We are horrified that Penelope Jackson has been convicted of murder by a 10 to 2 majority verdict and sentenced to life with a minimum term of 18 years, following her trial at Bristol crown court.
As the evidence revealed, Penelope was a victim of sustained coercive control over her 28-year relationship with the deceased. Evidence was heard before the court which showed that she had to get a tattoo placed on her bottom saying she was the property of the deceased – to stop his jealous and possessive behaviour. Like many victims of coercive control she did not perceive that she was a victim until after the offence when she escaped his abuse and control.
This is a classic case of a slow build-up of fear and anger arising from the controlling behaviour, which became more unbearable when she was trapped in her home with her abuser during lockdown. This finally led the defendant to lose complete control and stab the man she had been married to for 24 years and father of her daughter.
Penelope who is now 66 and of entirely good character will not be eligible for released until she is 84. There is nothing to suggest she represents a risk to anyone other than the man who treated her so cruelly for years.
It is understood Penelope Jackson’s defence team will be appealing the conviction.
Sally Challen, whose own conviction for murder was overturned in 2019 said:
“I am appalled, upset and I cannot believe that the dinosaurs in the Judicial System and the CPS haven’t learnt from my case. My love goes out to Penelope’s family”
Harriet Wistrich, solicitor for Sally Challen and Director of the Centre for Women’s Justice stated,
“The majority jury verdict and harsh sentence of the judge shows that there is a long way to go before victims of coercive and controlling behaviour can get justice and the understanding they deserve. There needs to be a radical transformation of the criminal justice system which is still steeped in misogynistic myths and stereotypes. Women are punished most severely if they resist, whereas men who snap and kill for no reason get off lightly. Contrast this case with the recent cases of Anthony Williams who strangled his wife to death and was sentenced to five years, or Sam Pybus who strangled an extremely vulnerable woman Sophie Moss to death during a drunken episode of so called “rough sex” who got 4 years 8 months”
In our research report women who kill, published earlier this year, we have set out a series of recommendations to improve criminal justice outcomes.
All women are controlled by men’s violence. Whether or not they are the ones on the receiving end, it affects every one of us. When we clutch our keys as we walk home at night, when we pick the safest route along well-lit streets but also when we worry about whether a new partner, or a troubled male relative, could become abusive: we fear the kitchen knife pointed towards us, or the hands around our neck.
I grew up in West Yorkshire in the 1970s, in the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”. We all knew, even children, about this bad man who was picking off women. And men’s violence against women was also around me as a child. It is there for so many of us — not just in public spaces but in intimate places too. That was one reason I have spent all my adult life working in specialist women’s services.
The deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have reignited a conversation about male violence, but it has focused on “stranger danger” when most women are killed by someone they know.
The Femicide Census, which I co-created with Clarrie O’Callaghan and which is supported by Freshfields, the law firm, and Deloitte, the auditors, annually publishes information about women who have been killed and the male perpetrators. We found that about 62 per cent of women killed by men are killed by current or former partners. About one in 12 are killed by strangers, roughly the same number as are murdered by their sons. Yet there hasn’t been any critical analysis of the danger sons pose to adult women; we never hear about “filial peril”. We don’t have an accurate picture of what men’s violence against women actually looks like in this country.
The census came about after I started my own record in January 2012, Counting Dead Women, which contemporaneously records female deaths at the hands of men. A young woman, Kirsty Treloar, who had been referred to Nia, the charity where I have been chief executive since 2009, was killed by the boyfriend she was trying to leave. I searched online to see what had happened to her. What I found instead was report after report of women who had been murdered. I have supported female victims of male violence for decades, yet the volume of crimes still surprised me. There was a phrase that kept appearing in these reports: “This was an isolated incident.” But there is nothing isolated about it. How could it be “isolated” when it was happening to so many women? And why were we not looking for the connections? That’s why I kept recording these deaths.
I was also angry that the government’s official data does not group together all the women killed by men. Even now, the Office for National Statistics records the sex of people who have been killed but not the sex of the person who killed them — so they don’t allow us to understand the difference between violence committed by men and violence committed by women. They only give you half the story.
You often hear the same, inaccurate, statistic: that two women a week are killed by men in England and Wales. That was the standard way murdered women were talked about — as a number. I wanted us to remember that they are human beings who are loved and missed. And recording all their names, I started to notice patterns: many older women are murdered and sexually assaulted during burglaries and women are often killed as they are either about to leave, or have just left, an abusive partner.
