So the story in Ambridge is evolving and continues to shine a light on the complex realities of domestic abuse, children, and the law.
Helen is struggling to give a full statement on the events of the evening where Rob was stabbed. Not only does she have to resolve this, but she will need to get to the stage where she can fully articulate the abuse she has been subjected to, and think hard about evidence she can produce to demonstrate it.
Not least of which because we’ve now heard Rob giving his own version of events. I mentioned last week of the scale of manipulation and deceit which the perpetrators of these crimes can present, and listeners are now hearing that first hand. Helen would be well advised to point her Barrister in the direction of Rob’s previous partner, whose evidence would start to throw a different light on his portrayal as a seemingly hard done by husband of a deranged wife.
And then we have Henry, clearly relieved to be reunited with his Father, we shouldn’t under-estimate Rob’s ability to manipulate the young boy. Some might be concerned about this given Henry is a witness. But at this stage a prosecution witness and therefore no constraint on his ability to have access to his father.
Rob appears to be laying the ground for a custody claim on the boy, with his suggestion in his statement that Helen is a danger to her child, citing events such as the scalding bath, which listeners know were manufactured by him.
Coercive control is a crime based on exhorting control over another. It is not uncommon for access to children after separation to be the vehicle for that control, where not only are victims subjected to intimidation by an abusive partner in the family courts, but women experience the desperation of being unable to protect their children from further abuse.
Encouraging then that the All Party Political Group on Domestic Violence this week published a report, supported by Women’s Aid, which highlights 7 ‘calls to action’, including the urgent need for an end to cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by their abuser in the family court, and expert safety and risk assessments in child custody cases. https://www.womensaid.org.uk/party-group-calls-for-end-to-cross-examination-of-survivors-of-domestic-abuse-by-their-abusers-in-the-family-courts
Finally, I wonder if listeners of the Archers might start to learn more about stalking, a crime which is horribly common when a victim of domestic abuse makes a decision to leave. In time one assumes Helen will find her way out of prison. If so we shouldn’t forget the chilling words of Rob when Helen said she was leaving him – ‘you’re mine, wherever you are I’ll always be there’; Perhaps a hint of things to come?
What have we learnt this week?
Its been a quieter week this week, with things starting to slowly settle back to normal, probably to the relief to those who listen to the programme to escape from real life.
There’s been some good news for Helen, as it looks as if she’s been found a well-renowned Barrister who specializes in ‘women’s issues’. This will be crucial for her. There appears to be little by way of concrete evidence of the abuse she suffered from Rob, and if the attitude of the investigation team is anything to go by, the prosecution are unlikely to put much effort into finding any. Helen will be well advised to meet her and agree to work with her.
We’ve heard this week that Rob is out of the woods. Only time will tell if that proves to be right. BUT spare a thought for Helen. She will know that if she ends up in court opposite him on a charge of attempted murder, he will use all his charm, manipulation, and manufactured concern for Helen, to further intimidate her and get the sympathy of the Jury. Indeed government guidance on the new laws of coercive control state “Perpetrators can be particularly adept at manipulating professionals, agencies and systems, and may use a range of tactics in relation to this offence.”
A scenario which also plays out on a daily basis up and down the country in family courts where abused parents battle to protect their children from abusers, but instead come out further traumatised and intimidated, with the prospect of the abuse continuing as a result of shared contact judgements. And an overwhelming sense of failure to protect their children.
We’ve heard little about Henry and how he is coping, except we know that he has not gone back to school this week because he is too distressed. We also know he is unlikely to be able to see his beloved mother in the foreseeable future because he is the key witness to the events that night. At this early stage the most important thing for him is to feel safe and secure with those caring for him. We assume that’s the case here. So often though these children are the center of battles between maternal and paternal carers, with the understandable anger and distress being felt by those families being played out in front of an already confused and traumatised young child. We believe there are about 200 children a year bereaved as a result of domestic homicide, and countless others suffering huge disruption in their lives after serious domestic violence. Whilst there are some amazing organisations out there who are ready to give them much needed support, it’s too often the case that they don’t get access to them, in part due to lack of awareness and in part due to the chaotic environment they are thrown into. Social workers do fantastic work but don’t all receive specialist training in the complex effect of these crimes to ensure the right decisions are made at the early stages to give the children the best chance of long term well being.
In the meantime Henry would do well to re-establish a routine and going back to school is his best way to achieve that in the short term. Lets hope this week sees Henry get back to his friends and the familiarity of school. This is going to be a long journey for this little lad.
What have we learnt this week?
This week we saw the otherwise safe and predictable world of The Archers turn into one of horror, trauma, and distress. After ongoing and escalating coercive control and violence, Helen stabbed her husband, Rob, ultimately triggered by her decision to leave and Rob’s display of aggression towards her young son Henry.
So what have we learnt?
Nobody would dispute the destructive relationship where Rob’s controlling behavior saw Helen pushed to the point where she decides to leave.
Children are often at the centre of this kind of abuse. And when the worst happens the trauma they experience is deeply complex. The immediate response of police and social services when someone is killed are really important. Henry was brought downstairs at the same time as his mother was taken, handcuffed, to a police car, and his father taken out on a stretcher. It was totally unnecessary for him to witness this scene, and another memory he will have to learn to deal with. How well are our front line professionals trained to get it right for children in these circumstances?
With Helen in custody, we get a glimpse into the difficulty of gathering evidence of coercive control, particularly in the context of a criminal investigation. New laws criminalising crimes of this kind came into effect in January this year. So often it goes on behind closed doors, with little concrete evidence and what there is might be labeled as hearsay. We also see a detective focusing on wanting to know whether Rob had been violent towards Helen and showing little interest in the reports of ‘mind games’. There are some amazing police teams up and down the country, but there is still so much more to be done to shift attitudes.
Helen has been charged with attempted murder, somewhat inevitably given the reports that she had said she wanted to kill him, and the evidence from little Henry that he had seen mummy stab daddy.
So what happens next? Helen’s father thinks that she may be able to claim diminished responsibility because of her mental health. Well I’ve got news for you, there is no such defence available for attempted murder. Her options are insanity (unlikely) or self defence. She may have a reasonable chance with this, IF she can provide enough evidence for it to be put forward to a jury, where the burden of proof would be on the prosecution. However, remember Rob would be testifying, and his charm and manipulation may be enough to swing the Jury. If found guilty, she could face a life sentence, and the best she could hope for is that a judge would take the evidence of abuse as mitigation to give her a more lenient sentence. But she would still be found guilty of Attempted Murder.
We’ve heard that Rob’s condition is worsening. Helen might want to start praying that he dies. Because although she would be charged with murder, she would have opened up to her two defences, diminished responsibility and loss of control (which used to be called provocation until a reform in 2009 specifically to protect victims like Helen). She could have a reasonable chance with either, although Loss of Control provides a number of forensics difficulties and isn't straightforward. If successful with either she would be convicted of manslaughter and an array of sentences, most likely a hospital order, which could see her released within months once her mental health is being successfully managed.
In the circumstances, bail must be an option. BUT whatever happens now she must get a good Barrister, who really gets the complexity of domestic abuse and coercive control. Poor understanding from her Barrister would be disastrous.
Meanwhile spare a thought for Henry. We’re hearing little of the support that the child or his grandparents is being offered. We also know that it is not uncommon for children who witness abuse to blame themselves. These thoughts will undoubtedly be preying on this young boy’s mind. Children bereaved through domestic homicide are so often the lost victims as they start the lifetime journey of recovery.
Chair Joanna Simpson Foundation