’s youngest son], because dad is better now. Dad is a lot better. Dad is a lot this and dad is a lot that. And dad is sicker because he’s got really bad diabetes. And he’s worried that his cancer might come back.” I said, “Oh he’s just trying to attract attention, is what he’s trying to do.” 
Post-separation, children were sometimes used by men as bargaining tools in legal proceedings and access arrangements. Tasha and other women said they became a channel by which their ex could contact and ‘get at’ their mum. Victoria’s partner took their son, nearly two years old, away from her for six days and nights without her agreement. When he was returned, he was anxious and clingy and Victoria feels the abuse had long-term impacts on him.
 

Victoria feared she would lose access to her son as an ‘unfit mother’ when her partner took him, as her self-esteem was so low (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 42
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What was the biggest impact that the abuse had on you, just thinking over your year and a bit?

The biggest impact phew, I guess, well, I mean I guess it’s affected [Son]. It’s affected me, so it’s like he’s part of me, he’s my son so but the thing that really affected me was [Name] withholding [Son] for six days and six nights.

And when did he do that?

Last May, yeah.

Right, so how did that come about? How did he?

I finished work, we’d arranged that I would have [Son] on the Thursday night before he took [Son] down to his parents for a weekend, so I went, I finished work, drove down, knocked on the door and he wouldn’t let me in. So I was in a state in the car. My brother said, “I’ll call the police.” So the police were called. But because [Son] – [Name] is on the birth certificate, he is also a legal guardian of [Son]. So the police, the only intervention the police can have is they can go and check that [Son] is OK. So I had a very understanding and lovely police officer who I was going mental on the phone, and he said, “You need,” the police, the first police officer said, “Go home.” I just thought, “But I haven’t got [Son] with me. I can’t not see him for that period of time.” So came back. I remember just being in a total state, wondering how long [Name] was going to have [Son], would, would I ever see him again, would? Because the thing is, he made my self-esteem was so low that he made me question everything about me, even my sanity. So it was like, “Is he going to persuade professionals that I’m, you know, I’m in the wrong somehow? Is he going to – how is?” And it was all about, he wasn’t thinking about [Son], because [Son] was severely affected after that, really.
Children missing out on family life and contacts with relatives

Many women were living in relative isolation with their partner, so the children also had little contact with the wider extended family. 

Some women described how, when they left the relationship, their children experienced un-settled lives, often lacking a routine, moving home a lot and maybe spending time in a women’s refuge. Most women had very little in the way of financial resources. Alonya’s daughter initially kept in contact with her dad using Skype but Alonya eventually had to cut off all contact when he tried to take their daughter home to the Middle East and she feared she would lose her forever.
 

When Alonya refused to let her daughter travel with her dad, he became abusive and threatening. Alonya realised the only way forward was to cut off all contact with him and his family.

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Age at interview: 31
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So recently I was supposed to let her go to [Arabic country] to meet with him and it was planned by him and his family. And I, throughout the year, I always felt like not, I don’t want to 100% to do that but I couldn’t say no. 

And in the beginning of June, I felt that I don’t want her to go. I felt, I started to feel that it would be bad. 

And I let them know that she’s not coming to [Arabic country] and he got furious and he started to, almost threatening me again and that brought me to decision that I will also completely stop contact with him and his family. It was very difficult because, again, I think about my daughter first, because she will miss them. But, I don’t see any other ways for me to recover.

And I began just to say this and want to change my name, change my address…

Yes. Yeah.

…and I want to start my life without my past… So.
Children experiencing poor parenting

Women often felt that their children experienced poor parenting because of the abuse and violence at home. Many fathers were either absent most of the time, drunk or on drugs, or neglected children in their care if their mum was out.
 

Jessica’s husband neglected their very young baby leaving him to ‘scream and scream’ while he was ‘tinkering’ in the loft.

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Looking back to the time when you were living in the marriage, was your husband ever abusive to the children?

Yes. Especially when they were babies and I can remember the first time I went out and left my son, when he was, I don’t know, a few months old, it was the first time I actually got to leave the house without him, and somebody invited me to a ceramics party and my son was asleep in his Moses basket downstairs and I hadn’t, I’d only gone out for two hours at the most, and I’d come back and I’d found my son still in the Moses basket but he had cried and screamed and he was sweaty. He’d peed so much the Moses basket was saturated and he was absolutely exhausted. And my husband had gone up in his loft space, which was this where he liked to, you know, tinker with different things and he’d stayed up there the whole time. And when I said to him about it he said it did him good. And yet I could have lost him that night. So easily lost him. And so I didn’t leave him, I didn’t go out. Yeah, that really hurts, to think that he could have done that. 

