Policy blog

#ReachIn: Ruby's story

Ruby* shared this blog with us as part of our Reach In campaign. Find out more about the campaign and what to do if you're worried about someone.

During lockdown I’ve been thinking a lot about what this experience would have been like if I was still with my emotionally abusive ex-partner, and what I would have needed from the people around me.

A lot of survivors have said that living with domestic abuse is like living in your own personal lockdown. If someone else controls who you speak to and where you go, the lockdown measures may be a tightening of the ‘rules’ you already live under.

The emotional abuse and manipulation I experienced was always centred on my ex’s portrayal of himself as an anxious, vulnerable person who needed me to look after him. Very gradually, I made myself and my world smaller in order to accommodate him and make him feel bigger. This is part of why what happened to me was so hard to name; he never raised a fist or threatened me in order to make me do something, instead he manipulated me until I did it to myself.

Eventually, I was (or at least I felt) completely responsible for his emotional wellbeing and his moods, which could change without warning and make the atmosphere unbearable. I was often tired and got used to a tight feeling in my chest.  

We lived in a tiny fifth floor studio flat with no outdoor space, that was too expensive for one person but not quite big enough for two. Apart from the front door, the only other door in the flat was to the bathroom – the only place it was possible to shut the door and be in a different room to him. As I discovered during the year we lived there; there are only so many long baths a person can take.

If I’d been in that situation when lockdown was introduced, I honestly don’t know how I would have coped. Even my outdoor exercise would have been with him, for the sake of avoiding the sulking and silent treatment that would have followed me ‘not wanting to spend time with him’.

One comparable glimpse I have into what lockdown might have looked like for us, is a time when we were stuck together in a campervan in the pouring rain. His quiet, simmering rage was suffocating me, and there were times when I actually thought he might crash the van on purpose. Somehow I found the resources inside myself to keep going, keep finding ways to try and make him calm, keep absorbing everything he threw out because I had no other choice, nowhere to go. That situation only lasted a few days, but I’ve never felt so trapped.

If I was living with him now, there’s no way I would have even framed what I was going through as abuse – it had become my ‘normal’ so gradually. The chances of me reaching out for help or support would be zero unless things escalated to physical abuse, and maybe not even then. I wouldn’t have talked to my parents about it as I wouldn’t want to worry them. I would need my friends to reach in and ask the right questions, when he wasn’t around.

What I always needed – and would need in lockdown – was people to leave me with space to talk about how things really felt at home. Our friends always told me how cute we were together, how good I was for him, how nice it was that we’d set up a little home together. If those are the only messages you’re getting from everyone around you, how are you supposed to recognise that something isn’t right?

If you’re worried about a friend right now – maybe you haven’t heard from them in a while, or their partner does most of the talking on your group Zoom calls, or it’s a gut feeling you can’t quite put your finger on – find a way to reach in and ask them how they’re really feeling. Listen without judging. Reassure them that it’s not normal or ok to feel like this, and it isn’t their fault.

And even if you aren’t specifically worried, please leave room for all of your friends to talk to you openly about their relationships. Stay curious and try to resist saying things like ‘I’m sure he’s just stressed, you two are so great together!’ because you can never really know what it’s like to live on the other side of that door.

*name changed

Back to the #ReachIn campaign page



#ReachIn: Young survivors in lockdown

This blog was shared with us by a survivor as part of our Reach In campaign. Find out more about the campaign and what to do if you're worried about someone.

I experienced domestic abuse as a young person, a long time ago, when social media wasn’t a thing, and I know this adds a whole other dimension to how you escape abuse. But being in lockdown has made me think about how, if this was happening to me now, this might be an opportunity for me to escape.  

I had a safe, loving family but I still never really told them how bad it was for me – and it was very bad. At times my life was at risk. I managed to escape because he was forced to leave the area we lived; he was in trouble with the police and local gangs. So this was my chance. It’s this that makes me think about how lockdown might present an opportunity to escape for some. How the few months of physical separation from the person hurting you could give you space to think and a chance for family to help. I was lucky that my family home was safe, and I know that many young people do not have this. It is quite likely that, if this was happening now, even in lockdown he would still have had a huge amount of access to me through my phone. That isn’t to be underestimated.   