For many women, the moment they try to leave is incredibly dangerous. Staying with a violent man, horrific as this is, is the best survival strategy on offer for some women. Yet the places they would escape to, refuges, have had their funding cut for more than a decade and the expertise stripped out by allowing services to be delivered by the cheapest bidders, rather than specialist feminist organisations.
Young, professional, conventionally attractive, white women who are killed by strangers get the most attention but we must stop perpetuating this hierarchy of victims. I was really struck last week that in the judge’s sentencing remarks, he called Sarah Everard “a wholly blameless victim”. You can’t talk about her innocence without implicitly victim-blaming other women and we shouldn’t separate between women we empathise with and women we don’t. And women are killed by all kinds of men: from the unemployed to airline pilots and doctors — and, of course, police officers.
I think misogyny runs through the police. At least 15 serving or former police officers have killed women since 2009. The culture of the police needs fixing: it’s not a few bad apples; it’s a rotten orchard. We need an inquiry into institutionalised sexism in the police.
Killing a woman is not a gateway crime: it is not the first thing you do. If you murder a woman, you have usually been doing something abusive or criminal to women for a long time, you just haven’t been caught. And if Wayne Couzens is stage ten in violence against women, what are the police doing about officers, and other men, who are at stage three, four or five?
More broadly, we need to stop pussyfooting about naming men as perpetrators. Then to tackle the violence, we need a five-pronged strategy.
We need to focus on individual men, the perpetrators, and hold them to account. We must give women more options to leave. We should look at relationships and how those shape our culture. We need to ensure the police, the courts and social services are not institutionally sexist. Then we should address inequality: the objectification and sexualisation of women.
That is the only way anything will change.
Women woke to find a new item on our stay-safe list. Beneath “stick to well-lit streets” and “wear flat shoes you can run in”; after “text your taxi’s number plate to a friend” and “clutch keys in your fist like a claw” came new guidance: “Don’t trust a policeman working alone.”
Is this our duty too? To adjudge on dark nights whether men paid with our taxes to protect us may prefer to kill us? The North Yorkshire police commissioner Philip Allott said that Sarah Everard “should never have submitted to arrest”. But women are raised to comply. It’s drummed into us: be good, be kind. Sarah got into Wayne Couzens’s car because, in visiting her friend, she knew she’d broken lockdown rules. Sorry, officer, I’ll come to the station. Handcuffs? Are you sure? OK . . .
No more. If Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, in which women’s rage converts into high-voltage electricity, were true, skies would crackle, buildings blaze. Not just for Sarah or Sabina Nessa, bludgeoned crossing a park, or Julia James, walking her dog, or Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, enjoying a summer night. Nor even for all 80 women killed by men since Sarah. But because we will no longer accept male violence, and the misogyny which underpins it, being shrugged away.
The police should have no doubt this is their Jimmy Savile moment. Cressida Dick chose the day Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping and rape to talk about the odd ‘bad ’un’ in the force. But what does that make colleagues who let him slide across the spectrum, from slapping a female cop’s backside to stopping only women motorists, using personal details to loiter outside their homes. Women now know that acquiring the nickname The Rapist is no impediment to a police career.
It’s all banter isn’t it, just a laugh? Couzens, spotted driving around naked from the waist-down? A kink, maybe. (Once flashers were comedy staples, now it’s argued that indecent exposure is an outdated offence in our sex-positive age.) Couzens using violent pornography or hiring prostitutes? Only a prude would judge. (Unembarrassed men browse PornHub right beside you on a train.) Every warning sign that Couzens saw women as disposable objects was glossed over, not even picked up in professional screening which granted him a gun.
Because we never riot and, alas, lack electric super-powers, police disregard our deaths. Even our grief at the Sarah Everard vigil, where officers stomped flowers and strong-armed speakers, wasn’t worthy of the respect protesters receive for lying on the M25. They are political: women are collateral.
If a man is freaked out by lockdown he might kill his wife of 44 years: Ruth Williams. If he’s drunk, horny and has watched choking porn he might strangle his mistress: Sophie Moss. (Both men got five years.) All these reported pillars of the community, decent dads, nice, quiet blokes who just “turned”. Nothing to see. Just an annual 150 or so one-offs.
Yet Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, has spoken of “institutional misogyny” so ingrained in the decision-making “they don’t realise they are doing it and why”. She reports police calling young women “whores” or “sugar tits”, older ones “Dorises”.
No surprise that Couzens and colleagues traded racist and misogynist WhatsApp messages or that other Met officers posed for selfies by Nicole and Bibaa’s dead bodies. Because we know northern police forces ignored gangs trafficking underage girls for sex for decades, since they were just “little slags”. We learnt this week that police chiefs disregarded undercover cops having sexual relationships with women by deception. The impunity of the penis rules the police, as elsewhere.
