Domestic violence, South Yorkshire Women’s Aid and healing: one survivor’s story

South Yorkshire Women’s Aid is facing closure, due to a lack of local authority funding. One survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me her story. It demonstrates why this vital service is so important. And why it must be saved.

WARNING: THIS TESTIMONY CONTAINS INFORMATION SOME READERS MAY FIND UPSETTING.

You can donate to the South Yorkshire Women’s Aid crowdfunder here.

When I was pregnant with my son, my partner who had previously been kind and caring boyfriend, changed his behaviour towards me.

He began, in more ways than one, belittling me: snapping at me; putting down how I looked; increasingly seeming to forget his wallet when we went places; mistreating me, and it even escalated to him physically pushing me and shouting at me in public places.

Before I’d had a chance or even a free minute to realise what a sad and serious situation me, my daughter and my unborn child were in, I found myself under the complete control of this man.

He had PIN numbers to all of my bank cards.

He would shout, and scream, and scream, and shout, until I applied for another store card or another credit card. He had bad credit and couldn’t get any of his own

But he would insist that the things he needed were so important, and that he’d be happier if he had certain things and if he could go certain places.

My life was incredibly miserable.

Near to the end, when I was close to leaving him, the first time he pushed me over I had to run into a shop and hide to try and escape him.

By the time I was six months pregnant I got strong enough to leave him. I simply walked away with my daughter

I sought help from my health visitor and I opened up to my parents.

Trying to rebuild

But I had to rebuild from scratch: new furniture, new home. However I was denied a Maternity Grant because I already had a child. So had to scrimp and save as much as I could, and sell possessions in order to provide such basic things as a cot and nappies for my unborn baby.

I was being punished by the state for leaving this violent man.

The situation I was forced into, by both his behaviour and the lack of care from the coalition government at that time, put me in a predicament – because I couldn’t keep everything a float.

Heartbroken, I gave birth to my son. A friend was with me in the hospital, but all around me were women with husbands, or boyfriends, or partners.

When my friend went home at the end of visiting time there were all these families and all these babies; but just me and my little boy. In the whole world all we had was each other, and my daughter.

Looking back, it was probably the hormones and also a sense of decency that led me to let my ex-partner know that his son had been born

Wheedling back in

I was incredibly vulnerable at the time. I was in hospital for a week after my son’s birth.

But when I returned home I invited my ex-partner to come and meet his son, although my mum was there to make sure that he behaved civilly towards me, while he met his baby.

After a couple of months he wheedled his way back into my life, at first convincing me that he’d changed and that he was so sorry. But this time, the horrendous, abusive behaviour returned more quickly; and with more venom.

He emotionally and psychologically abused me. He forced me to relinquish control over every aspect of my life, from social media, to passwords, to PIN numbers and bank cards.

Whenever I went to see somebody, like a friend for a cup of coffee, he would phone me relentlessly or physically turn up.

I couldn’t breathe. I was being suffocated and I had no way to escape.

Walking on eggshells

We carried on living apart. But he had a key to my house and would let himself in and out, unannounced, whenever the fancy took him.

I was constantly walking on eggshells. I remember I used to go to sleep each night thinking ‘I’ll try harder tomorrow not to upset him’; that ‘I’ll be better for him, I’ll be the best girlfriend and the best mummy so he can’t possibly be mad with me’.

I used to have to wear my hair a certain way, wear certain clothes – even certain shoes.

Once, he made me do an experiment with socks to see which ones where the best value for money. He said it was to help me learn about the ‘false economy’. So, he made me put one sock from Primark and one for one stock from Next, and walk 50,000 steps wearing a pedometer; up and down the stairs in my house – and I wasn’t allowed to stop. I knew if I’d have tried to even go to the toilet he would have screamed at me.

The things he did to me were so degrading. By this time he was acting completely removed from what anyone could call reasonable or usual, acceptable behaviour in a relationship

Rape

He had sex with me when he felt like it. If the children were at home he would force me, even if they were in the next room. He would force me if I was asleep. And he let himself into my house, very often drunk, and if he wanted to have sex with me then he simply did. He would push my face into the pillow so hard I sometimes thought I would die.

I don’t know how I didn’t die. But there was no way I could hide trying to get help: I couldn’t call the police because social services would come round, and he never hurt the children; he only ever hurt me.

I thought that if I shouldered all the abuse then they would be safe. But I never realised that all the while they were hearing me being screamed at, and slammed against walls was a form of abuse from him onto them.

I just knew I had to do all I could do to keep them safe. And if that meant being hurt, then so be it.

A light in a dark tunnel 

I heard about South Yorkshire Women’s Aid (SYWA) which at the time was called Doncaster Women’s Aid, through a friend. I first contacted them by using the excuse to go to the supermarket, where I used the telephone box.

I was so frightened; frightened that he was following me. He always checked my phone history, so I couldn’t use my own telephone. I couldn’t even send an email without him knowing – he read everything. But I called them and they said I needed to talk to somebody.

I was so scared. I told them I was really frightened, and the woman on the end of the phone asked if I was safe. I told her my children were, and I told her what was happening. She said “I believe you”.

You can’t imagine what it feels like to hear those three words. I had never imagined I would hear them, because he was such a skilled manipulator. Anybody outside of our home thought he was a devoted dad and charming.

But he was a monster, and he had granted himself access to every element of my life – to the point where I felt I didn’t have long left to live.

Breaking through

I made an appointment to go in and speak to somebody at SYWA about my situation, to see what kind of support they could offer me. I used the excuse with him that I was going to my college course.

