A memorial to French victims of domestic violence. Photo: Getty
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"Isolated incidents": how the laws around domestic violence are failing its victims

An investigation into the murder of Natalie Esack by her estranged husband reveals it followed a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But police and prosecutors can only respond to individuals threats and acts of violence. It's time for a change in the law.

On the 30 April 2012, a former police detective called Ivan Esack killed his estranged wife, Natalie.

Esack walked into Natalie's hair salon in Ashford, Kent, just after nine in the morning, and stabbed her eleven times with a kitchen knife. He stabbed her with “such ferocity, the 8in blade bent and the tip broke off”. For this, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Reports from the time dubbed Natalie a “tragic hairdresser”.

Women murdered by men are often described by the media as tragic. There is a sense in that word of catastrophe, of horror, of something out of the ordinary. Something that could not have been prevented. Perhaps that word gives us a sense of comfort in the face of such brutality. This could not have been predicted, there is nothing we could have done. This is a freak accident.

Such words may comfort us, but they are dangerous, and our comfort comes at a cost of reckoning with a reality that we must face if we are serious about tackling the epidemic of domestic violence. And make no mistake: it is an epidemic. The prevalence of domestic abuse means that in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the UN. It is an epidemic to which we are so inured that the steady reports of abuse, of beatings, of assaults, of imprisonment, of death, barely register. They are not front-page news. After all, to put it bluntly, “man kills partner”, is not news. It is the opposite of new. It is old. Tragically old.

Last week a Domestic Homicide Review - a multi-agency investigation - into Natalie's murder was released. Like so many before it, the review found that this death was not a freak occurrence that could not have been prevented. Rather, it found “evidence of escalating abuse towards [Natalie Esack] in the six months before her death and risk factors in [Ivan Esack's] behaviour”.

A report from Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, reveals that the risk factors were observable more than six months prior to her murder. The relationship was abusive “from early on”, with Esack belittling and demeaning Natalie in an effort to keep her pliable and under his control. She was not allowed to leave the house without his permission and had to “check in” with him constantly. Nevertheless, she managed to leave the relationship on more than one occasion – but found herself on the receiving end of incessant calls and messages, alternately abusive and pleading, that would go on, one after the other, until she finally gave in and replied. At one point he was calling her more than forty time a day. He would turn up at her work, at her home, threatening, intimidating, pleading. When Natalie finally left for good and started seeing someone new, Esack told her that “she was a dead woman walking”. “Tick-tock, tick-tock”, he texted her. In one telephone conversation, he presented Natalie with her options: “Death, death, death”. Natalie contacted the police four times about Esack. No action was taken. He was classified as “medium risk”.

No one considering the evidence in full can come to any conclusion other than that this was a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But that was exactly the problem: the evidence was not considered holistically. All of Natalie's reports of Esack's violence or threats were treated by the police as separate incidents. This may sounds like police incompetence. But it is also a failure of law.

At present, domestic violence itself is not a crime. The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes perpetrators under assault, burglary, rape, kidnapping. They prosecute single incidents of physical violence, and tend to focus on injury level. The law as it stands allows them to do little else: it provides no remit to recognise a victim of domestic abuse as suffering from an ongoing campaign of coercive control. Rather, she has been punched; she has been thrown down the stairs; she has been stabbed. Tragically. Unpredictably. She has been killed.

Tthis week, the campaign organisation Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse released figures to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary National Oversight Group which clearly show that the more high-risk the case, the greater the likelihood and severity of coercive and controlling behaviour. This data confirms Paladin's claim that it is in the cases where coercive control is present that victims are most likely to be murdered.

In 2013, the Home Office updated its definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, but there has been no corresponding change in the law. Some of the most dangerous cases, although known to the police - although preventable - are continuing to feed the drip-drip-drip of tragic isolated incidents. As the government heads into recess, they might like to listen to those campaigning for a change in the law to allow police and prosecutors to look beyond each individual incident, and think about turning off the tap.

Update, 7 August 2014: This article originally referred to domestic violence as "the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44". However, this was not contained in the WHO report cited as the source. The article was amended to state that “in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or partner”, a statistic contained within the report in question.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain