Last week my son punched a woman in the face three times.
When I was younger I had a passion for helping victims, for making a difference. It was far more important to me than getting a clear up, a result to make the figures look good. I cared about changing outcomes, about trying to prevent the same families from cropping up time and again with the same problems. I became passionate about what I called ‘victim orientated crime’ (a term I dislike now) and was part of an early version of the community support unit, dealing with Domestic violence, race related crimes, elder abuse and homophobic crimes. I saw a chance to make a real difference within these victim groups. Domestic violence was by far the biggest case load and I came to realise that the term was an umbrella term.
I had a couple who were rich, well connected and outwardly very successful. He was an orthopaedic surgeon in a major London hospital. One of his parents was an MP holding a position of power within Government. He was a chronic alcoholic and was violent both verbally and physically behind closed doors. His wife was threatened by the power of the family she had married into and was unable to do anything to help herself out of her situation without fear of bringing down the wrath of the establishment on her head. Threats were made regarding her ability to care for the children and so on. All her money and privilege stood for nothing. She felt trapped and continued to endure her lot.
I had another lady who lived on one of our most deprived estates. She and her children were like ghosts, pale thin faces with dark empty eyes. You know you are looking at prolonged abuse when you look into those empty eyes. Her ‘partner’ visited infrequently but when he was with her she endured some of the worst violence I have ever come across. Before I met her, she had been tied up and brutally raped in front of the children on several occasions. Her partner only wanted to cause harm. There was no honeymoon period after a bout of violence. He was never sorry. One day, he sent her out to get cigarettes and alcohol. She had given birth two days earlier and was unwell but struggled to the shops to do his bidding. Upon her return she could not find her baby. After a frantic search, she first found the baby’s clothes neatly folded up on a chair, then she found her baby – in the oven. He had not turned the oven on. His aim was to impose psychological damage on her. He succeeded. I met her after she had been moved a long, long way away from this man. She lived in fear every single day.
Another lady had a good life, a lovely family. Her husband developed schizophrenia. When his medication was working and he was taking it properly she could cope. Unfortunately, part of his condition meant that he did not want to take his meds and would often stop without medical supervision. During these times he was a very real danger to his wife and children. She loved him dearly. Her husband was ill. Not a bad man. An ill man.
Another family I spent over a year dealing with were a hardworking unit where things had started to go wrong. Dad had lost his job, they were in debt, not sure if they could manage to stay in the family home. Stress was inescapable and it boiled over into anger and recriminations. 999 calls to their address increased in frequency until one day I visited and arrested dad in front of his sobbing wife and children. They all knew that dad would not be able to visit the family home or have contact with mum for a while. It wasn’t a relief for them. It was a source of much pain.
Breaking up a family to prevent further violence seemed to me like chopping off a limb without first trying antibiotics. I began to look at what else we could offer these families. I found a (very small) support network to help men learn how to deal with anger and also built contacts with groups supporting people with depression and mental illness. The man I described above was the first of my prisoners to shake my hand when he left the station and he thanked me. He also changed me.
I saw him. Really saw him. I hoped I had helped him. Made a difference. He was representative of the majority of aggressors I came across. He didn’t know how not to be the way he was. He needed help. He had previously been castigated, adding another layer to the hurt and misunderstanding he carried with him. The very thing that boiled up and crawled out of him when he collapsed under the weight of expectation. His family loved him but they were losing him. Just like the family of the man with schizophrenia.
I began to apply my (rather unpopular at the nick) theory to other cases and found many situations where lives could be improved with support for the man – be it for addiction, mental health, anger management. I began to dislike the blanket demonisation of Domestic Violence perpetrators. I saw that many, the majority in fact, we’re not evil. Not like the appalling man who put his baby in the oven. Not exploiting power either. Not like the well connected surgeon, using threats to secure his power over her.
All of which you may agree or disagree with. But I learnt all of that for a reason, I believe. I learnt all of that not to help those men I came across, but to deal with the fact that my son punched a woman three times in the face last week. My son has Aspergers Syndrome. He is experiencing puberty and learning to deal with surges of emotions as all boys do. Except that his Aspergers makes it really difficult to communicate clearly and really easy to have negative emotions. He is one of the lucky ones. He is at a special school where the supports he gets will help him to learn how to understand his emotions and learn coping strategies. His dad and I are of course mortified that he punched this lady, a member of his school staff. We are also very glad of the support our son gets in learning that this behaviour is wrong and what he can do to prevent reoccurrence.
The thing is, my son doesn’t look like he has a disability. Unless you know about Aspergers, you might think he is a bit ‘unusual’ or ‘quirky’. So many more like him have had no input, no therapy, no understanding of themselves. Violence is wrong. Especially Domestic Violence which is insidious. However, just as each situation is different, surely it’s time for us to acknowledge that not all aggressors are the same. Demonise them and we cast them aside. We don’t need to do that.
(Some Personal details changed where necessary to protect identities)