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22 December 2015

“It’s the hardest time of year”: why domestic violence spikes over Christmas

Many women fear the festive period. Not a year goes by when we don’t see a seasonal rise in incidents reported to the police.

By Maya Oppenheim

For most of us, Christmas conjures up images of crappy cracker jokes, sickly mulled wine and a haze of Christmas parties. But for others, Christmas is the most feared time of the whole year. Domestic violence rises significantly during the festive period. Not a year goes by when we don’t see a seasonal spike in incidents reported to the police.

As you’d imagine, the combination of financial pressure, free-flowing alcohol and being cooped up in closed quarters, exerts additional burden on relationships. In an abusive relationship, this pressure is manifold.

Like many victims of domestic violence, Charlotte Kneer, 45, dreaded Christmas. “It’s the hardest time of year. The violence is so much more poignant. Everyone ran around to make sure he didn’t get upset. Hyper-vigilant to whether he was going to lose it,” she explains.

With booze on tap, things spiralled out of control. “He would drink to enable himself to lose his temper, it was deliberate. Alcohol was an excuse to use violence. He would drink all day and where most people would have dropped unconscious on the floor, he’d carry on. The lights would be on but there would be nobody home. He’d just end up beating me up”.

Unsurprisingly, their kids picked up on what was going on. “Regardless of whether they saw anything, the likelihood is, they were hearing things. Stress was underlying everything,” Kneer tells me. “At one point, I got protection orders placed on him but when I went back to the property a few days later, he had smashed the whole place up, smeared blood all over the walls and smashed the kids toys”.

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As with many abusive relationships, the violence was cyclical. “Usually every six months, something completely random would trigger it. On one occasion, I had folded up his clothes and put them on his pillow instead of putting them away. He got on top of me and started strangling me. He was repeating over and over again, like some crazed mantra, ‘I’m going to kill you’”.

Crouched in the corner naked, Kneer had nowhere to turn. “The kids were in the house. Even so he got a bag off the wardrobe and started throwing presents that the kids had wrapped up for me at me”.

Like many perpetrators, Kneer’s partner would go into apology mode after a violent incident. “He’d go into what he called ‘creep mode’. He was so calculating and manipulative that he even had a name for it. People often think ‘why didn’t you leave?’ There were so many reasons”.

In the end, Kneer finally gained the courage to leave him. After pressing charges, going into hiding and waiting 14 long grueling months for the case to come to court, he was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011. “But the effects echo down the years. I met him 21 years ago. I’ve got two children with him and my daughters lost their dad”.

Kneer now manages a refuge in the South of England and is currently supporting a number of survivors over the Christmas period. “There’s a definite spike in incidents at Christmas time and ex-partners are a lot more likely to get in contact so we provide extra support,” she tells me.

Kneer is not alone. Across the country, refuges and police forces are currently preparing for a rise in domestic violence cases and referrals. Take Humberside Police Force where 54 per cent of calls to the police relate to domestic violence during December. The figure is just 38 per cent for the rest of the year.

“The amount of calls we receive about domestic violence in December is frightening. We know that this is a tough time of year. Things escalate,” reflects Laura Gawthorpe from Humberside Police. “At this time of year, we check on victims who are still in an abusive relationship but have decided to drop the charges. We also check on our current and previous perpetrators”.

Across the country, the picture looks equally bleak. Last year Sussex Police arrested 262 people in connection with domestic violence  double the previous year. What’s more, according to UK government figures from 2012, assault and domestic murders increase 25 per cent during the festive period and incidents go up by a third on Christmas Day itself.

Bombarded with images of the perfect nuclear family gathered around the gold baubles of a Christmas tree, it can be easy to forget that Christmas is a time of coercion, punishment and violence for many women. Instead of being a time of year to be happy or to be grateful, it becomes a time of year to be on edge. After all, the slightest deviation from perfection – burnt pigs in blankets or the wrong gift choice – can quickly escalate.

On top of this, Christmas is often the only time of year that isolated women are around friends and family. This gives rise to the additional angst of hiding injuries from loved ones.

While incidents of domestic violence rise at Christmas, calls to the National Domestic Violence Helpline actually decrease during the festive period. According to Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, this is because, “Many women want to keep it together for the children and so they wait until Christmas is over to call. Plus, if they are in close quarters with the perpetrator, they are probably being monitored very closely.”

Although phone calls die down, significantly higher numbers of women join the Women’s Aid Survivors Forum during December than any other time of year. This is because women are able to get online but can’t risk their safety to make a phone call.

While Christmas has always been a difficult time for victims of domestic violence, sustained cuts to services mean this year could be even harder. In a country where a third of local authority areas have no specialised support services left, women are being left with literally nowhere to go.

To put this into context, nearly a third of referrals to refuges were turned away because of a lack of space last year. In turn, we are left with a dire situation where women are routinely being housed in wholly inappropriate temporary accommodation and may even be surrounded by ex-offenders.

With two women killed every week by a partner or ex-partner in England, it is clear that cutting services is endangering women’s lives and damaging children’s lives. For many women, this Christmas will be harder than you could imagine. What starts as a row can quickly become deadly.