Is your son the older of the, of your two…?

Yes…

… children?

… he is. Yes.

And was your husband abusive towards your daughter at all?

He [sighs] idolised her. In fact he idolises her so much that people notice it, notice when she, because she lives away that his whole demeanour changes when she’s around. And it worried me that maybe he’d sexually abused her or something. But she said he has not.

OK. 

But he just adores her. And when my daughter’s there he ignores my son totally. It’s as if he doesn’t exist in the house. It often happened like that.

As if my son meant nothing.
Yasmin’s only chance to get out of the house was to walk her children to nursery but her husband made her leave the baby at home, to ensure that she returned.
 

Yasmin would return from the nursery drop-off to find her husband drunk and asleep and her baby screaming.

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Age at interview: 32
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Sometimes … in the morning, because he was mostly drunk, so in the morning I get opportunity while he’s sleeping to take them to nursery.

Right. Yes.

So when he want to have argument he will say, ‘Oh, why didn’t you wake me up? Why you went out?’

Uh-huh.

But if, because that’s giving him a break as well, to get up in that … drunk mode, he was okay as well, me walking my son to the nursery. But he kept … like my, I had give birth to my daughter …

Yes.

… and then he says, ‘Oh, don’t take your daughter out with you, leave her home because it’s cold.’ So … in order to walk my son I have to leave my daughter with him.

Oh. And how did that make you feel?

In, in the beginning I thought he start to have a little care about me, oh he’s thinking …

Yeah. Yeah.

… he’s like giving time to my daughter.

Yes, yes.

But … I, like over the time I just realise it’s just … he’s making sure I’m always going to come back.

Right, yes.

Because sometimes I come back and my daughter is … she’s crying and he’s not even awake.

No, gosh.

So obviously I’m going to feel bad, my daughter is crying out of her lungs and the Father is drunk sleeping, cannot even hear her.

Yes.

So then either I have to leave her with him, or either make him wake up.

Yes.

To leave my child to school. And then he will say, ‘Oh why you have to pick the morning shift? Why you couldn’t like take the afternoon one?’, and I said, ‘There wasn’t any place’ and this and that.
Charlotte described trying so hard to ‘placate’ her partner to make sure ‘nothing bad happened’ that she changed her natural parenting style to suit him. Looking back she felt angry and sad that her daughters ‘missed out’.
 

Charlotte had to breastfeed her babies in secret so that her husband, who disapproved, could not find out (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 38
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And then I think the, the biggest influence he’s had in terms of effect on my relationships was affecting the way I was allowed to parent the girls. I think that was the biggest one. Because if he was around I wasn’t allowed to parent them; I had to pay all my attention to him. He didn’t like it if I was sitting on the floor playing with them, that wasn’t OK.

And was that from very young?

Yeah, from when they were tiny. If I comforted them when they were crying, that wasn’t alright. He didn’t really like me breastfeeding. You know, they had to be toughened up, they had to learn to look after themselves and be toughened up. I would shout at them for things that I knew he would shout at them for, because I thought my shouting was more gentle than his. So tidy bedrooms, I didn’t care if their rooms were a mess, but I knew that he cared. And I knew he expected them to tidy their bedrooms, rather than having them tidied, you know, rather than me doing it, he expected them to do it themselves. So I would shout at them for having messy bedrooms, in the hope that they would tidy it up, in the hope that by the time he got back from work they’d be tidy and he wouldn’t shout at them for it.

Yeah.

You know, that’s so messed up.

But it was a logic that you had at the time. And having to change your parenting as well because of him, you were saying, like not comforting your daughter if she was crying or whatever, how did that feel?

Awful, that was awful. Not being allowed to go to them when they were upset was horrible. Being forced to do the whole controlled crying thing when they were babies and in cots went against everything. Every instinct in me was to breastfeed, co-sleep, carry in a sling, you know, nurture my babies.

Yeah, very attachment parenting styles.