Now a third of officers are women, yet it is still hard to complain about men like Couzens. Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent, said female officers hesitate to report colleagues lest they be labelled as troublemakers so “when you press your emergency button on your radio for back up, no one comes and you get beaten up in the street”.
In a super-complaint lodged by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), of which I am a trustee, 666 women reported abuse by police officer partners. Australian research has shown that since policemen tend to have more authoritarian personalities they are more likely to be controlling spouses, yet their conviction rate for domestic violence is 3.9 per cent compared with a 6.2 per cent average in the general population.
CWJ argues this is because the police service looks after its own. Abusive officers told their wives that since colleagues would investigate their claims, they would never be believed. Indeed, in case after case women report that witnesses aren’t contacted, statements and evidence lost, no further action taken. (CWJ wants a separate channel for police partners to report abuse away from boys’-club meddling.) No wonder that since 2009 at least 15 serving or ex-police officers have killed women.
This statistic is from the femicide census, the annual list read in parliament by Jess Phillips compiled by the campaigner Karen Ingala Smith from news reports. She does this because, astonishingly, the government doesn’t keep data on how many women are killed by men. The first of many acts police need to perform to win back women’s trust is create a femicide league table showing which forces have brought women’s deaths down. And spare us that sly obfuscation “gender-based violence”.
It is time for the demands of violence against women campaigners to be addressed. Cressida Dick should dedicate her remaining years to this most intractable crime. Male violence is a problem with the deepest, most tangled roots. And police are just men, but with handcuffs and warrant cards.
QotD: “Courts ‘scandal’ robbing domestic abuse victims of their children – sometimes to their abusers”
Victims of domestic abuse are being discriminated against in the family courts and regularly lose custody of their children, sometimes to their abusers, according to campaigners, social workers and lawyers who’ve spoken to Sky News.
Courts and councils are accused of helping abusers to land a huge psychological blow on the victim and their child, by separating them and severely damaging their lives.
The situation is so bad, the domestic abuse commissioner says lawyers often advise clients not to tell the court they have been victims of domestic violence in case it is used against them.
Nicole Jacobs told Sky News that solicitors tell them: “The judge doesn’t like it, it complicates things.”
Barrister and advisor to the government on domestic abuse, Usha Sood, has described the situation as “scandalous”, and is among many calling for greater transparency in the family courts.
One leading campaigner on child sexual exploitation (CSE), Sammy Woodhouse, says that victims of CSE who become mothers are facing similar problems with “hundreds of women” contacting her to say: “I wish I’d never come forward because now they’re going to take my kids.”
Sky News looked at the case of “Sally”, whose daughter was removed from her care four years ago and given to her ex-partner, who she claims she had broken up with to escape from an abusive relationship.
In disturbing footage of the moment her daughter is removed, the toddler reaches out and cries “mummy” as she is carried to a car to be taken away.
Campaigners say that for the abuser, child custody is often part of a malicious game to gain control of the victim, who has otherwise escaped the violent behaviour.
Sally told us when her ex-partner applied for custody, that’s how she viewed it.
She said: “I knew it was a game, I knew it was about control, I knew it was just going to be another abusive tactic to cause as much chaos and pain and drama as possible. And I just thought it was absolutely absurd.”
But the court ruled that her ex should have custody and Sally, who is DBS checked to work with other children, can now only have supervised contact with her own child once a fortnight.
We don’t have the partner’s side of the story, but the case was assessed by an independent social worker from another district.
She looked at the psychological assessment into the mother and in her report suggests it implies that “the domestic violence work being undertaken by [the mother] was having a negative effect upon her ability to progress” and the social worker believes this was used to remove the child and place it with the alleged abuser.
In her assessment, the social worker concluded the mother “should have been encouraged/supported to engage in domestic violence work, not criticised for it”.
The report author also found that while the child was observed to have “an excellent relationship” with her mother and was reaching developmental milestones, the toddler often reacted badly to contact with the partner, screaming “no, no, no, don’t go” and “clawing at her mother”.
The report author, who we can’t identify for legal reasons, told Sky News: “I was basically shocked when I read the documents that were provided to me as to why this child was taken.
“It was absolutely appalling and shocking and highly disturbing.”
Ms Jacobs said: “These are the times when the stakes are highest. Someone losing their child to a perpetrator, someone that they feel and know is unsafe for their child, and these are decisions being made.