But to any friends or family members who might suspect that your friend or your child might be being abused by their intimate partner or peer: use this time to talk about it. It doesn’t have to all be out in the open all at once, but you have the time to find out about their relationship, whether they are happy and feel loved and respected within it. Take the time to rebuild trust and relationships that might have been damaged by the perpetrator’s control. And then ask the question. Does he or she make you feel frightened? Does he or she physically hurt you? Does he/she control you? How are they using your phone and social media to still control and frighten you?

Listen and believe. Reassure them that there is help. Find that help together. Reach In.  


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#ReachIn: Melani's story

This blog was shared with us by Melani Morgan as part of our Reach In campaign. Find out more about the campaign and what to do if you're worried about someone.

During the period of time I was experiencing domestic abuse at home, I was working as a police officer. I recall a time when a colleague took me to one side and said 'we are all worried about you, and want you to know if you need help we will help you.' I remember being horrified that my colleagues had been talking about me in this way. You see for me work was where I had a sense of worth, something that I was good at, that he couldn’t spoil. I recall immediately saying I was ok and that they needn’t worry. Up until then I thought I was doing a great job covering up injuries and making excuses for them. It was such a shock that other people knew.

I didn’t escape the abuse then, but that person reaching in made me feel so much better because I knew that I had someone I could go to when I was ready to escape. At home he was saying 'no one will believe you because you are a cop and your career will be ruined.' Because of that colleague who reached in, I knew he was wrong. They would believe me and my career was not in jeopardy because I was still doing well in my job despite my abuse at home.

I did leave the marriage a while later and I sought help from a colleague to do so, taking my children to their home one day and not going home until it was safe to do so. 

So for me, if you are a colleague of someone who you believe is being abused, ask them, say you will help. They may deny the abuse, say they don’t need help, but your offer will make them stronger in many ways. They will know inside they have an option, that they will be believed – and when they do escape the abuse it will be in part because you reached in.

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Reflections on a landmark year for Scotland

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold, it’s hard to escape the troubling times facing us all – but our thoughts are particularly with those adult and child victims living with abusive perpetrators, where home is not a place of safety, but a place where they will face a potential increase in violence and psychological abuse as well as even greater isolation. Now more than ever, support services are crucial and the police must remain alert to domestic abuse in its many forms.

On the 1st April 2019 the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act came into force, providing greater safety for victims of domestic abuse, by making coercive control illegal for the first time in Scotland.  In the 12 months since, almost 1,700 offences have been recorded.

Coercive control involves deliberate tactics to isolate, undermine, threaten and degrade victims. It is a subtle, insidious crime, and it was vital that the legislation was accompanied by training, tools and awareness raising measures to help relevant professionals spot the signs and respond appropriately.

Thanks to funding from the Scottish Government, we’ve been able to put some of those measures in place. Working closely with Police Scotland and our partners ASSIST, the Caledonian System, Sacro (Fearless) and Scottish Borders Safer Communities team, we’ve been delivering our domestic abuse programme for the police: Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland.

Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland provides a practical awareness of the legislation and offers long-term attitudinal and behavioural change by helping the police understand what is meant by the term ‘coercive control’ and the specific manifestations and impacts of it. It also prompts officers to think about children – who don’t just ‘witness’ abuse in the home, but experience it and are victims in their own right; and it explores the tactics used by perpetrators to manipulate both victims and police responders.

As well as specially developed e-learning we’ve delivered face to face training with nearly 14,000 officers and staff, using a dual-trainer model with every session being delivered by a trainer with a proven police background alongside a domestic abuse specialist. From the executive team and frontline officers, to control room staff and Specials, a wide range of police staff and officers have engaged in the programme.

