There has been a “sea change” in the way domestic abuse is tackled in some of Wales’ most deprived areas, according to the police officer in charge of keeping them safe.
Chief Superintendent Kevin O’Neill said violent crime, especially domestic abuse – which from April to November 2012 accounted for 38 % of violence – is a “real problem” in the South Wales Valleys.
But following efforts by police to tackle the crime – including an “emotional” day-long session with a victim of domestic abuse – the area now has the highest domestic violence detection levels in South Wales Police.
Mr O’Neill, who is head of the force’s northern division, which covers the Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf council areas, said in the past officers did not always know the right way to react to incidents of domestic abuse
He said victims may have felt ignored or that their claims were not being taken seriously enough, while poor communication between different public sector organisations meant some fell through the gaps.
Efforts to improve support for victims of domestic abuse came after a series of violent deaths in Wales in July and August of 2009.
One was the murder of Joanna Michael, who was killed by her boyfriend Cyron Williams in a frenzied knife attack in St Mellons.
Despite the police log showing a series of previous callouts to the couple’s home, Joanna had not been identified as a high-risk victim and, due to a 999 mix-up, police took 22 minutes to respond to her frantic calls for help.
Mr O’Neill said her death – and that of Bobbie Stokoe in Gwent, Sasha Jones in Dyfed-Powys and Karen McGraw in North Wales– led to a change in the way police deal with domestic abuse and other violent crimes, including rape and child abuse.
And when public protection officers from across South Wales Police decided to hear from a victim of domestic abuse, he said it revealed a “myriad of bad practice”.
“It was actually a very enlightening session,” said Mr O’Neill.
“We all sat in the room with this lady who told us about the experiences she had been through, in terms of what happened to her and what happened when she tried to get help, and – I can tell you – there weren’t many dry eyes in the room.”
After the session, the northern division set up its own domestic violence team working within the public protection unit.
The team’s specially-trained officers identify high-risk victims and deal with cases from start to finish.
Officers from across the region also hold daily tasking sessions, where they look at all the known domestic violence victims and offenders they are working with, while response officers have also been trained to use DASH (domestic abuse, stalking and harassment) risk-assessments when answering calls for help.
Mr O’Neill and his team also work closely with the two local councils, health services – including Merthyr’s Sexual Abuse Referral Centre (SARC) – the courts and the CPS.
“Up here good relationships move things on, because money is limited,” he said.
Thanks to initiatives such as this, the detection rate for violent crime in the northern division is 67.2%, with compared with a South Wales average of around 60%.
“It is one thing to have the statistics, we also need to make sure we are doing it properly and actually helping the people we are trying to help,” he added.
“Generally speaking, we now arrest the offender very quickly and the offender is put before the court very quickly. It is very, very rare for a domestic violence defendant not to be arrested within 24 hours.”
The number of victimless prosecutions – made when the victim is too afraid or refuses to make a statement – have risen from virtually nothing in 2011-12 to around 30 last year.
And Mr O’Neill said his officers also recognise and prepare for times, like bank holidays and international rugby match days, when domestic violence rates will increase.
During previous Six Nations rugby matches, a 30 % rise in domestic violence incidents has been recorded across the Valleys.
Since the changes, he said victims now have more confidence in reporting incidents and officers on the front line are learning the warning signs and reacting to reports of domestic violence in the right way.
“Now we think, ‘what do we leave behind? Are we leaving another homicide?’” said Mr O’Neill.
“The best way to deal with homicide is to deal with domestic violence in the right way. And the best support we can give to a victim is to get there quickly, deal with it appropriately and keep them updated.”
Convicted offenders are also told to complete an Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme (IDAP), which have been proven to reduce rates of re-offending – seen as crucial to tackling domestic abuse.
Mr O’Neill said standards of health and education for people living in traditionally deprived areas of the Valleys need to be improved if change is to happen in the long-term.
“If we don’t change that it is an indictment on us,” he said.
But he added: “Domestic violence goes on here, there can be a lot of it and quite early on we could see that it was just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath there was sometimes child abuse, neglect, and substance abuse.
“This is why we are taking this on as a partnership and we have made some positive starts. It is clear from the success we are having, that our engagement with victims and offenders is having a positive impact. I’m pleased to say that we are making very important inroads into a complex and what has historically been an obscure issue,” he added.
Next: “I thought ‘this is it – I’m going to die’.”
As a health worker who saw victims of domestic violence every day, Jo Brown* always wondered why the women she saw “went back and back and back” to their abusers – until it happened to her.
Jo was going through a divorce when she first met her tormentor four years ago.
“He lived across the road from me and he appeared to be a nice man, very calming, very protective,” she said. “He would do anything for you and I think I was caught up with that at the time because I thought very little of myself.”
At home, he acted normally, but when he met Jo’s friends and family he started acting “like a child”, which meant she stopped seeing them.
“I was so embarrassed about him I stopped going out with my friends,” she said. “I couldn’t get my head around it – he was never like that when he was at home.”
The mother of two became increasingly isolated and, when she challenged his behaviour during a holiday with friends, he attacked her.
“We were in our hotel room and he threw me on the floor and stamped on my neck,” she said. “He used to say, ‘one day I’ll break your neck’, and I used to think ‘whatever’.
“But that night he got something sharp to my neck and said he had a knife. I was really frightened. He’s a tall man and very strong and I thought, ‘this is it, I’m going to die’. Afterwards, he went downstairs and laughed as he told everyone in the hotel what he had done to me.”
When they returned from holiday, Jo decided to “get out of the relationship”. But that was only the beginning.
Over the next three years, he carried out a campaign of intimidation and stalking – ringing her at home and at work, shouting and screaming outside her house and smashing her ex-husband’s property.
But when Jo went to the police, there was not enough evidence for them to act.
After months of misery, Jo made the chilling decision to pay weekly visits to her abuser in order to put an end to the harassment.
She said: “I would go to his and watch TV, but he started stamping on my neck and I decided to tell him that was it.”
But the harassment didn’t stop and, instead of telling the police, Jo began paying him £100 a month “just to keep him out of the way”. One evening, when she went to pay him money, he locked her in his house, told her she had “made him this way” and threatened to kill himself.
Jo escaped back to her own home and called the police – finally telling them everything.
Her abuser was arrested and handed a restraining order. A few months later, he walked into an A&E department and said he was planning to kill Jo and her new boyfriend. The psychiatrist was so concerned she called police.
His bail conditions were changed and he was forced to move away, but months later Jo started receiving “horrendous” text messages from an unrecognised number.
Finally reaching the end of her tether, she walked into her local police station and spoke to an officer.
“I felt that no one was telling me what was going on,” she said. “The officer turned around and said, ‘you can’t live like this’ and from then on everyone was amazing.”
Jo acted as a witness at Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court where her tormentor admitted to 13 offences and was jailed for two years.
Jo has married the man she was dating and said she is now a “stronger person”, adding: “My message to other victims is, tell somebody and get out – there is support out there if you need it.”
* Jo’s name has been changed to protect her identity
SOURCE: Wales Online