“And this is what’s happening day in and day out in our family courts, which is why we need so much more oversight.
“Many of them will say their own solicitor advised them not to raise domestic abuse.
“They’ll say they were advised because the opinion of that solicitor was quote-on-quote ‘the judge doesn’t like it, that it complicates things’ and so they will advise people to avoid raising those issues.
“Then of course there are real consequences to that if decisions are being made without understanding this history of abuse or the context of abuse within a family.
“And so, there is a real oddity about this, that we have players in the system who are in and out of courts every day thinking that the system is not able to understand domestic abuse so much that it’s best not to even talk about it.”
Ms Jacobs added: “It seems extreme, and it doesn’t make sense, and yet it’s happening in huge volumes every single day.”
There seems to be a range of reasons why victims of domestic abuse fall foul of the courts.
Sometimes they are not believed and are considered too protective of their children, not wanting their partner to have unsupervised access.
In other cases, they are portrayed as damaged, passing on psychological scars to their children.
The family court’s first consideration is always to protect the child, but campaigners say this can bring suspicion on parents who reach out for support and not just in domestic violence cases.
Rotherham has hundreds of victims from its infamous child abuse scandal – who are now parents themselves.
An independent report found that as children they were let down by the authorities, who made assumptions about them being prostitutes or making poor lifestyle choices.
Survivor and campaigner Sammy Woodhouse told Sky News similar assumptions are being made about a child abuse victim’s parenting skills.
She said: “If you’ve been raped or exploited, you know, we know that that can affect you not just for many years but sometimes for a lifetime, and that’s what they’re trying to use, in removing children.
“Then what’s happening is when children are being removed and if those children are being conceived through that abuse or rape, they are then given to the perpetrator.”
Ms Woodhouse added: “The man who raped me, he was offered to apply to courts not just for contact but for full custody.
“He’s sat in prison for 35 years for being, you know, one of the worst sex offenders in the country.
“Unfortunately, lessons aren’t being learnt.
“I’ve been contacted by hundreds of women around the country – so this isn’t just a Rotherham problem – saying ‘Sammy, I wish I’d never come forward. You know, I wish I’d have just kept my mouth shut and not told anyone because now they’re going to take my kids.'”
Another alleged victim of child abuse, “Kelly”, was groomed by a man from the age of 15. By 16 she had a baby.
She says she was made to have a Muslim marriage ceremony and was virtually imprisoned in the house, suffering regular domestic violence.
She told Sky News: “He was pulling me around by my hair, slapping me, dragging me about, kicking me, punching me, ripped my clothes, you know I had bald patches in my head from where he’d dragged me about by my hair.”
The father was even convicted of abuse against Kelly, but won custody partly because the boy said he wanted to be with his father.
Kelly says the boy was coerced. “He’d say to my son, you know, ‘Your mum’s a dirty white w****. She’s a dirty prostitute. You know, when you get older, when you get to 16, beat her up, kick her in the head, spit on her, come and live with me, she’s just a tramp.'”
Kelly’s barrister Usha Sood says the court should have seen the signs in her son’s behaviour: “There were several indicators, like he’d call her names.
“He swore at his mother many times. He would order her to do things, and he’d call her s***.”
Mrs Sood, an advisor to the government on domestic abuse, says her client’s story is the symptom of a wider problem.
She said: “I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it other than it is a real scandal that there hasn’t been a multi-faceted attempt to cure this.
“We see reports damning the police, we see reports damning the CPS for low prosecutions.
“We also see reports saying social services aren’t doing their job.
“But at the end of the day, all these agencies have a responsibility to tackle domestic abuse.”
In Sally’s case, a spokesperson for the local authority concerned told Sky News: “All the of the evidence in this case has been considered by the family courts, on several occasions and in front of different judges.
“The court has made the final decisions about the child’s care.
“Throughout these proceedings, the child has been represented by a court appointed guardian, independent of the local authority, to ensure that their views and wishes are heard.
“At all times we have acted in the best interests of the child.”
A Ministry of Justice report last year also criticised the balance given to abusers in private law children cases.
It said: “Submissions highlighted a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, to inadequate assessment of risk, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements, and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation.”
It found: “The courts almost always ordered some form of contact, frequently unrestricted, and usually without requiring an alleged abuser to address their behaviour.”
Campaigners are calling for more transparency.
They want the government to provide figures on numbers of abuse victims who’ve lost their children in the courts – and if a parent seeks mental health support due to abuse, then for help to be given, rather than their children taken away and sometimes given to the abuser.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are determined to keep victims and children safe.
