Power switch


Practitioner: Celeste Barry, team manager
Field: Domestic violence outreach service
Location: Cheshire
Client: Susan Baker, 45, is married to Peter, 51.
They have three children: Roy, 15, Julie, nine, who is being
bullied and Amy, five, who is displaying behavioural problems. In
the past Susan has self-harmed and suffered from anxiety and
Case history: For years Susan has been subjected
to physical, emotional and psychological abuse from Peter. He
repeatedly tells her that everything is her fault, that she is
“fat”, “a useless mother” and
“mental”. Although her parents and siblings are close
by, Susan has not recently seen or heard from them because Peter
does not want them calling at or ringing the house. She is also
heavily in debt, having been pressurised by Peter to take out a
loan for £10,000. He drinks alcohol excessively and is
unemployed. Susan has two part-time jobs. After a physical attack
on Susan that needed stitches, Peter was bailed back to the
matrimonial home. The children blame Susan for getting their father
into trouble.
Dilemma: Susan struggles with the idea of leaving
Peter but realises she has to in order to improve her and her
children’s lives.
Risk Factor: By planning to leave and take the
children she is putting herself under a higher risk of physical
Outcome: Susan and the children have moved out
into a new home. The court is to consider supervised contact
between  the children and Peter.

Domestic abuse accounts for a quarter of all violent crime and has
the highest rate of repeat victimisation of any crime. Although one
in four women will experience violence in their lifetime from a
partner or ex-partner, many believe that it is only happening to
them or that it is normal, and so do little to change things.

“Women are often unaware of how much of what they are living with
is abusive,” says Celeste Barry, team manager of the Cheshire
domestic violence outreach service, run by Stonham, which runs more
than 30 women’s refuges nationally. “And even if they do, they
often don’t believe there is anybody out there to help.” This was
certainly the case for Susan Baker, who was referred to the team by
police after she suffered a vicious physical attack from her
husband Peter.

Susan was contacted at first by phone while she was on her way to
work – so Peter did not know. After a few calls she finally agreed
to a face-to-face meeting at a safe place. Indeed, such is Peter’s
propensity to violence that we have also changed the name of the
worker in this case study. “We showed her the wheel of abuse [a
graphic aid] which helped her understand just how central the
issues of power and control are, no matter what form the abuse
takes. Susan didn’t realise that what she thought was normal
behaviour was, in fact, abuse.”

A place at a refuge was ruled out, not least because Susan’s son,
Roy, who was studying for his GCSEs, would be considered too old.
Among the complex work that was needed Barry began looking at
safety planning for Susan and the children, risk management and
coping strategies, and addressing the feelings of shame and
humiliation that Susan felt for “allowing” herself to be

“One of the most important realisations is that change is a process
and not an event,” says Barry. “Susan needed several months to
process the information given to her. We must work at each woman’s
pace. Often this means one step forward and two steps back.”

Typically, according to Barry, Susan was unsure what she wanted to
do: “All she wanted was for the abuse to stop and the lovely
husband she married to return. However, for Peter to change he
would need to recognise his behaviour was the problem, and there
was no indication that he felt he was doing anything wrong. Peter
becomes physically abusive when he’s drinking but he still chose to
use alcohol.”

Barry encouraged Susan to seek support to regain control of her
everyday life. She went to see her GP about managing her
depression, and she finally contacted agencies to support her
children. Barry says: “However, because Susan had low self-esteem
she found it difficult to approach people in authority.
Nonetheless, by encouraging her to plan what she wanted to say and
by arranging meetings she found this extremely empowering.” Indeed,
she soon felt strong enough to decide that she wanted a divorce and
to move out with her children.

Susan re-established contact with her supportive family but without
letting Peter know. “It was difficult for her as she had always
been honest with Peter in the past but she knew that if she was to
change things she needed to be strong,” says Barry.

Peter was charged with common assault. “We arranged for Susan to
make a pre-trial visit so she could meet a worker from the witness
service, who was very good, and to familiarise herself with the
court and its proceedings,” says Barry. Peter was convicted and
fined £30. They both returned home.

A few weeks later the council offered Susan a property in a
different area. Barry says: “Susan was very worried about moving
out and how Peter would react and behave. When a woman is seeking
help or is moving out of an abusive relationship the risk to her
escalates and we needed a new risk assessment and a risk management

“For Susan the work that she does with us is only the start of her
new life without abuse. It will take enormous strength from her. We
are only there to facilitate; the hard work comes from the women
and children.”

The journey this family has taken to be living in a non-abusive
household, where relationships have equality at the centre, has not
been easy. But, importantly, the children have been shown a
different way to live. Barry says: “I believe that the work we are
doing will still be effective in 20 years as the youngsters now
grow up and realise that power and control within a relationship
should be balanced between both partners.”

Independent comment

For those working with cases of domestic abuse, managing risk is
an everyday occurrence. Always at the forefront of one’s mind
is the possibility that there will be a fatality,
writes Joy Easterby.

Historically, agencies have colluded with perpetrators, placing the
responsibility with the victim and not where it should be
placed – with the abuser. This case highlights the
predicament of women who experience abuse, and have the further
trauma and insult of their abuser being given the most pathetic of
court sentences.

I applaud Celeste Barry and her team who have worked hard to
empower Baker and respect her choice to leave the relationship.
Clearly, this had a positive outcome. Forcing Baker to leave could
well have her resulted in her reverting to “hostage
syndrome”; women often feel safer with their abuser than
running the risk of co-operating with an agency that may take steps
to remove their children. 

Measured in terms of child protection, Barry took significant but
necessary risks, leaving the family exposed to possible death or
serious injury. However, as this case shows it is possible to work
with women in violent relationships without alienating them and
monitor the safety of children.

The emphasis of working with young people is equally important;
pressures from children can compound a woman’s decision to
leave an abusive relationship, sometimes halting choice not only
for herself but also for her children.

It is imperative that steps are taken to ensure Baker’s
future safety and that of her children. Fitting Tunstall alarms in
the new property should be a consideration, along with household
security checks.

Joy Easterby is Darlington domestic abuse

Arguments for risk

  • It is important that Sarah feels empowered and supported to
    make a decision about whether to stay or leave. As she gradually
    realises that Peter will not change she is stronger in her will to
    do whatever it takes. 
  • Domestic abuse is all about power and control. A woman is at
    most risk when she decides to leave. This is the time when the
    control is being taken away. Indeed, a woman is killed at the hands
    of a partner every three days in the UK. Susan felt supported to
    manage this risk. 
  • Child contact can take a long time to resolve. The children
    want to continue contact with Peter. “The value of a male role
    model is extremely important. But it must be a positive model,”
    says Barry. “The only issue, generally, is that the contact is
    safe. The children must not be scared or abused, and their needs
    met during the contact visit.”

Arguments against risk

  • Sometimes it may well be a case of the better the devil you
    know. Peter is a violent man when he has been drinking. Susan has
    said that she just wants back the “lovely husband” she married.
    More sustained work needs to take place with Peter to help him
    recognise the cause and effects of his behaviour.
  • The decision to leave presents concerns: what would be the
    safest way of moving out? Is there a time when Peter is out of the
    house? Where will the children be during the move? What safety
    measures have been installed at the new property? Have police been
  • There may well also be further difficulties with the children
    who have blamed Susan in the past. Often children will test
    boundaries and their behaviour can deteriorate. It can be difficult
    for an abused mother to set clear boundaries and to let her
    children know that she loves them but will not accept their


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