A mother’s experience of years of domestic violence was ignored by family court

By Hannah Summers For The Mail On Sunday 22 May 2021

As the guilty verdict was announced, Jennifer screamed. Beating the glass screen that surrounded the dock in desperation, she looked into the eyes of the jurors who had convicted her of causing horrific injuries to her baby son in the hope of finding a trace of sympathy – and found none. 

‘I didn’t do it,’ she wailed as a prison officer dragged her away to the cells, but it was too late.

Sentencing her to six years, the judge – and the jury members who found her guilty – went away believing justice had been done.

But The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Jennifer, whose identity we are protecting, will soon go the Court of Appeal in a bid to clear her name.

She will be armed with evidence detailing a unimaginable life of terror at the hands of her partner, a man who stood beside her in the dock but was cleared and walked free. If successful, Jennifer’s case will have significant implications for how the legal system deals with victims of domestic abuse and, in particular, coercive and controlling behaviour.

The mother-of-three will argue that it was her partner, not her, whose actions led to the child’s injuries.

That man – outwardly charming and a pillar of the local community – was, according to Jennifer, a sadistic bully behind closed doors whose hold over her was so all-consuming that she could not tell the truth in court.

Doing so, Jennifer knew, would put her family and children in danger. Such was her partner’s domination that as she was questioned by police at their home – the moment she had an opportunity to spare herself – she froze because he was in earshot, ‘standing between the hallway and the living room’.

Even in the courtroom, he exerted control, monitoring her every move and, it seemed to Jennifer, her thoughts too. ‘All he would need to do was a look or a movement and I would know what he was saying… I had to be careful,’ she says.

Though it meant sacrificing herself, she stuck to his version of events and told the court she dropped the baby after catching her cardigan on a cupboard while preparing her son’s feed. 

It did not wash with the jury. His life-threatening injuries seemed too severe to be accidental and the prosecution argued that Jennifer deliberately squeezed him before throwing or dropping him on a concrete floor.

The truth, says Jennifer today, is that the baby did fall, but only after her partner – high on crack cocaine – punched her in the face. While prison offered protection from her abuser, it triggered terrifying flashbacks of the violence.

After counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing the experiences of other abuse survivors, she finally felt able to tell the horrifying truth. A psychologist later said it amounted to torture and ‘one of the worst histories of domestic violence’.

Now Jennifer is fighting to clear her name. Fresh evidence backing her claims has been lodged with the Appeal Court and, damningly, it suggests repeated signs of abuse were missed by those who should have protected her.

In the documents, Jennifer claims she was deprived of food and sleep, locked in the house and urinated on. On one occasion her partner stripped her naked and held her at knifepoint. On another, she threw herself from a first-floor window to escape him.

Details of the harrowing case emerged days after the Government announced it would double the maximum jail term from five to ten years for perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour. But campaigners warn the penalty will be effective only if the authorities have the ability to spot dangerous patterns of offending. He was so charming – but behind closed doors he was a sadistic bully 

Naima Sakande, from the legal charity Appeal, which is representing Jennifer, says: ‘This case is essentially about a woman who was too afraid to tell the truth and act in her own best interest at a moment of crisis when her liberty and her access to her children were on the line.

‘The authorities couldn’t assure her she would be protected and it is a damning indictment of our system that prison was the first time she felt able to tell the truth.’

Jennifer, who was released from jail on licence last spring after serving three years of her sentence, says she would like to finally bring her violent partner to justice and help protect other abused women.

‘The fact my son nearly lost his life and that even then my partner continued with the abuse is unforgivable,’ she says. ‘At the time there was nothing I could say or do – I was under his spell.’

Her barrister Emma Torr adds: ‘Jennifer was victimised by her partner and then victimised by the courts. She was let down twice. This appeal is a chance to put that right.’

Court documents reveal there was substantial contemporaneous evidence to show Jennifer’s ex-partner had punched her, and it was this that caused the baby to fall. However, these leads were not properly explored.

The authorities also missed or turned a blind eye to many other indications of abuse, according to evidence prepared for the case.

Jennifer met her abusive partner in 2014 shortly after separating from the father of her two young children. It was a happy time. She was starting her own business and studying at university, and the new man in her life seemed ‘charming and lovely’. But not for long.

Obsessively jealous, he began demanding to check her phone and social media accounts. Often he turned up unannounced in the middle of the night. His behaviour followed a familiar pattern: screamed insults gave way to violence, followed by remorse. ‘Afterwards he would cry, asking for another chance,’ recalls Jennifer. ‘Unfortunately I fell for it.’