“Last year we announced an overhaul of how family courts deal with domestic abuse cases.
“This will provide extra protections for victims, and we are currently reviewing the presumption of parental involvement where there is a risk of harm to a child.”
The hours after a fatal attack on members of the public are harrowing. Confusion reigns, rumours swirl and anxious people try to contact loved ones to make sure they are safe. Last Thursday evening, as reports of gunfire and possible fatalities on a housing estate in Plymouth began to circulate, the question of whether it was a terrorist incident was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. When Devon and Cornwall police announced it was not terrorism-related, I wondered how they could be so sure – and their judgment has been called into question by everything that has emerged since.
We now know that 22-year-old Jake Davison was a misogynist who shot dead his mother, who had recently been treated for cancer, before taking the lives of four others. There are parallels between Plymouth and the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012, when Adam Lanza shot his mother five times before going to a primary school where he killed 20 children and six adults, all women. Not for the first time, the significance of extreme misogyny in the genesis of a fatal attack on members of the public seems to have been missed.
It is hard to see how Davison’s actions fail to meet the government’s definition of terrorism, which includes “the use of threat or action… to intimidate the public”. Examples include serious violence against one or more people, endangering someone’s life or creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public: tick, tick and tick. But here is the get-out clause. The definition stipulates that terrorism must be “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and it is often argued that even the most extreme misogyny does not meet that test.
It seems that its deadly interaction with other forms of extremism is poorly understood, something that struck me forcibly after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Five years earlier, Salman Abedi was already showing signs of being radicalised, but the significance of his assault on a young Muslim woman at college was not recognised. Abedi punched her in the head for wearing a short skirt, almost knocking her out in front of witnesses. It was an act of staggering brutality, displaying a toxic combination of misogyny and allegiance to Islamist ideology, along with a low threshold for violence. Yet Abedi was not charged. Greater Manchester police dealt with the incident through restorative justice and Abedi owned up to anger management issues, avoiding a referral to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme. In what seems to be an example of history repeating itself, it has been revealed that Devon and Cornwall police recently restored Davison’s firearms licence, which he lost in December, after he agreed to take part in an anger management course.
Yet Davison made no secret of his seething resentment of women, posting hate-filled diatribes on YouTube. He compared himself to “incels” – involuntary celibates – angry young men who blame women for their inability to get sex and revealed an obsession with guns. In a video uploaded three weeks before the shootings, he came close to justifying sexual violence. “Why do you think sexual assaults and all these things keep rising?” he demanded in a 10-minute rant, claiming that “women don’t need men no more”. One of the questions Devon and Cornwall police need to answer is if they were aware of the content of Davison’s social media posts when they returned his licence.
In North America, incels have been linked with white supremacy, as well as being held responsible for the murders of around 50 people. In Canada, their ideology has been designated a form of violent extremism following an attack on a Toronto massage parlour last year in which a woman was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old man. It was the second such attack in the city in two years, after a self-described incel drove a van into pedestrians in 2018, killing 10 people.
In the UK, however, misogyny is not even widely recognised as the driving force behind violence against women. Time and again, we hear about men who supposedly “just snapped” and killed their female partners in what the police describe as “domestic” and “isolated” incidents. Not so isolated, given that 1,425 women were killed by men in the UK between 2009 and 2018, but we are expected to believe that such homicides could not be predicted or stopped. In fact, it is rare for a woman to be murdered by a current or former partner without a previous history of domestic abuse.
Hatred of women is normalised, dismissed as an obsession of feminists, even when its horrific consequences are staring us in the face. In June last year, two sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were murdered in a north London park by a teenager. Danyal Hussein, now 19, had been referred to Prevent after using school computers to access rightwing websites, but was discharged after a few months with no further concerns. What seems to have been missed is his virulent misogyny, which led him to make a “pact” with a “demon” to kill six women in six months.
Five years ago, I began to notice how many men who committed fatal terrorist attacks had a history of misogyny and domestic abuse – practising at home, in other words. No one would listen so I wrote a book about it, listing around 50 perpetrators who had previously terrorised current and ex-partners. It was published in 2019 and inspired groundbreaking research by counter-terrorism policing, showing that almost 40% of referrals to the Prevent programme had a history of domestic abuse, as perpetrators, witnesses or victims. Project Starlight has produced a number of recommendations, arguing that counter-terrorism officers need to look for evidence of violence against women when they are assessing the risk posed by suspects.
