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