Yeah absolutely. You know, and I was young, I didn’t know, you know, I wasn’t – that’s just what felt instinctive to me, that’s what I felt I wanted to do. That just made sense to me. And to feel, not only unable to do that, but to have the person you’re parenting with basically tell you not to and kind of get in the way of that and make you feel bad for wanting to do it and telling you were doing a bad job by doing that, that was really horrible. That was really hard. That was probably the hardest thing. I can remember breastfeeding in secret, telling him I’d stopped breastfeeding and then still breastfeeding in secret. And kind of listening to him coming up the stairs and quickly whipping my nipple out of [laughs] her mouth and thinking, “Oh God, now make it just look like you were just giving her a cuddle. Oh no, you’d better not be giving her a cuddle. Right, put her in her cot and just put your hand on her, and then he won’t think” – you know. That’s, and that’s crazy. 

But what about now, thinking, looking back at the fact that he’s made you change or be different, in terms of your parenting style, how do you feel about that now?

That makes me angry. It just makes me really angry and sad. I feel really sad that the girls missed out on that. I feel angry that he did that to me and to them. It makes me feel stupid as well for allowing it to happen and not being strong enough to just say, “Actually, this is how I want to do it.” And I was with some things. You know, there were some things I did that he said, “I don’t think we should do this,” and I said, “Tough.” But it was always about placating him, you know, and making sure that nothing bad happened.

Hmm yeah.

But I don’t think I really – I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time.
Some women said that too much of their energy went into dealing with the abuse, so they did not have enough attention for their children. They talked of feeling very guilty, that they had ‘failed’ their children by subjecting them to their partner’s abuse and for not leaving sooner.

Impacts on children’s behaviour

Women’s stories varied. Some women felt they had managed to protect their children from the worst aspects of domestic abuse, but many feared that their children might grow up to repeat the ‘cycle of abuse’. They recounted how their boys were beginning to mirror their dad’s behaviour, or were becoming angry and aggressive.
 

Ana felt the refuge was a haven where she felt ‘free’ but her children spent half the time with their dad who had a negative influence on their behavior (played by an actor).

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I went straight into the refuge.

Right, okay. Yeah. And how long were you there for?

I was there for less than a year, just under a year I think.

Right. Okay, and then you’ve got your own place after?

Yeah, yes, it was, it was a journey.

I’m sure.

You know, it was, it wasn’t easy because the children didn’t know, and at that point, they still had contact with their dad…

Right.

… and they had a lot of contact with their dad. They had like half the time with him.

Right.

We actually didn’t live in the main house, we lived in one of the flats.

Yes.

So we had a bedroom, had one bedroom with all our stuff. So I guess for me, it was a haven.

Yes.

I remember saying to [name], “I feel, I feel free.”

Yes.

Obviously it wasn’t the end, you know.

No.

But I said, “I feel free.” Unfortunately, my children didn’t feel the same.

No. Mm.

They found it, they found it hard and that reflected on the stuff he was telling them when they would go and see him reflected in their behaviour, which is still ongoing, unfortunately the issue.
Some women saw their daughters getting into abusive relationships themselves.
 

Tanya talked about the impact of abuse on all three of her children, including her daughter’s violent behaviour, which took them years to address.

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Age at interview: 45
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So let’s start then with talking about the impact you think it’s had on you and your daughter.

And the children, the three children, the impact. Well, the kids learned that if you shout at mummy, mummy does what you say, OK, so they learned that. So I had them shouting at me a lot. Now the daughter became violent when we when we left him, her violence, her violence increased.

Had she been violent when you were with him?

Hmm not really, hmm not really, only when she was fighting him off, him off her. Yeah, behaviour, major behavioural issues off, off my daughter. She blamed me for the violence. I remember her one day, when we’d moved back to England, and she was screaming at me in the street and crying her eyes out saying, “You wanted daddy to hit me. You, bet you, I bet you told him to hit me. Bet you told him to beat me up.” She was really cry, really crying. And violent where she threw knives one night at me in [Country], when we still lived in [Country]. She just trashed the house because she wasn’t getting her own way about something. Yep, that, so I had to end up, I had to ask for support, parenting support.

Who did you ask for that from?

I phoned, when her behaviour was just making it unbearable at home, because it was impacting then on the boys, I phoned school. I asked school for some help. And I didn’t get it. And then it was the summer holidays. Because she was a little angel at school at that point.

Was she at secondary?