That is a welcome development, but we need to go further. We are all in shock after hearing about the horrific events in Plymouth, while the grief of the victims’ families is awful to contemplate. But Davison’s murderous rampage demonstrates that our understanding of what constitutes terrorism is too restrictive. Extreme misogyny needs to be recognised as an ideology in its own right – and one that carries an unacceptable risk of radicalising bitter young men.
Nazir Afzal is a solicitor and the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England. Among his notable cases, he brought the Rochdale sex grooming gangs to trial in 2012.
Nazir’s parents arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 1961 and he was born in Birmingham the following year. After completing his legal training he started his career as a defence lawyer but soon realised that he preferred prosecution to defence, joining the Crown Prosecution Service in 1991.
As director of prosecutions for London he turned his attention to so-called honour-based violence and brought successful prosecutions against the perpetrators of these crimes. In 2011 as chief crown prosecutor for north-west England he began investigating sex grooming gangs in Rochdale, overturning a previous CPS decision not to bring charges against the gangs. He brought prosecutions against nine men who were convicted and jailed in 2012 for the sexual exploitation of 47 young girls.
Nazir retired from the Crown Prosecution Service in 2015. He currently chairs the Catholic Church’s new safeguarding body and advises the Welsh government on issues of gender-based violence.
In court custody battles over the past few years, a new term, “parental alienation”, has taken root. The phrase – based on a “syndrome” that has been internationally discredited and is banned from use in family courts in some countries – is based on the idea that one parent brainwashes a child to distance it from the other parent, who is blameless. Children’s wishes and feelings are often seen as manipulated and therefore are often discounted by the family courts and professionals.
I have watched, horrified, as parental alienation has become the go-to litigation tactic, often used by domestic abusers to discredit allegations made against them by their ex-partner. Although parental alienation can be raised by either parent, overwhelmingly I see it being deployed as a counter-allegation by fathers when mothers try to prove they or their children have been subjected to abuse.
Parental alienation can happen, but it is extremely rare, as a Cardiff University review concluded. Yet time and time again I have watched the allegation being used by abusers to silence, threaten and blame victims of domestic abuse who are simply trying to protect their children from unsafe contact.
Even worse, there are cases where the courts have found domestic abuse to have been proved – and yet the victim is still told by the judge that she must not “alienate” the children from the perpetrator, and if she does not promote contact then the children could be moved away. So, on some occasions, children have been moved from their home with their protective parent, the victim of abuse, to the abuser’s home. Children in this situation could not be more vulnerable.
When domestic abuse has been proved, there are entirely justifiable reasons for a victim to have negative views of their abuser, and the term “parental alienation” should never form any part of subsequent proceedings. But for men who are abusers there is another reason to use it too: one woman going through proceedings said, “Women are often legally advised that if they mention abuse then they’ll lose custody of their children to their abuser.” I have seen this happen.
In last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches, mothers described their gruelling legal battles as they try to protect their children. Jane’s ex-husband dragged her through the family court after their two children refused to go to “contact” with him. The father accused Jane of alienating the children against him. Ultimately, the judge ordered the police to forcibly remove the children from their home. The police body cam of the removal is extremely distressing.
As a family law barrister, I have advised and represented teenagers who have been through the trauma of forced separation and many years later are still desperate to return to their mother’s care. The teenagers in the documentary describe being traumatised, angry at professionals for not listening to them, and desperate to live with their mother. Repeatedly, they ran away from their father’s home, to go back to her – at which point the family court issued a power of arrest on Jane if they absconded back to her again.
When the domestic abuse bill was before parliament, some mens’ rights groups fought for parental alienation to be defined as domestic abuse. Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, experienced a backlash from this lobby after she opposed their plan, and said parental alienation campaigners were attempting to thwart her efforts to help victims of abuse. Unfortunately, parental alienation is still defined as controlling or coercive behaviour in the draft statutory guidance.
But where did it all start? Dr Richard Gardner, an American child psychiatrist, created the concept and produced a series of self-published books on parental alienation syndrome in the 1980s. He testified in more than 400 custody cases, discrediting allegations of domestic abuse or child sex abuse and recommending transfer of residence from one parent to another. He believed that 90% of mothers alleging child sexual abuse were liars who brainwashed their children, and that paedophilia “is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people”. Gardner and the “syndrome” were discredited by the late 1990s.
A US judicial guide states that the supreme court ruled the syndrome was based on “soft sciences” and is thus inadmissible. It is not recognised as a legitimate clinical term by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. A UK government report last year highlighted concerns about the unscrupulous credentials of so-called “experts” on parental alienation. And yet, over the past decade, the concept has gained traction here and is now a regular fixture in our family courts. And the weight applied to so-called parental alienation experts by the family courts is often significant. The family court support service, Cafcass, has adopted a practice guidance on parental alienation giving junk science further weight. There is no empirical evidence that a transfer of residence can make a child love the alienated parent, but there is evidence that it can result in further harm to children.
