At the beginning of the first lockdown, a year ago, Ruth Williams, aged 67, was strangled by her 70-year-old husband, Anthony Williams, at her home in Brynglas, Cwmbran. Judge Paul Thomas called the killing, “an act of great violence”. A fortnight ago, Williams was sentenced to five years for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He may be free within a year.
Williams said he had “snapped” and “choked the living daylights” out of his wife. Her neck was fractured in five places. He said he had found lockdown “really hard”, and he’d attacked his wife after she told him to “get over it”.
Ruth Williams was a victim of femicide, the killing of a woman by a man. Today, after a two-month investigation, the Observer launches a campaign to better identify femicide (Name it), to improve the knowledge of it (Know it) and to encourage improved methods to end it (Stop it). We are working with the groundbreaking Femicide Census, drawing on its unique database, created by Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of Nia, a sexual and domestic abuse charity, and Clarrie O’Callaghan, a former solicitor, supported pro bono by law firm Freshfields and the consultant Deloitte.
Last November, the census published an overview of the years 2009-2018, during which 1,425 women were killed, aged 14 to 100, one every three days. In spite of better legislation, training and knowledge, the horrendous toll of fatal violence against women has remained unchanged for a decade. We have yet to learn the full impact of the pandemic.
“If domestic abuse isn’t believed, if rapes aren’t prosecuted, if killing means a man may receive a few years in prison or even walk free, if a woman’s death in suspicious circumstances is not properly investigated, then these are crimes hidden in plain sight – in the name of justice, that has to stop,” O’Callaghan says.
Taxi driver Andrew Flood, 43, strangled Margaret Biddolph, 78, and Anne Leyland, 88, both his regular customers. The judge referred to Flood’s “unspeakably wicked crimes”. Unfortunately, they are more common than even the official statistics reveal.This, the first article in the campaign, focuses on women aged 60 and over, like Ruth Williams. While younger women are more likely to be killed by a partner or ex-partner, the census tells us, half of older female victims were killed by sons, grandsons and relatives; a smaller group of 78 were killed by friends, neighbours, strangers, burglars and tradespeople.
Until three years ago, women of Ruth Williams’s age would not have been counted in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). Then, it had a cap of 59 years, now it is 74, and is due to be raised next year, excluding institutions such as care homes and refuges; a hidden death toll.
According to a study by Dr Hannah Bows, one in four domestic homicides involve people over 60, the vast majority female – 25% of the total, the fastest-rising domestic homicide rate. One in six older people experience abuse every year. Yet, in a 2020 poll of the public, conducted by the charity Hourglass (previously Action on Elder Abuse), shockingly, 30% didn’t view harmful behaviour towards older people, such as hitting, as abuse.
“If you are found at the bottom of the stairs at 40, the police are probably going to ask questions,” says Bows, one of the few researchers working in the area. “Deeply entrenched ageism means that if you are 80, it’s, ‘Well, she probably fell.’
“When you look at police data on abuse, rape and murder, older women aren’t there. If a crime is looked at, at all, it’s treated as a safeguarding issue, gender neutral, ‘elder abuse’ with no perpetrator.
“Family counselling is suggested or a woman is removed to residential care, losing her home. It’s too easy to cast doubt on an older victim’s veracity and mental capacity. What’s desperately concerning is the lack of proper scrutiny.”
“If you want to get away with murder,” says criminologist Jane Monckton Smith, “kill someone who is expected to die.”
So, what does the Femicide Census tell us about older women and their killers? And what needs to be done? Over the decade, out of the total of 1,425 dead women, 278 were aged 60-plus. In 127 cases, extreme violence was involved. Older women are more likely to have suffered five or more injuries than younger women, known as “overkill”. In one study, nine out of 13 victims aged over 80 were also victims of sexual assault. Murderers of older women were the least likely to express remorse or empathy.
“Invisibility, devaluation and derision towards the older woman is added to everyday misogyny,” Ingala Smith says. “Does this contribute to the increase in brutality and the higher likelihood of sexual assault, especially by younger men? We don’t know because there is so little research.”
Irene Lawless, 67, was killed and raped by her 26-year-old neighbour who searched the internet for “older woman rape porn”. Delia Hughes, 85, was beaten eight times with a lump hammer by Jamie Boult, 25, who stole her jewellery. After he was sentenced to 25 years, Hughes’s daughter, Beryl, said: “Seeing my mum… black and blue with bruises, sitting in a pool of blood, is a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life… Gone, my lovely mum.”
The threat that some young men potentially present may be clear from childhood but early intervention in the areas of mental health, troubled relationships and addiction repeatedly fail to happen. Boult, in court, was described as a recluse, diagnosed with “social phobia” since he was 13. “Substance abuse is common in this society but most in that group don’t kill a family member,” says Bows. “It’s not cause and effect. Substance abuse might increase risk but, anyway, that risk is never captured correctly.”
Another group of killings of older women is parricide. The killing of one or both parents is overwhelmingly committed by sons. Bernadette Green, 88, died in May 2018. Her son, John Green, 65, a retired policeman, almost got away with murder. In 2013, Bernadette Green weighed 12 stone; at the time of her death, she weighed under six. Her son had refused all help. He had sent texts calling his mother “a stinking corpse”. “She’s at death’s door but nobody’s opening it.”
Initially, Bernadette Green’s death was not thought to be suspicious but mortuary staff noticed pressure sores on her body. A postmortem revealed she had been smothered. John Green was sentenced to 14 years.
Rebecca Zerk, project manager of the Dewis Choice Project, says: “Deaths are going under the radar. Windows are left open in winter, the wrong medication is given, food and fluids are withheld, and some families make excuses – ‘she’s frail; he’s had a lot to cope with’.
