IAIN WRIGHT: Domestic abuse is not all about violence

Emotional abuse can be just as intimidating as physical abuse.
Emotional abuse can be just as intimidating as physical abuse.

Parliament is in recess this week, which gives MPs an opportunity to meet individuals and organisations in their constituencies. One of the meetings I have had this week is with staff and users of the Harbour service, designed to help victims of domestic abuse.

I’ve been to the Harbour facility a couple of times, and have always been impressed at what a peaceful and safe refuge it is. Harbour also provides other facilities across the North East in Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Peterlee and Stockton.

Harbour has accommodation for families who may be escaping from domestic violence. It provides a place for people to go with their families, a place to feel safe at what undoubtedly must be one of the most terrifying times, as well as support to allow people to get their lives back on track.

I learned a lot this week from speaking to people who have used Harbour’s services. I was in all honesty guilty of thinking of domestic abuse as consisting of physical violence. In many cases, it’s not like that at all. Emotional abuse can be the means by which intimidation, control and domination takes shape. Women relayed their distressing stories, in terms of how their former partners tried to control their lives, such as tracking their phones and internet activity, even forcing them to eat certain foods. Harbour Support Workers can provide advice, guidance and practical assistance in these cases, helping victims access legal and financial advice.

I’ve mentioned women being the victims of domestic abuse and of course this is certainly true, but it would be wrong to give the impression that it is only women who suffer from this. At the meeting this week, the people who had accessed Harbour’s services were mostly women, but there was a man who had experienced emotional abuse in his former relationship. There remains a bit of a stigma in men being able to acknowledge that they have been the victims of such abuse, but emotional domination in many respects does not recognise gender.

A large part of the discussion we had this week was about how, in many cases, the system often works against victims of domestic abuse. It was clear in many people’s personal experiences that the courts had imposed certain conditions on order restricting access, but that such orders were blatantly ignored. One woman said how her former partner used to drive past her house, despite the court forbidding him to know where she lived. It can be especially difficult when children and access and custody has to be negotiated – the point was made several times that a court may well state that contact between the two former partners is not permitted, but then some sort of contact, such as a phone number or e-mail address, as well as knowledge of the home address, can be passed on, which can start the whole cycle of abuse and intimidation again.

Many people also talked movingly on how many of their former partners got a kick out of seeing them suffer in court and derived a further sense of control and domination from it. Although in recent years the criminal courts have put in place special arrangements to allow victims to give evidence away from their former partners, this is not the case in civil cases, even though the emotional abuse may be devastating. This does need to be addressed.

Harbour’s services are first class, although of course they are facing rising demand at a time of tighter finances. The professionalism and caring nature of the staff shines through. If you believe you would benefit from using their services, you can contact them 24 hours a day on 03000 20 25 25 or e-mail them at info@myharbour.org.uk.