Two years ago, 77 leading professionals signed a letter calling on the president of the family division to tighten the law to prevent unregulated experts from writing reports in family cases. Unfortunately, he refused to take this issue forward, leaving victims – primarily mothers – and children at risk.
The dangerous label of parental alienation is now the single biggest threat to the credibility of victims of domestic abuse, and to the voices of children. It gives validation, power and control to perpetrators. Any court that countenances unevidenced allegations of parental alienation is potentially sanctioning abuse. Sadly, it may take a tragedy before anyone will actually listen.
Fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in a suspect being charged, analysis of Home Office figures seen by the Guardian reveals.
While there were 52,210 rapes recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020, only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons – a rate of 1.6%.
The figures will increase pressure on the government to deliver radical proposals to overhaul the treatment of rape by the criminal justice system in a long-awaited end-to-end review into how rape is investigated and prosecuted in England and Wales.
Commissioned two years ago, it was planned to be completed in spring 2020, but was pushed back as more research was carried out and a legal case against the Crown Prosecution Service was heard.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, told MPs last week it would be published “before the end of spring”. The Guardian understands it was due this week, but will now be published in June as wrangling continues over how far the proposed actions to tackle record low rape charges and convictions should go.
According to Guardian analysis, more than 100,000 rapes have been reported to police since the review was announced in March 2019, following concerns about a precipitous drop in the volume of rape cases being prosecuted. Separate independent judge-led reviews in Northern Ireland and Scotland have already published their findings and made hundreds of recommendations.
The England and Wales review, overseen by the Criminal Justice Board, includes input from, among others, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the attorney general’s and the Cabinet Office, Downing Street, the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary as well as police, charities and relevant inspectorates.
The victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, said: “Bearing in mind that independent reviews in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have called for radical measures, we now can’t have anything less in a review in large part produced by the very agencies whose performance is in question.”
The Home Office figures are the latest in a downward trend in the volume of rape prosecutions. For every 10 cases the CPS prosecuted in 2016-17, it now pursues only three. The volume of prosecutions declined 71% between 2016-17 and the calendar year to December 2020, from 5,190 to 1,490.
The drop in prosecutions has led to fewer convictions. There were 1,917 fewer rapists convicted in the year to December 2020 than in 2016-17, a decline of 64%, as the CPS secured 2,991 convictions four years ago compared with 1,074 last year.
The figures come as fears mount about the growing backlog of cases in the criminal courts, with experts warning that the already high drop-out rate for rape victims is likely to increase.The number of victims dropping out of increasingly lengthy investigations and trial processes have rocketed from 25% five years ago to 43% in 2020.
Last week, Labour said the government should be held to specific targets to measure progress on male violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and said they would introduce a seven-year minimum sentence for rape. It proposed a national rollout of the system operating in Wales, where the government is held to account by 10 progress indicators, with a report published each year.
The Gillen review, published in May 2019, examined the treatment of serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland and made about 250 recommendations, including legal representation for rape complainants, while the Dorrian review in Scotland recommended the introduction of specialist rape courts in March 2021.
The England and Wales review is expected to recommend allowing rape victims to provide pre-recorded evidence before trial, barring the public from the courtroom more often and ensuring police return mobile phones to victims within 24 hours.
In the end, Valérie Bacot could take it no longer. For almost four decades, her husband, Daniel Polette, had been a malign presence that dominated her life: he molested her when she was 12, made her pregnant at 17 and then trapped her in an abusive relationship, during which she bore him three more children.
Now in the ultimate humiliation, he was pimping her out for sex in the back of their battered Peugeot people-carrier in the woods near their home in Saône-et-Loire, in central France, getting his kicks from watching through a chink in the curtain in its rear window.
In March 2016, after an encounter with a particularly brutal client, Bacot claims to have grabbed the loaded pistol that Polette kept next to the driver’s seat and, closing her eyes, shot him.
Daniel Polette first began to show an unhealthy interest in Bacot when she was a young child
“There was a loud noise; the flash, the smell,” she said in an interview with Le Parisien last week. “I got out of the car, opened the door, he fell. I thought only of saving myself because I was sure he was going to kill me.”
But he was dead. When Bacot told her elder children she had killed their father, they hugged her. Two of her sons, together with her daughter’s boyfriend, then helped her bury his remains in the forest. “I packed the earth down like crazy with my hands. I was too afraid he would come out to kill us,” she recalled.