Yeah.

Secondary school then, yeah.

Secondary, she was 13 at this point. Secondary, maybe 14 she was, nearly 14. Angel at school at that point. However, nightmare at home. I was, it was like living on, it was still living with abuse, but it was from the daughter, my daughter…

Was it just towards you or was it directed towards the boys as well?

Me.

Just you?

Me, mainly me, mainly me.

Was it verbal abuse or…

Yeah.

…just physical?

Oh yeah, verbal, lots of verbal, screaming and shouting. Nasty. So I got to the point where I just couldn’t cope, couldn’t cope anymore. So I phoned the school. They did nothing for a while. And then it was the summer holidays. Phoned them back and they finally put, they, this, took me seriously. Because I was saying, “I can’t live with this anymore. Got rid of my husband and now I’m having it off my daughter.” So that really delayed my healing process. I was like friends, when I moved back to [UK], a friend said I was like a, a startled rabbit in the headlights. I was just terrified, terrified of my own shadow.

Terrified of him turning up and following through with the threats of burning the house down, and just being near me. So great impact. All the kids had, all the boys had learning developmental delay, which can be an impact, can be a symptom of domestic abuse. I mean they lived with it from the word go, from the moment more or less that I conceived they were living, that, you know, they, even when I was pregnant I was stressed and upset by my husband’s behaviour.
Linda said that when her husband left, she felt her grandchildren missed out on contact with their grandfather and the family home. Linda described how she collapsed with illness and exhaustion following violence and manipulation from her husband. Her daughters were not ready to help her out by offering her support, needing instead for her to be ‘strong’.

Impacts on children: psychological and health problems

Women’s stories revealed children who found it hard to trust, who had difficulty expressing anger or flew into destructive rages, others who experienced separation anxiety. Sara’s daughter ‘sobbed uncontrollably’ and wet the bed when it was time to visit her father. Tanya’s children witnessed a lot of violence in the home and she described how they would get anxious when their father’s car pulled up in the drive after work. Anna’s daughter found it hard to leave her mum to go to school.
 

Domestic abuse affected all three of Melanie’s daughters. One still has ‘night terrors’, one had a speech problem and the oldest has experienced abusive partner relationships herself.

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Age at interview: 42
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So, do you think your own experiences of abuse have impacted on other people around you in your life?

Yes. Yes.

Who, in particular would you say?

I would say my youngest daughter. She’s still having night terrors. She comes running into my room every night. She’s very, she always makes sure that she, that I’m OK.  She’s very, I say to her, “Can I be mum today please?” Because I find that she’s very “Mum, have you got your keys? Mum, have you taken your tablets? Mum, have you eaten today?” And she’s only seven. And that’s not something a seven year old should have to feel like they need to do.

It affects her in school. She went through a stage where she wasn’t talking. Yeah, I think it’s affected her a great deal. My middle daughter as well, I think she’s very like me, I don’t, I think she’s, I think she, her voice a lot of the time, she doesn’t know how to express herself. And I think that’s a part of what’s happened because she developed a stammer when I was in my relationship with …

The latest relationship?

Not the latest one.

No.

No. When she was about, she was about five or six, when I came back to England …

Yeah.

… that was, and I was with the guy that broke, bit my finger down to the bone …

yes,

… she witnessed that, her and my oldest witnessed that and she went through a very bad period of where she couldn’t’ get her words out, she would stutter.

Was this man living in your household?

He was there all the time. He wasn’t living there but he felt he had enough control that he could be there whenever he wanted to. Yeah

Yeah. So yeah, I think it’s affected all of my children. I’m trying to think my oldest one, she’s very feisty. And I think she’s a go-getter. I think there’s something about her. And I don’t know whether it’s because of how she was, she came into this world, I always think that maybe because she was created not in a very nice way she is, she’s got a bit of a fight in her.

So she’s, I think, I can imagine there is, there probably is something, she has had relationships as well that have been abusive actually, now I’m thinking about it. But she does soon get out of them. 

Yeah. So, yeah, it has affected all three of my kids. In some way.
Many of the women said their children were diagnosed with mental health problems as a result of domestic abuse, often post-separation. Jane’s daughter developed bulimia nervosa*. Philippa’s daughter was still on anti-depressants, ten years after they left her dad, and experiences flashbacks if she hears anyone ‘yelling’.
 

