The effort to break domestic violence cycle

Police go on their anti-domestic violence drive for Christmas. Picture: John DevlinPolice go on their anti-domestic violence drive for Christmas. Picture: John Devlin
Police go on their anti-domestic violence drive for Christmas. Picture: John Devlin
DANI GARAVELLI joins a police raid and visits a women’s refuge, part of a concerted effort to break the cycle of domestic abuse which always peaks at Christmas time

It starts an hour before dawn on a blustery winter’s morning. A convoy of unmarked cars containing members of Police Scotland’s domestic abuse task force moves through the North Ayrshire countryside armed with a hit-list of offenders wanted on warrant. The addresses they plan to target are the result of months of intelligence-gathering, their mission simple: to get as many domestic abusers as possible behind bars before Christmas.

It’s Friday, and with less than a week to go, the officers themselves are brimful of good cheer; in between jobs, they chatter about decorations and parties. But they know many women dread the festive season when the incidence of domestic abuse soars. Their efforts – part of a national 14-day Police Scotland campaign – are aimed at sending out a message that such behaviour is a crime and will not be tolerated.

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The task force has been split into two teams. For the next few hours, the team I’m with turns up at property after property. Blinds twitch as cars draw up. Doors are knocked and demands shouted through letterboxes, with no success. At one house, neighbours come out to say the occupants have moved to another town; at another the officers gain entry and search cupboards and loft space. For a brief moment, things look promising. One of the suspects has been seen going into a particular flat at 8pm the previous night. No-one answers, but the fire is on and a radio is blaring, so the officers break down the door. The thud of the battering ram echoes round the close, but when the wood splinters and they push their way in, the property is empty.


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An air of despondency is beginning to take hold when news finally filters through that the other team has made two arrests. In the second, a 23-year-old man has admitted to being the person named on the warrant. After much shouting and swearing, he gets dressed and steps out into the street, his hands cuffed behind his back. He is taken to the nearest police station where he will remain until his court appearance tomorrow.

By the time the teams finish, there will probably be more “bodies”. But theses achievements are just a small part of what is happening simultaneously across the country, with two more task forces (in Edinburgh and Aberdeen), the 14 divisions’ own domestic violence units, and in excess of 700 extra officers moved from office to front-line duties for the intensive Campaign Against Violence day. As well as arresting those wanted on warrant, the police have been targeting known offenders to remind them they are being watched, and visiting those at risk to make sure they know how to get help if violence flares.

Housed alongside the domestic task force, in an impressive glass building on London Road, Glasgow, is Assist, an organisation that works in tandem with the police to support victims. Within 24 hours of officers being called to an incident of domestic abuse, Assist will receive a referral and carry out a risk assessment and safety plan for the woman (or man) involved, so information which might impact on bail conditions can be passed to the fiscal.

Head of service at Assist is Mhari McGowan, a lifelong feminist, who came to the organisation from Scottish Women’s Aid 10 years ago. Along with many others, she has described domestic violence as “intimate terrorism”, a term used by Nigella Lawson about life with Charles Saatchi. Women with abusive partners live in a state of fear, but never more so than at Christmas when the pressure for everyone to get along is at its greatest.

Financial control can be a big issue: if a woman has been scrimping to buy presents for the children, there could be pressure from her partner. What is she buying? How much is she spending? There may be tensions over where to spend the day – at home, or with parents or in-laws? Given many men use alcohol to give themselves permission to abuse, Scotland’s heavy drinking culture is also likely to exacerbate an already tense situation. “When I worked in Women’s Aid, what we found was that women would placate their violent partners in every way possible so that between 22 December and Christmas Day everything would calm down, but there is always a spike in incidents on Boxing Day because by then the tension, the level of effort needed to keep it all going, becomes too much,” she says.

“Intimate terrorism” is not a phrase Lucja would have understood three years ago when the abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband was at its height. Able to speak only a few words of English, she had no idea how to ask for help, never mind discuss the way she felt about the way she was being treated. But today there seems to be no better way to describe the campaign of physical and psychological campaign that was waged against her – as she talks haltingly, but compellingly about her experiences.

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Lucja is sitting at a table in the Edinburgh Women’s Aid refuge where she has spent the past 18 months. It’s a surprisingly roomy environment. Downstairs, there’s a long open-plan kitchen/living room with a small Christmas tree which she sometimes shares with another family, while on the first floor there are two bedrooms, one for her and one for her four-year-old son Jakub, and a bathroom (another floor contains two more bedrooms and a bathroom for a second family). There is also a back garden and a phone line the police recognise as being linked to survivors of domestic abuse. Yet the space around us seems to contract as Lucja tells how her life, once full of promise, shrank away to nothing as a result of the abuse.

Lucja and her husband Adek had been married a year when they moved to Scotland in 2009; though he was always volatile, she has happy memories of those early days. They both found work, made friends, began to settle in. But then Adek decided he wanted a son. “I say ‘I not ready for son.’ But he say, ‘I must have son,’ and so, eventually I think, ‘maybe I ready,’” she says. When Lucja fell pregnant, however, it quickly became clear that Adek was far from ready. He didn’t like the fact his wife no longer wanted to party and he began to go out drinking alone. Hours after she gave birth, he swore at her because he had been left holding Jakub while she underwent an episiotomy.