Next month Bacot, 40, goes on trial for murder in a case that has turned a spotlight on conjugal violence in France — and on the few victims who dare to fight back.
By this weekend more than 384,000 people had signed a petition demanding Bacot’s freedom. A television interview with her drew an audience of 4.5 million and a book in which she tells her life story went to the top of the bestseller list after its release last week.
“I was struck by Valérie’s strength, her courage and her intelligence. I really wanted to help her to tell this story,” said Clémence de Blasi, a journalist who ghostwrote the book, Tout le monde savait (Everyone Knew), having met Bacot after her release in October 2018 pending her trial.
In talking to Bacot’s children and others around her, de Blasi realised what a powerful hold Polette had over his wife. “He was watching her permanently, day and night,” she told me. “He was someone who was extremely dangerous and ready to do anything.”
It was Bacot’s mother who first brought Polette into her daughter’s life. After breaking up with her husband, she had a series of casual relationships before meeting the lorry driver in 1992 and inviting him to live in their home in the village of La Clayette, 60 miles north of Lyons.
Polette soon began to show an unhealthy interest in the young girl, who had just turned 12, going into the bathroom while she was washing and insisting on rubbing her with cream. Bacot’s mother tried to keep his activities quiet but word eventually reached the local authorities, and in 1995 Polette was arrested and convicted of sex offences against a minor.
Bizarrely, however, on his release after 33 months in jail, he was allowed to return to the home in La Clayette and was soon abusing Bacot again and raping her. After she became pregnant in 1998, she moved with him into a little house in Baudemont, a neighbouring village of a few hundred people, where, despite an age difference of 25 years, they lived as a couple for two decades, marrying in 2008.
According to Bacot’s account, it was anything but marital bliss: he frequently beat her, on one occasion breaking her nose and on another holding an unloaded pistol against her temple and pulling the trigger. “The next time there will be a bullet for you and for each of the children,” he told her.
Bacot thought of denouncing him to police but was fearful of how he would retaliate and did not dare to go herself. Instead she sent her children, but the police refused to listen to their claims and sent them away.
In the meantime, he had forced her into prostitution, initially only at weekends but then, after he gave up his job, almost full-time. To get clients, he made her distribute flyers in the local area. Once their daughter was 14, Bacot feared he would force the girl to sell her body too.
With no money and no friends or family to turn to, Bacot felt she had no alternative but to stay with her tormentor — until the day she shot him.
At first the family pretended he had gone away. But Bacot was eventually denounced to the police, apparently by the mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. At 6am one day in October 2017, the police came for her; she knew she was going to be arrested and for days had been sleeping in her clothes.
Bacot’s experiences show in an extreme form the plight of women who fall victim to conjugal violence and the failings of social services, according to her lawyers, Janine Bonaggiunta and Nathalie Tomasini. “Valérie was transformed by the extreme violence she suffered into a remote-controlled puppet who, against her will, became an object for her perverse husband,” they write in a preface to the book.
In too many cases, such violence ends with the woman being murdered. Earlier this month a 31-year-old mother-of-three in the Gironde died after her former partner shot her in both legs, poured petrol on her and set her on fire while still alive.
It was the 39th such killing this year, after 90 in 2020, according to Féminicides par compagnons ou ex (Women killed by partners or exes), a campaigning group that tracks such cases.
In a few instances such as Bacot’s, however, it is the victim who turns killer — as with Jacqueline Sauvage, whose case became a cause célèbre in France after she was sentenced to ten years in jail for shooting dead her husband in 2012 with a hunting rifle. He had abused her and driven their son to suicide. After an outcry over her treatment, François Hollande, then the president, gave Sauvage a full pardon.
Bacot’s growing band of supporters would like her to be pardoned too. “Even though she committed murder by killing her torturer,” their petition says, “given the 25 years of suffering she endured to general indifference, it is her freedom that we ask for.”
The campaign — together with Bacot’s highly unusual step of writing a book in effect justifying her actions — may not go down well with the court, however, and Bacot herself seems reconciled to her impending punishment.
“I am looking forward for this to end, to finally know what is in store for me,” she told Le Parisien. “I have done my job, fulfilled my role as a mother; now I can go to prison with peace of mind.
“I deserve to be jailed for a very long time. This trial is not only mine, it is also that of ‘the other’ ” — the term she uses for Polette, whose name she cannot bear to say out loud. “I hope that I can be stronger than him and for once in my life win against him.”