Philippa wonders if her daughter suffered from becoming her Mum’s ‘ally’ from the age of eleven.

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So I had to, mostly I had to ignore it as much as I could and I think my daughter and I became allies, you know, in that I had to rely on her and talk to her about things because I didn't have anybody else to talk to which was obviously not good for her but .

And how old was she at the time?

She was 11 when we left so she was obviously younger when it started. 

And when she was younger than that did you talk to her, talk to her as well as your ally.

Not so much no. I think, she was obviously aware of things going on because there was shouting and generally she didn't see much of the physical violence but she would hear a lot of shouting. She obviously heard the music because it would prevent her from sleeping, she knew things were going on. and sometimes it would happen at the end of the school day so she'd see some of the verbal abuse as well. So yeah that, that was really difficult for her. 

And what sort of impact do you think that abuse has had on, had on your two daughters?

On her a huge impact because she's now got depression so she's on antidepressants, and she gets triggers where memories come back. She was in a nightclub the other night she said and somebody started yelling at her and her friends and it brought back the memories of her father and so she was in tears. So even now, 10 years later, she's still really badly affected by, you know, the memories of what happened. 

What about your younger, younger daughter?

She doesn't remember so much because she was five when we left so she knows that there were problems, but we just simply don't talk about him. I think she's okay, I don't know I just think she is because she doesn't remember enough about what was going on. 
A few women said that their children became suicidal. Khalida’s son twice tried to strangle himself in response to his father’s abuse. This was the final trigger for Khalida to leave her husband. Her son also developed a long-term chronic bowel problem.

Children taking action

Several women said that actions taken by their children had been the trigger to getting help and leaving the abusive relationship. For example, Khalida’s eleven year old son talked to the doctor. Khalida's husband psychologically and physically abused both her and their son but she could not confide in the doctor as her husband always went with them. The boy had a chronic bowel problem and had attempted suicide but he managed to create an oppertunity for disclosure about the violence and abuse at home. Jane’s daughter confided in the school counsellor.
 

Khalida reveals how her son took the initiative to disclose abuse and she talks about the repercussions she would have faced if she had tried to visit the doctor alone (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 58
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He was shouting at the boy all the time, and he was upset all the time. So I said, “I can’t cope with this. It’s happening, it’s like all the time now. There’s no respite.”

Yes.

It was stress, stress, stress, stress, stress. So the poor boy is suffering.

Yes.

And then I realised. Then in the morning, one morning – oh sorry, then I took him to the doctor’s. He said, “I’m not going to let you take, take him to the doctor’s. You’re going to come with me. I’m going to go to the doctor. I’m going to talk to the doctor about this disgusting devil of a child, this and that. He’s not bleeding, he’s not anything. He’s lying, he’s this, he’s not, he’s not going to kill himself, he’s not.” So anyway, we went to the doctor. And the doc – and my son 

The three of you together?

Three of us together. Obviously we couldn’t, we couldn’t say anything in front of him. But my son, being, became brave and said to the doctor, “Can I speak to you without my parents?” He said it with me included, in case my father thought, his father thought that, you know, I’m included in it or something, in what he’s going to say. So after he the doctor asked us, “OK, would you mind if you went outside for ten minutes?”

So the boy had asked in front of both of you?

Yeah hmm.

Wow.

Yeah, so he was very brave.

Yes.

So I said I said, “Of course, yes, of course.” Because I knew that he was – whatever he wanted to tell the doctor. So anyway my husband was fuming when we came home. “What did he tell the doctor? You bastard this, you bastard that.” I said, “Well I don’t know, whatever was upsetting him, I guess,” I said, “he’s probably talked to the doctor about whatever was upsetting him.” And when we came in to came in to see the doctor afterwards he said, “Well I understand what’s happening with your son. And Monday I will arrange for a therapist, a therapy for him. I will arrange for someone to do counselling for him. And I will see, you know, see what I can do on Monday. Because now it’s Friday evening and I can’t do anything right now.” So anyway, Monday morning came and at eight o’clock in the morning I phoned the doctor’s, because I wanted to see the doctor, because my son wouldn’t go to school. He didn’t want to go to school and he was bleeding again. And I said, “They need to give him some medication. The colonoscopy was inconclusive. They need to give him some medication.” So the medication so he didn’t, because he didn’t have it, I said, “I need to take him to the doctor’s to get medication, see why he is bleeding, to stop the bleeding.” But my son had already told me that the doctors, “One doctor wants to see me and you together, he doesn’t want to see dad with us.” So I decided that, yes, we are going to go on Monday. I wanted it done urgently as possible. My husband wouldn’t let me go. He said, “You’re not going to the doctor. You’re not going to see to the doctor again. You’re never going again to the doctor with him. I don’t know what you’re telling the doctor. I don’t know what’s going on.” I said, “Yes I am. My son is bleeding, my son is suicidal, I am going to take him to the doctor’s and I am going to see what the doctor is going to do about it.” He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t let me go. I had my keys in my hand and my coat on, everything, got him ready. He wouldn’t let me go. And then I phoned my eldest daughter up. I said, “Listen, dad is not letting me take [participant’s youngest son] to the doctor’s. I need to take him to the doctor’s to stop the bleeding, it won’t stop.”