Preliminary evaluation results have shown that since completing the training 84% of respondents felt very or extremely competent at understanding the key provisions of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act and how to apply the new Section 1 offence, compared to 10% before the training. 95% felt very or extremely competent after the training at understanding the tactics perpetrators of domestic abuse demonstrate when they are coercively controlling their victims, compared to 20% before. We have also trained almost 700 Domestic Abuse Champions who will take forward the learning and help sustain the change.

COVID-19 presents new challenges for us all. At a time when we are all asked to stay at home for our own safety, we must remember that home is not a place of safety for many people. Now more than ever, we need a comprehensive response to domestic abuse that sees the impact on the whole family.

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act and the completion of our Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland programme puts the police in good stead to protect victims across Scotland. But we won’t stop there. This work must be ongoing – with a continued focus, determination and commitment to ensuring all adult and child victims get the support they need to become safe and well.

At SafeLives, our latest focus is to create an online awareness-raising tool about coercive control and domestic abuse legislation for the widest range of organisations and we look forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and all of our partners to ensure home can become a place of safety. For everyone.

Coercive and controlling behaviour in a family relationship

Becki Meakin – General Manager, Shaping Our Lives

Becki is a disabled person with expertise in the inclusive involvement of people from marginalised and under-represented communities. She has conducted many user-led research studies into the inequalities experienced by people when they use health and social care services. She has also worked with a range of organisations to develop inclusive involvement strategies including the British Association of Social Workers and the University of Essex. Becki appeared in the BBC Top 100 Women's Series 2018/19 for work with disabled women experiencing violence and abuse; raising awareness of the barriers disabled women face when trying to access support services. In this piece, alongside a previous blog by Cyrene Siriwardhana of Surviving Economic Abuse, Becki argues for the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour to be extended to family members who aren't living together.

Controlling or Coercive Behaviour by a partner, ex-partner or family member is already recognised as domestic abuse, and is an offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. But section 76 contains two exclusions which leave certain victims unprotected by the criminal law, namely, anyone being abused by a family member or ex-partner who is not living with them.

The need to plug this gap in the law is illustrated by the account of the survivor Jane*. Jane’s abuse lasted 22 years, only ending with the death of her sister. Several safeguarding alerts were raised with Social Services by concerned friends and local charities, but fear induced by coercion inhibited her from discussing the reality of her degrading situation, to which she had become thoroughly habituated. The Office of the Public Guardian also declined to intervene. Without any possibility of a ‘victimless’ domestic abuse prosecution, the Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 were both effectively powerless to safeguard this lady.

There is no other suitable offence for tackling this kind of abuse. It is not in general covered by offences of stalking or harassment. Elderly or disabled people who live alone, but are dependent in some way on a relative, are particularly vulnerable to exactly the same kind of controlling or coercive behaviour – and in particular economic abuse – as can be perpetrated by relatives living at the same address. It is the relationship of dependency, rather than their living arrangements, which enables control and coercion not only to take place but also to lie hidden from the authorities.

Jane’s story shows that this kind of abuse need not resemble stalking or harassment any more than does controlling or coercive behaviour between partners, or between relatives/ex-partners who live together.

The case for change is explained more fully in a joint submission by Shaping Our Lives and Andrew Todd to the Joint Select Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19.

Action on Elder Abuse found that over 50% of financial abuse reported to them is carried out by adult children. They said, “elder abuse within older people’s own homes … often perpetrated by members of their own family ... is the hidden abuse of UK society”.

Shaping Our Lives advised in relation to disabled victims, caring relationships provide additional opportunities for perpetrators to abuse and coercively control. The perpetrator can coercively control the disabled person by withholding essential support such as food, medication or prevent them going out independently. This type of abuse can be done by a family member wherever they live and this type of coercive control would not be easily recognised by the legislation around stalking”.

Advice to government from a policing expert said, “there is a gap where harassment and stalking legislation does not explicitly cover behaviour within the context of a familial relationship”

The time has now come for this kind of abuse to be recognised by the criminal law for what it is, namely controlling or coercive behaviour in a family relationship. 

*name changed