Dani Garavelli: Make a break from coercive control before it’s too late

After Sally Challen’s watershed moment for women in the criminal justice system, it’s vital to raise awareness about psychological abuse, writes Dani Garavelli
Sally Challen with her son David during a press conference after she left the Old Bailey where she was told that she would not face a retrial over the death of her husband Richard Challen in 2010. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA WireSally Challen with her son David during a press conference after she left the Old Bailey where she was told that she would not face a retrial over the death of her husband Richard Challen in 2010. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Sally Challen with her son David during a press conference after she left the Old Bailey where she was told that she would not face a retrial over the death of her husband Richard Challen in 2010. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Last week’s news that the 65-year-old would not – after all – have to face a retrial for murder represented a huge victory and a watershed moment for women in the criminal justice system.

Sally had already spent more than nine years in jail when her murder conviction was over-turned in February. Her appeal was granted on the grounds that evidence she had been suffering from “ an adjustment disorder” had not been presented at her original trial.

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Last week, prosecutors agreed to accept a plea of manslaughter. She was sentenced to nine years and four months, but walked free due to time served.

What invests Sally Challen’s case with so much significance, however, is the fact her mental distress was caused by sustained psychological abuse.

Her lawyer’s success in overturning her murder conviction could pave the way for other victims still languishing in jail to appeal. But, just as importantly, it is bound to raise awareness of the complexities of coercive control, a form of non-physical abuse which is recognised in law, but which many people, including victims, still struggle to get their heads round.

Some of that awareness-raising work is already being done by brothers Luke and Ryan Hart, whose mother Claire and sister Charlotte were shot dead in a car park in Spalding by their father Lance in 2016.

But, because Challen is still alive, and because so many details of her ordeal echo the contradictions embedded in coercive control, following the twists and turns of her journey through the justice system has proved particularly instructive.

Coercive control is a form of psychological warfare in which an abuser sets out to destroy their partner’s self-esteem, criticising them until they lose all sense of their own identity. The abuser will nag, humiliate and place limits on their partner’s financial and social freedom. He or she will monitor their phones, track their movements, isolate them from family and friends.

Arguably, the most damaging aspect of coercive control is gas-lighting. Gas-lighting is a insidious process where an abuser undermines their partner, telling them the wrongs they perceive are imagined, until they come to doubt their own sanity.

Sally Challen is an archetypal victim of coercive control. Her father died of a heart attack when she was six, leaving her withdrawn and anxious. At 15, she started going out with Richard.

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He was 22, so the power dynamic was immediately tipped in his favour. Within a year, she had undergone a late-term abortion, increasing her vulnerability. The pair married in 1979 and, by 1987, Richard was already being unfaithful. From then on, he regularly slept with other women and frequented brothels; but when she accused him of infidelity, he told her she was making it up.

According to David and James, Richard constantly criticised her weight and separated her from her support networks.

Sally’s experience is a clear riposte to the perennial question: “Why didn’t she just leave?” During her appeal, retired forensic social worker Professor Evan Stark said that “in its extreme, coercive control creates a hostage-like-feeling of entrapment, similar to being a prisoner of war”.

Sally did split up with Richard in 2009, but utterly dependent and with no experience of living outside her dysfunctional marriage, she asked for a reconciliation. His response was to draw up a list of conditions she had to comply with; they included giving up smoking and her “constant interruptions”.

On the day Sally killed Richard, she had discovered he had been speaking to another woman while she was out buying him breakfast. As he ate it, she hit him with a hammer, then left a note saying: “I love you, Sally” on his body. She drove to Beachy Head intending to kill herself, but was talked down.

Richard continues to wield power over her from beyond the grave. At a press conference after last week’s announcement, it was clear she was still in his thrall. “I think I will always love Richard,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

At the time of Sally’s conviction, the understanding of coercive control was minimal. No-one identified the pattern of abuse which led to that moment, so, at her original trial, she was portrayed as a jealous spouse wreaking revenge for a one-off infidelity, rather than a victim pushed beyond the bounds of human endurance.

In the last few years, the law has moved forward; coercive control became a crime in England in December, 2015, and in Scotland in April.

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But for women to properly benefit from the new laws, there has to be a growing societal understanding of the issue by the victims themselves, by those with whom they come into contact every day, and by professionals such as police officers who deal with complaints.

After all, the law was in force when Lance Hart killed Claire and Charlotte. Unfortunately, the absence of physical violence meant the family failed to see themselves as victims and no-one alerted the authorities. Even if they had, those authorities might not have been adequately trained to respond.

Awareness is increasing incrementally. Last month, William James Murdoch became the first man to be convicted under the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act. He was sentenced to a community payback order with 14 months’ supervision and 200 hours of unpaid work after pleading guilty to a series of abusive phone calls to his ex-wife and breach of the peace.

In England, Luke and Ryan Hart continue to tour the country telling their family’s story to women’s aid groups and other interested bodies. But the campaign to free Sally Challen has pushed the issue of coercive control further up the agenda.

At the press conference, Sally talked of the many women she had met in jail, who had suffered similar patterns of abuse. She is still talking to them and hopes they will now lodge their own appeals.

Perhaps her greatest legacy, however, will be in encouraging women to scrutinise their own relationships for signs of gas-lighting and coercive control. If Sally had understood what was happening to her, and sought help from a doctor or other professional, perhaps she would have made the break before it was too late.