When I heard the news that Theresa May would be consulting on making domestic abuse a criminal offence, I for one let out a cheer, as this is something very close to my own heart.
I am a survivor of domestic abuse and I am a social worker.
Domestic abuse can happen to any of us regardless of our background, including what we may do for a living. I needed to consult with my GP for a sick note as a result of the impact of the abuse and the toll it was taking on me.
The doctor’s reaction when she asked me what I did for a living has stayed with me. When I told her that I was a social worker, she laughed.
I felt completely crushed. She did not have to say anything. Her laughter conveyed to me my own sense of inadequacy and failure. How could I as a social work professional have fallen from grace and lost the apparent immunity my professional status gives me in enjoying completely safe personal relationships?
One of the worst parts of my experience was not being believed by some professionals I came into contact with. I felt at the mercy of a system that seemed at times contradictory, scary and arbitrary.
Ironically, some of the acts of commission and omission left me feeling even more vulnerable and at risk than I did prior to seeking help.
Fortunately, I did not hold onto this distortion for long and instead realised the importance of breaking the silence and speaking out on behalf of myself and others.
The Government’s latest announcement comes in conjunction with recent changes in legislation to criminalise forced marriage and the consultation on whether introducing a specific civil law measure could help protect potential victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
I believe it is important we do take measures which recognise these forms of abuse in their own right and try to do more to ensure our legal system supports those who have had their human rights violated.
We may have made some significant progress over the last few decades in understanding domestic abuse as a society and how we address it, but I still feel we have a long way to go on this particular journey.
At times, I find myself feeling frustrated by the ambiguities that exist within our systems, services and practices which can make finding help and support such a minefield for service users.
Domestic abuse can, for example, be the business of both criminal courts and family courts but in the case of the latter, it is more likely to emerge during private family law cases and concerns raised through child arrangements applications about contact being safe or even appropriate where there are allegations of domestic abuse.
This work is then remitted to Cafcass to carry out welfare checks and if necessary, a risk assessment. However, even if the facts are established that domestic abuse has indeed taken place, there is a heavy presumption by courts that contact should still take place between the perpetrator and the children because it’s deemed to be in the best interest of the children.
Yet according to Sturge and Glaser in Contact and Domestic Violence – the Experts Court Report: “There should be no automatic assumption that contact to a previously or currently violent partner is in the child’s best interest; if anything, the assumption should be in the opposite direction.”
Both magistrates’ and family courts grant non-molestation orders to deter perpetrators from continuing to use or threaten violence against adults and children, or intimidate, harass or pester them.
But the order itself is a civil order and it is only its breach that can be considered a criminal offence. I remember reporting some of the incidents that I suffered to a police officer who told me that it was a civil matter and the police could not intervene. I therefore, needed to speak to my solicitor and take the matter back to court. Not much good on a Saturday night!
When I tried to formally complain, the sergeant re-iterated this position to me. My abiding memory of this was wanting to shout out there is nothing civil about domestic abuse. Instead I replied that my solicitor and the courts could not protect me 24/7 while living in the community – surely this was the remit of the police?
Because of these experiences I totally agree with the findings of the HMIC report Everyone’s Business: Improving the Police Response to Domestic Abuse published in March 2014. The report exposed significant failings, including a lack of visible police leadership and direction, poor victim care and deficiencies in basic policing.
My hope in telling my story is to be an agent of change, however small, in the process of improving society’s response to domestic abuse.
This piece was first published in the magazine for The British Association of Social Workers: Professional Social Work (PSW). Nushra Mansuri is a Professional Officer at BASW.