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Monday, December 6, 2021

Coercive control: why this mother’s heartbreaking story is back in the courts

Naime Sakande from Appeal says: “Jenny was tormented by her abuser, let down by the police and then re-traumatised by the court process. This appeal is an opportunity to put things right.”

It was while shopping in 2014 that Jenny bumped into the man who would go on to make her life a living hell. He lived with a mutual friend and invited her to dinner.

At the time, Jenny, now in her mid-30s, was studying business and marketing at college and in the process of setting up her own company. She was recently separated and initially charmed by this “charismatic and kind” new man.

As they dated, however, he “became more and more present at my home, slowly leaving his belongings and turning up unannounced, declaring his love.”

Looking back, there were other warning signs. He would demand to see her Facebook account or check her phone, wanting to know her whereabouts, but always with a knack of explaining away her concerns.

Then came the physical abuse. “He’d apologise after lashing out – sometimes crying and asking for another chance. Unfortunately I fell for it.”

Jenny was happy when she fell pregnant but her boyfriend did not want to keep the baby and, if anything, the abuse ramped up. “He threatened to kill me several times and I stopped talking to the people I loved in order to protect them.”

On one occasion he stripped her naked and held her at knifepoint. Another time he flung her from a first floor window and after one row, he locked her and her two older children from a previous relationship out of the house, forcing them to sleep in the car.

Her business suffered and she dropped out of her studies. Even her finances were brought under his control and after falling into arrears on her rent, she lost her home.

When the baby was born, her boyfriend turned up at the hospital, high on drugs. “I took him to the family room where he assaulted me,” recalls Jenny. A woman at reception later gave her the number for a women’s refuge: the only time throughout her harrowing ordeal that anyone recognised her as a victim.

Indeed, in the course of two years, the police were called to the couple’s home on 11 occasions, including four between her arrest and the trial. But not once was Jenny interviewed out of earshot of her partner, despite her visible bruises.

Evidence to be presented by her lawyers shows that after her arrest Jenny was taken to hospital and diagnosed with ‘post-concussion syndrome’. Earlier, witnesses reported to the police that they heard her shout “you hit me” to her partner, who tests showed was high on crack cocaine at the time.

By the time of the trial she had moved out of their home, but her ex tracked her down, broke into her flat and insisted on driving her to and from court – which made it even harder to tell the truth when she took to the stand.

“Coercive control is underpinned by fear,” explains Jane Monckton Smith, professor of public protection at the University of Gloucester and author of In Control: Dangerous Relationships And How They End In Murder.

“If you don’t separate the person who is the source of fear from the person who is terrified, you won’t get the truth. For victims it is about managing the consequences – they are in survival mode. To admit abuse is a very high-risk strategy because if the system does not protect them, the consequences could be fatal.”

This means delayed reporting is a common feature of coercive control, which was made a criminal offence in England and Wales in 2015.

Almost 60 per cent of women in prison have experienced domestic abuse, according to the charity Women in Prison. It was only after being diagnosed with PTSD and meeting other survivors while serving her sentence that Jenny was able to disclose the trauma: “I came across so many women who were in the same situation. If my appeal is successful I hope it will open doors for other victims to have an opportunity to say their truth,” she says.

As Sakande points out: “This troubling case begs the question – how many other victims are being criminalised because they don’t have confidence that the public authorities will protect them?”

Jenny was released on licence in April 2020 after having her 10-year extended sentence reduced to five on appeal, and regularly sees her son, who lives under the legal guardianship of his maternal grandmother. Fortunately, he has suffered no long term impact from the injuries he sustained as a baby. A happy, active boy, he loves dinosaurs and painting, and dreams of becoming a police officer when he grows up.

Due to the terms of her licence, Jenny is currently only allowed supervised contact with him – if she wins her appeal, not only will she be exonerated, but hopes she will finally be able to start rebuilding their relationship, after all these years of lost time.  

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