News – Suicide by domestic violence: call to count the hidden toll of women’s lives

Hundreds of suicides a year could be linked to abuse at home. Experts want to collect better data to bring about real change.

Eight months before she took her own life, Abigail Patterson, 29, was brutally assaulted by her partner, Robert Holiday. She had suffered five years of violence and on this occasion, received a fractured cheekbone, bruising and a head wound. Holiday – who was already subject to a suspended sentence for assaulting her – also damaged furniture in her house and cut up her clothes.

In March last year, Judge Mark Bury told Holiday, before sentencing him for assault causing actual bodily harm and damage to property: “She [Patterson] was left in a lot of pain. She couldn’t eat properly and needed help with washing and dressing. She was worn down by you.”

Judge Bury continued: “It is clear the family blame you for her death and her mental health had deteriorated since the last assault and they may well be right, but you have not been charged in a way that allows you to be blamed for her death.” Holiday was sentenced to two and a half years. He will be out in half that time.

The causes of suicide are complex. Nevertheless, in France, since 2020, if domestic abuse is a prominent factor, the perpetrator can expect a sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of €150,000. No such law exists in the UK. In 2013, Karen Blatchford, unaided, began counting women who had taken their own lives after experiencing male violence, some abused by more than one partner, recording each woman on Twitter @we_are_nina (not invisible not alone). Now she is calling for these deaths to be officially counted.

The extent of domestic abuse (DA) related suicide, and hidden homicides that include, for instance, “accidents” and femicides that pass as suicides, is only now beginning to emerge because of the work of campaigners such as the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA)Clarrie O’Callaghan and Karen Ingala Smith, co-founders of the annual Femicide Census, with whom the Observer has been working on its End Femicide series, advocate that better data is vital. Now a new campaign called #notjustanother (…mother, sister, daughter, friend…) has been launched, founded by criminologist Professor Jane Monckton-Smith. In the run-up to the anniversary of Sarah Everard’s killing on 3 March, MPs will receive a letter signed by more than 330 organisations, charities, individuals and bereaved families. Among its demands is a call for police to treat all sudden, unexpected deaths of those known to be victims of domestic abuse as potential femicide from the outset, securing the scene. A Home Office report, published in 2015 looked at 32 unexpected deaths that the police had decided were not suspicious and were subsequently re-examined by forensic pathologists. Ten transpired to be killings and a further five were suspicious and required further investigation – almost 50%.

The #notjustanother campaign is also asking that, in addition to a national count of women killed by men in domestic femicides, published annually (as Karen Ingala Smith has done informally on her website Counting Dead Women), the numbers of women who have died in unexplained circumstances and domestic abuse related suicides are also collated. “We are always being asked for the evidence base for demanding change,” Monckton-Smith says. “This campaign is about providing the data that we need.”

The full extent of domestic abuse related suicide is unknown but the little that has been established is chilling. “We know enough to know that we should be seriously concerned,” says one researcher. In 2004, data from Prof Sylvia Walby estimated that one in eight of all female suicides and suicide attempts in the UK are due to domestic violence and abuse. This equates to 200 women taking their own lives a year; nearly 30 women attempting DA related suicide every day. More recently, a Home Office and police study of the first year of the pandemic, April 2020-March 2021, detailed 38 domestic abuse related suicides, a likely underestimate as only those with a reported history of abuse to police were included. The majority were aged under 45 and 90% were female.

In a recently published paper, co-written by Monckton-Smith, Susan Haile, Hannana Siddiqui and Dr Alexandra Sandham, an eight-stage homicide timeline is described based on 400 cases: it tracks a new way of assessing risk in a coercive and controlling relationship. The paper also includes a timeline for domestic abuse and “honour” killing-related suicides, especially high in the south Asian community. In all deaths, except arranged marriages, the relationship escalates into “love” rapidly and by stage three has moved to coercive and controlling behaviour that builds an invisible prison around the isolated woman, stripping her of liberty, choice and the person she was. Abigail Patterson blamed herself for Holiday’s behaviour.

The suicide timeline differs from that of homicide at stage four. A woman discloses her abuse usually to family or a friend. Stage five, she seeks help and fails to find it – not least because support services are vastly overstretched and underfunded. Drug and alcohol use may become a way of coping with her situation and is diagnosed by agencies, disregarding the abuse at the core. A sense of entrapment is followed by suicide ideation sometimes encouraged by the abuser. The paper quotes one case, “There were 10,000 messages from him in one month. He would say things like: ‘Go suicide yourself, you c***.’” “To a woman in those circumstances, the only escape appears to be to end her own life,” Monckton-Smith says. “She has been failed by the system. Opportunities for intervention, risk assessment and prevention have been fatally missed.”

The homicide timelines have been described in Monckton-Smith’s bookIn Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, 1,000 copies of which have been donated by the publisher, Bloomsbury, and will be sent to every MP as part of the campaign.

“We rightly risk assess perpetrators,” says Sarah Dangar, a domestic abuse consultant. “But for some women suffering horrendous abuse we should also be considering the risk they might pose to themselves. That’s a responsibility not just of the police, but for GPs and drug, alcohol and mental health services too. That rarely happens.”