When Lucja got home, Adek started drinking more and more, staying out until the early hours and gambling in the casino. He wouldn’t help her learn English, take her to the shops or even hold Jakub while she showered so she became increasingly isolated; embarrassed, she didn’t even confide in her Polish friends.

Lucja had given up her job as a room attendant while she was pregnant, so Adek made her account for every penny she spent. She bought only what Jakub needed, losing two stone in weight in two months. Then he decided she should work again, but only when he was at home, so she took a cleaning job that started at 6am. Still he wasn’t happy. She says he didn’t want to be left with Jakub and would come home drunk at 5am and ignore his son, screaming at him if he looked for attention. One day, Lucja returned from work and couldn’t see Jakub; she called and called and eventually found him hiding behind the sofa too terrified to speak.

At one stage, Lucja left Adek and went back to Poland for a couple of months. When she returned – at his behest – she found him unchanged. But he ripped up Jakub’s passport so she couldn’t go back (in Poland both parents need to sign for a child’s passport). “He tell me: ‘You never see your mother again,’” she says.

Adek was physically violent towards Lucja, grabbing and punching her. At one point – frustrated by the limits of her English while trying to explain an incident in which she was injured – she grabs a kitchen knife and thrusts it into my hand, twisting it round to demonstrate how he made sure her fingerprints were on the weapon. Lucja cries as she remembers her ordeal, but it’s not the physical violence that seems to traumatise her the most, it’s the fear. By the end, she was too scared to sleep. “Sometimes he call me in the night and tell me, ‘You pack your bag and go because if you at home when I come back, I kill you,’” she says before breaking down completely.

When Lucja decided she couldn’t take any more, she phoned a woman Adek had met at the casino and asked her to take him away. She refused, so Lucja packed a small bag and took Jakub to stay with friends. Still Adek threatened her, turning up at her friends’ house and following her to work. So finally, she contacted Edinburgh Women’s Aid and went to live in the refuge.

Sitting beside Lucja as she talks, and prompting her when her English falters, is Mary Sinclair, a refuge support worker and her fiercest ally. Sinclair held Lucja’s hand in the early days and helped her fight for a new passport for Jakub.

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“There’s no end to the emotions the women go through when they arrive,” says Sinclair. “They are scared and relieved and amazed by the refuge itself. Most of them are expecting it to be more like a homeless hostel. But the first six weeks of going through their trauma can be up and down – a lot of them aren’t sure if they still love their partners or not.”

Though survivors come to understand the abuse they suffered was not their fault, many of them have been blaming themselves for years. And the violence is unlikely to have been 24/7. “Often there are ‘normal’ moments when maybe they just sit on the sofa and share a pizza and watch TV,” says Sinclair. “Then the next day, there’s violence again. It’s cleverly done so it’s very difficult for the women to separate out their feelings. They may think, I know this is the right thing, I feel safe here, but what if he’s changed?”

When a woman is tempted to go back to an abusive partner, Sinclair will encourage her to remember why she left him in the first place. “If there is going to be any communication, the role of the worker is to talk her through it: ‘What would you say to him? How would you know if he was telling the truth? What measures could you put in place to protect yourself?’ We try to build enough trust that if a woman does go back we can help her prepare: to think about what she can expect from her partner and what she would do if the violence started again.” And do things ever work out when women return to their partners? “Not once in 11 years,” Sinclair says.

Because women’s feelings can be complicated, not all of them want police involvement. Lucja, for example, turned down the opportunity to have Adek arrested because she didn’t want Jakub’s father to have a criminal record. But there is no doubt Police Scotland has become more proactive in its approach to domestic abuse. Its pioneering task force has led the way, with detectives attempting to build a stronger case against alleged abusers by contacting previous partners to try to establish a pattern of behaviour.

Since 1 January, it has seen 38 convictions in serious cases resulting in sentences totalling 158 years (some of those convicted are still to be sentenced), and three orders for lifelong restriction. The hope is that, as victims see the issue is being taken seriously, they will be more willing to come forward.

There are still frustrations: there aren’t enough domestic courts and, according to McGowan, the civil courts are lagging way behind the criminal ones, with reports on fathers and child contact being written by people with no specialist training. But Clare’s Law – which would allow people to find out if their partner has a history of domestic abuse – is being piloted in Aberdeen and Ayrshire, and Nicola Sturgeon has said tackling the problem will be a priority for the Scottish Government.

As officers continue to target perpetrators, Lucja stands as testament to the resilience of survivors and the importance of organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid. Confident and forward-looking, she is unrecognisable from the woman who moved into the refuge. She has stopped smoking and saved to buy a small car, she is attending college to improve her English in the hopes of securing a good job and – though she has finally travelled back to Poland to spend time with her family – she is determined to build a future for herself here. “When I live with my husband, I want to go back to Poland every day, because I don’t have a happy life,” she says. “But since I leave him, every day I go up and I begin to see how good life can look.”

Sinclair tells her there are no limits to what she can achieve. Last Christmas, Lucja celebrated by hosting a get-together for women in other refuges. This Christmas, she planned to visit her sister, who has moved to England. But when I phone her to wish her luck, she tells me the trip is up in the air because of another big development. Lucja has been offered a house and is just waiting to find out when she can pick up the key. “This is my dream, such a good Christmas present,” she says. All going well, in the New Year, she and Jakub will begin their new life.

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•Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.

• Donations to Scottish Women’s Aid can be made on


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