Two of his previous girlfriends even warned her that he was ‘dangerous’ and took crack cocaine.

‘They said I should try to get away,’ she says. ‘But by then it was too late. He threatened to kill me countless times and said my children would be taken away, or he would hurt other members of my family.’

Isolated from those she loved, her life fell apart. She dropped out of university, her business failed and, unable to pay rent, she lost her home. ‘He had control over my finances and I was left with no option but to move into one of his properties,’ she says.

Jennifer claims she was regularly locked up, sometimes for days, occasionally without food. She says she was raped and beaten.

On one occasion her partner called her a ‘whore’ and threw her and the children out of the house, forcing them to sleep in the car.

Police records obtained by her lawyers reveal officers were often called to reports of arguments and violence at their home in the 18 months before their son was born. And medical records show she was seven weeks pregnant when she went to her GP with injuries consistent with being punched in the face and stomach.

Terrified of incurring his wrath again, Jennifer said she was attacked in the street by strangers. Twice she told doctors her bruises were caused by falling down the stairs.

Jennifer says these injuries were visible to the police called to their home, but she was only ever questioned within earshot of her abuser. In a statement from May 2020, she claimed her partner ‘used to beat me if I spoke to the police when they turned up. I was afraid if I said anything, he would harm me, the children or my family’.

Even during the trial the abuse continued. By this point Jennifer had moved into her own flat but one night, she says, her partner broke in and attacked her. She wasn’t even safe in hospital following the birth of their baby, where she was assaulted while her partner was high on drugs. At the time there was nothing I could say or do – I was under his spell 

It was against this background that Jennifer went along with his version of events after the incident in 2016 for which Jennifer was jailed. Her partner walked free, acquitted of cruelty to a child. 

The baby suffered fractured ribs, skull fractures and bleeding on the brain, but went on to make a full recovery. At that point, Jennifer had not disclosed her abuse to her legal team. She says: ‘The hardest thing is to say, ‘I’m being abused’. I wanted someone to help me without having to say that.’

Eventually, however, she made a new statement. It says: ‘At around 1.30am [the baby] began to cry. I made my way downstairs and I entered the kitchen. I was holding the baby making the bottle when [her ex] punched me on my head. I don’t recall exactly how I fell or how he got out of my arms but we both fell to the floor.’

Ms Sakande insists the Appeal Court should note from Jennifer’s case that the impact of coercive control can make it almost impossible for survivors to be open with their defence team.

‘They are under the control of their abuser,’ she explains. ‘What is also striking is that all the warning signs were there in plain sight.

‘The evidence was there at the time of the offence. The missing ingredient was safety, and until you can be safe you can’t tell the truth.’

According to new evidence to be put before the court, police logs show statements given to officers on the night in question support Jennifer’s later account that her partner had hit her, causing the baby’s injuries. A neighbour told officers she heard Jennifer say: ‘I haven’t dropped the baby, I was feeding the child, you hit me and that is how the baby dropped.’

Her barrister says: ‘This evidence is now in the hands of the Court of Appeal which has the power to right the wrongs committed in this case.’

Jennifer feels she was let down by the police and hopes lessons will be learned. ‘I don’t think the police are fully aware of how to spot coercive control and I do think they need training on this. It’s not just the police – it’s the courts too.

‘Coercive control was criminalised in 2015, but they are still not recognising it. Something needs to change.’

Last night, a spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said: ‘The police response to domestic abuse has improved dramatically in recent years. Officers receive training to spot the signs of coercive and controlling behaviour and to provide the best possible support to victims.

‘Our understanding of the devastating impact of living within an abusive relationship is developing all the time and we always seek to learn from any previous incidents.’

Reliving what happened is still traumatic for Jennifer. It shocks her sometimes that she survived it. After all, it caused her to lose everything, including custody of her children.

She is now permitted limited contact with them since being released from prison on licence. ‘The only way I can describe it is just being completely numb. You are overcome with so much pain as a mother being taken away from your baby,’ she says.

‘It’s a different kind of pain, especially when you know that they need you. It was wrong how it happened. I felt tricked.’

It plays on her mind that her partner is still out there and could hurt someone else. Nevertheless, she is now looking forward to brighter times.

‘My children mean the world to me,’ she says. ‘After everything that has happened, we just want to start rebuilding our lives.’