Dangar is working alongside AAFDA and Prof Vanessa Munro on a project for the Home Office, examining the domestic homicide reviews (DHRs) of 30 domestic abuse related suicides. DHRs examine what lessons need to be learned to prevent future deaths. Only since 2016 has it been an obligation to conduct a DHR where “a victim took their own life and the circumstances give rise to concern”.

“In many cases, women do everything they can to manage their own and their children’s risk but the mother rather than the perpetrator is seen as failing by agencies and the children are removed,” Dangar says. “A good domestic homicide review can tell the children, when they are at an age to read it, that they weren’t abandoned. Their mother fought hard for them and she did not get the help she needed.

“Coroners now record if a person is a veteran when there is a suicide so we can start counting,” Dangar adds. “Why don’t they dig deeper and record if domestic abuse is present in a woman’s suicide? Once we have the evidence base of the extent of the problem – and the indications are that it is significant – we can push harder for a criminal justice, public health and suicide prevention response. This is preventable.”

Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters would also like a duty placed on coroners to automatically record gender and ethnicity as well as domestic abuse. “We need a better understanding of the extra barriers and motivations for racially minoritised women. Even when a woman takes her own life for the honour of the family if abuse is involved that is itself a form of cultural coercive control. Without the data, we don’t have that extra dimension.”

Frank Mullane, the founder of AAFDA, points out that coroners can now conclude unlawful killing and suicide on “the balance of probabilities” (formerly, the test was “beyond reasonable doubt”). “If a coroner decides that a death was both a suicide and an unlawful killing that may lead to families pursuing prosecutions and civil claims.”

Eleanor Stobart is a highly regarded chair of domestic homicide reviews who has steered more than 25 over the past nine years. “If a person kills themselves in the presence of another that ought to be a red flag. A lot of DHRs fail to record the racism and misogyny. In one case, a woman was constantly stalked and told by professionals to take a different route to nursery every day. The perpetrator breached a restraining order three times and received a suspended sentence each time. She was too frightened to leave her house. Her child was taken away. The entire narrative became about her alleged agoraphobia and personality disorder, not his abuse.” In another case, described by a fellow DHR chair, paramedics found a woman alive, took her to hospital and instructed neighbours to clear up before the children came home. The woman subsequently died and all evidence was lost. In another, a woman had documented her abuse in a diary and laptop given to her by her sister. After her suicide, the perpetrator removed both. Perpetrators of abuse may go on to harass and threaten surviving members of the family; the fear continues.

In 2006, the first attempt to convict a perpetrator of contributing to his wife’s suicide failed. Harcharran Dhaliwal was accused of the manslaughter of his wife, Gurjit, 45, and inflicting grievous bodily harm on her. She had documented numerous incidents of physical and psychological abuse. “How can there be so much evidence and yet no punishment for taking my sister’s life?” asked Nav Jagpal, Gurjit’s brother.Advertisement

Justene Reece, 46, was subjected to harassment and abuse by Nicholas Allen, 47, from September 2016 to February 2017. Allen made 3,500 attempts to contact Reece via calls, texts and social media messages. He had convictions for violently abusing women going back to 1998. After Reece took her own life, Allen was jailed for 10 years, and a further five years on licence. He was initially charged with coercive behaviour and stalking. Later, the Crown Prosecution Service brought a charge of unlawful killing – believed to be a legal first. In the five years since Reece’s conviction, a charge of unlawful killing in a domestic abuse related suicide has proved rare to nonexistent. Why?

Police have proposed that coercive control legislation could be used more frequently to hold perpetrators to account for domestic abuse related suicides. However, the maximum penalty for a coercive control offence is only five years. In August 2018, mother of three Kellie Sutton, 30, attempted to take her own life and died three days later. Her partner, Steven Gane, 31, was subsequently convicted of controlling and coercive behaviour, actual bodily harm and assault. Judge Philip Grey said: “Your behaviour drove Kellie Sutton to hang herself … you beat her and ground her down and broke her spirits.” Gane was jailed for a mere four years and three months.

Two years ago, AAFDA was supporting 18 families who believed a relative had taken their lives as a result of domestic related abuse or femicide that had been disguised as suicide: now it is 100. AAFDA is now working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to improve the police response to DA related suicide.

What else needs to be done? Over the past two years, Kent and Medway Suicide Prevention Network has undertaken research indicating that, in its area, an alarming 20% to 25% of deaths by suicide have been affected by domestic abuse. Local police now dig deeper if there has been a sudden unexpected death, for instance, asking friends and family about domestic abuse while training has been improved for agencies that may come in contact with a vulnerable woman. What’s striking is that this is far from common practice.

After a highly critical report on the responses of police forces to violence against women and girls, revealing that three out of four DA offences are dropped, deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth has been appointed the first national police coordinator for violence against women and girls. She has promised to rebuild trust and oversee “a fundamental shift in priority for violence against women and girls”, including “a consistently high standard of service” for victims. Each police force will deliver a local action plan on 31 March. In addition, there are calls for a national working group made up of all agencies to accelerate action.

Dr Gemma Graham was six years old when her mother took her own life after experiencing domestic abuse. Graham is one of the #notjustanother organising team. “My mum never got the recognition or support she deserved,” she says. “No one should live in fear for their own lives or their children’s. We are asking for an official annual count because more must be done – these women matter.”

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