So, I put my son in the nursery and I told the nursery staff where I was going. I trusted them, and they knew there were some problems at home. Because by this time, our little boy who was then two, was quoting his father at nursery and hitting stuff. It was very disturbing for both me and the staff.

I got a lift from a trusted friend who I had verbally arranged to meet, and she drove me to SYWA where I spoke to a support worker. I don’t think I even cried, I think I was just numb.

The support worker listened and asked me some gentle questions; nothing that made me feel under any pressure.

It was made completely clear that I didn’t have to do or say anything that I wasn’t comfortable with; that I had control over everything that would happen next.

It was so nice to be listened to, in that room. It was like being in a parallel universe to the life that I was living.

I didn’t go back straight away to SYWA at first. But I knew that they were there and I felt stronger for that.

Breaking point

A week or so later, I was sitting with my son, both in pyjamas, ready for bed, when my partner came in. He had an open bottle of beer in his hand and was clearly drunk. He was shouting as he came through the door and stumbled into the hallway. He then crashed through the living room door and dented it, and carried on shouting and swearing.

My daughter was upstairs as she had come home early from after school club. He must have thought there was only me and my son in the house. Because when I asked him gently to stop shouting, he paused briefly… and I can’t tell you what happened next because I don’t remember.

But the next thing I knew, I was on the floor in the kitchen and could hear my son screaming; crying like he was very far away.

I’ve been thrown into the kitchen and punched. I woke up with my partner on top of me, pinning down both my arms and my legs. He had a hand around my throat, and he was lifting up my head and smacking it against the floor. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t see clearly.

He suddenly stopped. At first, I didn’t know why. Then I heard my daughter scream and he jumped up and went to grab her, but she ran upstairs.

I grabbed his legs somehow. I honestly don’t know how I managed it; it can only have been pure adrenaline. “Fight or flight” – I’d heard of it, but it never really made sense before that moment.

My daughter who was 11 at the time then had to do a very brave thing. She had to call 999 and tell the operator the her stepdad was beating up her mum.

She had to leave her young brother alone in a room with this violence. I think she still feels guilty about that to this day, no matter how much we reassure her that she did the right thing to protect herself, and that she did a brave thing to protect her family.

As soon as my partner realised that she’d gotten through to somebody on the phone he ran out of the house leaving one shoe behind, as he drunkenly stumbled and fled.

Breaking free

What followed was a subsequent court case where the police pressed charges against my ex-partner. I had to have my injuries photographed by the police photographer, and documented by my GP. Being measured with rulers, standing in my underwear, I felt like I was not connected with reality. It was like I was watching a film.

It was too horrific to believe that it was all really happening, and not only that -that it was happening to me.

My ex-partner was charged with assault, which he admitted to. He got a one year suspended sentence, with conditions that he had to stick to the terms of a non-molestation order that I had obtained in the weeks leading up to the court case.

But then, he took me to a family court, applying for joint custody of the children.

He denied he had been convicted of beating me to the family court judge, which didn’t go favourably against him. He also tried to prove that I was mentally unstable and an unfit mother.

He tried a number of cruel and frankly unbelievable methods of prolonging the court case, like saying he couldn’t get the time off work to attend. It went on for over a year.

But in the end he just made the judge very angry, by lying about his conviction and laughing when the police described my assault and the state I was in when they turned up at my house that day.

The judge said that he was “found to have committed” a further 15 acts of abuse on my person, some of which were when I was pregnant with our son.

The judge used the Children’s Act to decide the rights of my son would be violated, if he was to be put in even the limited, supervised care of his father. And this applied to my son even being sent post by his father, such is the severity of the trauma he’s been left with.

Because of the ridiculous and cruel rules of the judicial system, despite not being allowed near to me outside of the courtroom, he was allowed to cross examine me inside.

I was behind a screen, and security kept him away from me, even in the waiting area during the intervening period.

Breaking out

Prior to, and during the family and the assault court cases I went back to SYWA.

I was supported in getting the locks changed with the local council, and getting a special letter box fitted.

I didn’t have to hide my phone calls anymore!

I called them from my own phone and made appointments. I got a place on a course called the Freedom program, which quite frankly changed my life. It set me on the path to healing and protected me from entering into a relationship with another abusive man. It educated to look out for the characteristics of an abuser.

The SYWA staff had advised me to get to the non-molestation order, so I visited a trusted solicitor and obtained it, with their support.

I could call SYWA at any time and just speak to somebody, for a shoulder to lean on if I needed it – and I did.

When my emotions started to flood my mind, everything I’d locked away and everything I’d been through came back. Especially when I was educated enough to understand that although the children weren’t physically hurt, they were subject to emotional and psychological abuse due to the trauma of hearing them mum being assaulted verbally and physically on so many occasions. I then had a massive breakdown, but SYWA was there for me.

A broken service?

I honestly believe that without SYWA, without going on the course, without having someone there that I could trust to talk to and to listen to me, without the real practical advice, and without the support to get the education I needed to protect my family and myself – I would not be alive today.

I’m completely devastated that the council seem to see this service as a useless, unnecessary drain on their budget. If anything, it saves them money in the long run by helping put an end to, and preventing, abuse in many cases, for many families.

There are still so many thousands of women and children who desperately need the support of this service.

Those people are going to need that support. And if SYWA isn’t there, then these poor, innocent people are simply going to end up as the part of the statistics of the number of beaten women. And ultimately, the number who are killed.

How can that be right? How can that ever be the correct decision for someone, who’s charged with the care of their constituents, to make?

It’s terrifying.

I’d like to thank this brave, remarkable lady for allowing me to share her story with you. Much respect.

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