What would have happened if you’d just physically gone?

He’d got the keys on him, outside keys. Because that’s what he did. Whenever he didn’t want me to leave, he would keep the keys on him. Obviously, if I tried to snatch the keys he would beat me to death or something or whatever. You know, I would be too afraid to snatch the keys from him.

Yes.
 

Jane’s daughter told her school counsellor about the abuse at home, which led to her, her mum and sister getting help to leave the relationship.

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Because she was absolutely hysterical whilst this was happening, you know. And then again afterwards it was my fault. He didn’t really think he’d done anything wrong. My eldest daughter actually reported that to her school. And because I was travelling to school that morning, taking the two children, and I was still very upset I kept saying, you know, I said to myself in the car out loud, “Something needs doing about this,” well it was then that my daughter took it upon herself to disclose that to the school. And as soon as that was disclosed then Social Services got involved and the police.

Right.

And I was able to leave that night. But even then, when Social Services was following me because he was following me back past my house to be able to go to my friend’s house he had the gates open like he was expecting me to come home. And the shock on his face when he realised that I drove by and that the Social Services was behind me, was a picture.

Yeah.

It was like, “What’s going on?” you know.

I think that was my main that was my main form of support in the first place, was that she was so nice.

Yeah.

There was her and there was her area manager.

OK.

And they made me feel so at ease and, you know, she was really, really nice to me and said, “Look,” she said, “use this as your opportunity to get away,” she said, you know, “from this moment in, if you want to, if you work with us, then he’s never had to, going to have to bother you again.”

And how did they support you then through that time?

Well literally as I’ve gone to pick up my eldest child, because they wouldn’t let him pick her up, he was obviously waiting at the school, and there was a police officer outside. So he wasn’t allowed to enter the school premises or try and attempt to get our oldest child away. From that moment, you know, when I walked into the school, was when I felt safe. Because there was, there was my daughter’s class teacher there, there was the head of year there, there was the parent support worker there, they was there on behalf of the school, and there was also two lovely social workers. And at that moment I felt actually safe because there was a policeman outside.

Yeah.

Because there was all these people there that was willing to help me.

Was that the first time you’d felt safe in a long while?

That was the first time I’d felt safe in a long time, yeah.

And thinking back to that time, was there anything that was done particularly well for you?

The school were fantastic. You know, they supported my eldest really well. She was, all she kept saying all day was, “My dad’s going to kill me, my dad’s going to kill me for this.” And she was really, really scared. She was white. She was wondering what I was going to do 

Yeah.

And what I was going to say, whether I was going to diminish it. And they kept reassuring her all the time throughout the day that now she’d said something there was absolutely no way that they are going to let like even Social Services or even the school is going to let her live with her father again.

Yeah.

Yeah, and if I chose to come with them then, you know, all well and good. But if I decided to choose him and go home then they would, they would have to go somewhere together.

Yeah.

You know, so that was incredibly frightening for her, but at the same time they made her feel, you know, that this was the right thing to do and that, “Obviously mum’s not going to go and go home, she’s going to go with you, she’s going to choose the children, she’s not going to choose an abusive partner.” You know, so they put her mind at rest there. And once I realised the enormity of the situation and then looked back as to what I’d put up with, I couldn’t believe it. You know, I was a totally different person when I came towards the end as what I was in the beginning.
*An emotional disorder characterised by bouts of extreme over-eating followed by fasting or self-induced vomitting or purging.
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