Domestic violence victims deserve more than this

I’ve never heard of Edward Furlong, but he doesn’t sound like a very nice chap. Having been charged with battery twice at the end of last year he has been arrested again for allegedly attacking his girlfriend. He’s also been sued by a previous girlfriend for ‘assault’ and has been banned from spending time alone with his six-year-old son. If I weren’t already very unlikely to watch his films I’d now make a point of boycotting them.

Apparently he is a ‘troubled star’ with a ‘colourful personal life’, as if that gives him some sort of excuse for using his fists when things get a little heated.  Mind you, it’s par for the course to make allowances for men who get a bit out of control, particularly if they are famous and worth a few bob to producers, publicists and agents. 

Take Charlie Sheen, convicted of assaulting his wife but still getting highly-paid roles in US TV sitcoms. Or Mel Gibson, the subject of a domestic violence-related restraining order in 2010 but still revered throughout Hollywood.  Or our very own Justin Lee-Collins, convicted for harassing his girlfriend but still invited to appear on Celebrity Big Brother (mercifully he declined).

Remember Chris Brown, the extremely unpleasant ex-boyfriend of Rhianna who not only beat her face to a pulp, but now proudly boasts a tattoo of his handiwork?  It seems that far from damaging his fledgling career his conviction and subsequent notoriety has been something of a catalyst.  In September last year his album was number one in the UK charts. 

Even more troubling, people aren’t just buying his records, they are actually feting him, and not only for his supposed talent.  He was awarded a Grammy last year, following which his female fans took to Twitter with messages to the effect that ‘Chris Brown can beat me any time’.

It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d shown some remorse or had a more taxing sentence (he was given 180 days’ community labour and five years’ probation), but, according to Cheryl Cole, justice has been done: ‘It’s time we all moved on.  That guy is talented as hell’.  Well that’s alright then. 

For a crime that ends in the death of two women every week in the UK, domestic violence doesn’t grab a lot of headlines.  When a previous employer asked staff to choose a company charity to support, Refuge barely got a look in.  Even tax evasion seems to garner more public outrage, with people sacrificing their morning Starbucks ‘coffee’ (if you can call it that) or boycotting Amazon but still prepared to play or buy Brown’s music. 

One of Britain’s most senior police officers has warned that domestic violence is the greatest cause of harm in society.   Speaking at a conference on tackling gang culture, Chief Superintendent John Sutherland of the Metropolitan police said the biggest contributor to problems in society was children growing up with violence in the home: 'I promise you, it's having a devastating effect'.

In which case, you’d expect the government to be doing something about it.  Well, it has done one thing.  From March the official definition of domestic violence will be widened to include teenagers who are being abused in a relationship and also ‘coercive control’.  Why it has taken until 2013 to accept that teenagers can be victims of domestic violence is beyond me (because they don’t live with the abuser?).  The second point encompasses abuse and aspects of abuse that aren’t necessarily violence, such as keeping women prisoners in their own home and controlling their every move, a welcome admission, if belated, that domestic abuse is not always of the Chris Brown/Rhianna kind.

On the other hand, it is pulling the rug out from under victim’s feet, and it was quite a flimsy rug to start with.  On an average day in 2011, 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid because of lack of space.  This number is not going down any time soon as local councils, forced to make savage cuts in grants and services, have already cut funding to the victims of domestic violence by 31 per cent.

And this is at a time when reports of domestic violence have gone up 17 per cent since the beginning of the recession.  This may, or may not, be related to the economic squeeze; domestic violence has been going on for centuries and while poverty and unemployment may exacerbate it they don’t cause it.  But whichever way you look at it, a combination of more reported cases and less funding for helping the victims creates a serious problem.

Like legal aid, cutting funding to this sector makes little economic sense in the long term.  Never mind the human cost, domestic violence costs the state £16 billion every year in police, legal, healthcare and lost economic output.  Yet, for example, a non-molestation order, costing only between £400 and £900, prevents an abuser using or threatening violence, harassing or pestering a victim. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the government’s controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) mean that from April many domestic violence victims won’t be able to get legal aid.  While the government left family cases involving domestic violence within the scope of legal aid, they set a high evidence threshold, including a requirement for objective evidence, and set a two-year window in which victims can get funding. 

It is telling that the outcry about Chris Brown’s assault on Rhianna was probably surpassed by the outcry following rumours that she went back to him.  True, her reluctance to end her relationship with Brown has little in common with women too scared to leave the house or who take flight in the middle of the night with their terrified children, but it’s victim blaming all the same. 

And if she isn’t doing much to change our perception of domestic violence then neither is the government, which professes to take the problem seriously but then effectively lays waste to the refuges and legal support victims need.  It may be a time of austerity, but domestic violence victims deserve more than this.

Posted in: justice system

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