The 'Behind Closed Doors' documentary is bitingly stark and direct. Why is it needed? Why do we need to watch it?
Every three days in the England and Wales a woman is killed by her partner or former partner. And with nearly 1 in 11 women now reporting domestic abuse incidences, it’s a problem that's on the rise.
Between 2013 and 2015, reported cases rose 31%. At the same time Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) released a report highlighting ‘alarming and unacceptable weaknesses’ in how police forces deal with victims of domestic abuse. In the report, a third of victims said that they felt ‘no safer’ after dealing with the police. Several victims said they didn’t feel as if they were being taken seriously.
Some police forces turned out better than others. The Thames Valley Police (Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes and in between) were found to make 77 arrests for every 100 crimes and HMIC found that tackling domestic abuse was a ‘priority’ for the force. Now, a documentary crew have gone behind the scenes at the force’s Domestic Abuse Unit to find out what really happens. In BBC documentary Behind Closed Doors three victims have bravely waived their anonymity and allowed themselves and their cases to be followed for television. The result is three shocking portrayals of women abused, manipulated and terrorized by partners and ex partners who, despite the best efforts of the police force and IDVAs (independent domestic violence advisors), struggle to get justice and closure both legally and mentally.
Anna Hall, the creator of the film, was keen to challenge certain myths about domestic abuse. A key concern for her is to show that it’s not only women of a certain class that are subject to abuse and, that while not every journey into domestic abuse is the same, women are not to blame for opting to return to abusive partners. In Thames Valley, 43% of calls are from repeat victims. ‘We are very intolerant.’ Says Anne of women who return. ‘That’s why I wanted to make the film; that question of “Why don’t you just leave him?” is always at the centre of what we think.’
It was important then for Anna to show the levels of manipulation involved in an abusive relationship. One victim in the film Helen successfully leaves her partner after a particularly brutal attack, only to be subject to months of psychological abuse in which he oscillates between being kind to her young son and threatening to kill himself. ‘I wanted to show that domestic abuse is not just about the outbreak of violence.’ Anna says. ‘Much more often it’s about the psychological manipulation which is really insidious and hard to see if you are in the midst of it.’ Helen isn’t immune to the harassment and does meet up with her ex partner – something the unit have to find out themselves by scrolling back through CCTV footage from a local pub. ‘Her IDVA told us that this is so common.’ Anna explains. ‘What people are doing is testing the water. In Helen’s case her ex-partner would phone up in tears and tell her that he was going to kill himself – and that was all part of the psychological manipulation.’
Another shocking element of the domestic abuse process that the film visualises is the problems the unit have to navigate in order to get convictions. In one case a woman called Sabrina is beaten for six hours by her partner. When the police arrive at the scene she’s unrecognisable from the bruising on her face. She tells the unit that the only reason she didn’t have internal bleeding from him stamping on her is because he was barefoot. However, due to the nature of her injuries her partner is only charged with Actual Bodily Harm rather than Grievous Bodily Harm; the maximum sentence for which is five years rather than life imprisonment. As a result, Sabrina’s attacker is given two years; ‘We were appalled,’ Says Anna.
Anna says though that the main problem preventing convictions from taking place is getting people to engage with the police. She says she was keen to show that police as human and professional and the system of supporting victims through IDVAs was working. One of the main criticisms Anne says her film makes is the ‘lack of consistency in sentencing.’ In Helen’s case, Lawrence, her ex-partner, is able to walk away from assaulting her with a £1,700 in fines. The film then follows Helen as her partner repeatedly tries to make contact with her even though he has been banned. ‘As a team we were truly shocked that the Magistrates would keep letting the same perpetrator out even though the risk to the victim had been stressed.’
The film is keen to show the good work the team are able to do. Jemma, a victim of her ex-partner worries that she won't be safe if he's allowed to walk free and, in case this does happen, her very young children are given a full briefing on how best to deal if he shows up at their house uninvited. 'In reality,' Says Anna, 'It's the courts which appear to let the women down.' Says Anna. 'We need much more joined up thinking about how these cases go to courts and who actually hears them - like Judges and Magistrates who are specialist in these areas.
Last year the HMIC revisited the sites of the their original investigations and found that domestic abuse has been bumped up the priority list by lots - although not all - police forces. For Anna, this is a really positive step. 'This means that the frontline staff needs to be better trained to deal with the complex issues around domestic abuse.' She also hopes this spells the end of communication problems. ‘The fact that the HMIC are inspecting regularly on this means things should get better,’ Says Anna.
Behind Closed Doors is on BBC One at 9PM, Monday 14th March