“Once a woman reaches 60, the response from agencies and families to abuse is completely different. That’s a violation of older women’s human rights. It denies them justice.”
The Dewis Choice Project is based at the Centre for Age, Gender and Social Justice in Aberystwyth. Its aim is to drive much-needed change for all older “victim-survivors”, including LGBTQ people and those dealing with domestic abuse and dementia. The initiative has conducted a five-year longitudinal study of 120 later-life domestic abuse cases, trained over 8,000 frontline professionals and, together with “victim-survivors”, it has designed the only one-stop holistic service in the UK for people aged 60 and over who have experienced abuse.
“We had one woman of 80 whom we supported, and she decided she wanted a divorce after decades of marriage,” says Sarah Wydall, the centre’s director. “The response from her family was, ‘Is that really necessary at your age?’ Ageism in itself is a huge barrier.”
Older women stay in abusive relationships twice as long as younger women, increasing the chances of fatal violence. They may “normalise” a husband’s controlling behaviour over the years. “I met him when I was 16,” explains Lindsay, 67. “He let me have a dog so I could have a friend.”
Some experience shame about their situation, and they rightly feel they don’t “fit in” to domestic abuse services designed for younger women. If her abuser is a son, a grandmother might fear losing her grandchildren. In addition, if a victim has health problems or a disability and/or mobility issues, that adds to the challenge of finding somewhere safe. In 2017, Women’s Aid assessed that only one out of 276 refuges offered specialist services for women aged 45 and over.
“The reality that abuse and violence are common in later life is unpalatable to many people,” says Wydall. “In 120 cases, we saw only one instance of carer stress; the rest have involved coercive control.”
Coercive control, a crime since 2015, means a perpetrator strips a victim of the freedom to think, speak and act for themselves, losing all confidence. When a victim, after decades of constant servitude, becomes dependent on the perpetrator as carer, the key in the prison lock is fully turned. Yet carers’ behaviours are rarely assessed and viewed as a risk.
Dewis Choice provides support for a year or more. “Sometimes it takes six months to build trust before a woman even begins to disclose severe sexual abuse,” says Elize Freeman, service development lead. “Contrary to what many believe, given the right help, older women can and do leave a perpetrator and start life afresh.” The support Dewis Choice offers is hugely over-subscribed. It costs £18,000 a month to run and, in June, the majority of its funding ends.
A third group of older women highlighted by the Femicide Census is those who have their lives taken in so-called “mercy killings”. Over the decade, there were 27 known mercy killings. Only one resulted in a conviction for murder and a full-life tariff. In 10 cases, the killer pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, and eight received a suspended sentence. They walked free.
“My own research has shown that sentencing for partners who claim they killed out of love is much lower,” says Monckton Smith.
In 2016, Philip Williamson, 89, a retired vet with terminal cancer, killed his wife of 62 years, Josephine, 83, who had dementia, before stabbing himself. Pushed down the stairs, she had multiple lacerations and bruises. “I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag,” Williamson told police. “I loved her too much for that.”
Angus and Margaret Mayer married in 1952 and had six children. “We had such a fun childhood,” says their daughter, Catherine Ignarski. “Mum loved all sport and played bridge at an international level. Like many women, she was the lubricant of family life. They’d go to concerts and entertain friends. He said every day was a blessing.”
Margaret Mayer was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. For four exhausting years, her husband was her carer. “Out of the best intentions, my father was very regimental in my mother’s care. She’d been such an independent person. She had all her choice taken away by the person she loved. They both needed help.”
In 2016, Angus Mayer, 86, killed his wife, 85, and threw himself under a train, dying seven weeks later. In nine of the 27 mercy killings, the perpetrator committed suicide. Ignarski says: “My husband suggested that they come and live with us. We both work but we could have managed. I believe we failed my mother and father.”
She says that agencies also need to find a way to offer older men support and respite that they feel they can accept. “I speak about it now so other families don’t go through this. Something has to be done.”
The Mayers’ deaths were a tragedy. In other mercy killings, however, decline may have a final toxic impact on a relationship in which coercive control, little understood by GPs, social workers, police and the courts, has always been present. Mercy killing trials are studded with comments about “the utterly devoted” accused. Robert Knight, 53, “a devoted son”, in 2019 pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of June Knight, 79. Knight threw his mother from her care home’s first-floor balcony. He told the police he did not want to see his mother in pain. He walked free.
Coercive control may or may not have been present in the Knight family. However, what’s repeatedly missing in investigations is a forensic examination of a relationship, unfolding over years. Freeman, of Dewis Choice, says one man left his wife, in her 80s, for eight hours on the floor when she fell. “He told her that if she fell again, he would leave her there. That probably would have been seen as an accident, not domestic homicide.”
The tools to assess risk by the police and others are modelled on younger women. Physical violence is wrongly deemed a greater threat than bruise-free coercive control. When a woman is considered at high risk, she may be referred to a Marac – a multi-agency risk assessment conference – in which a safety plan is created and an independent domestic violence adviser (IDVA) allocated. One study showed that only 3% of women with Maracs and IDVAs are over 60. Older lives merit protection too.
Next week, Solace Women’s Aid is publishing a tool kit aimed at helping professionals, including GPs, to support older women better. The College of Policing says it is improving training on coercive control. Only 6% of coercive control offences led to a charge in 2018/19. Older women are not counted in statistics, overlooked by the police, marginalised by services and many are left dangerously at risk in a relationship because the few exits available to them are barred by ageism, stereotyping, underfunding and ignorance.
In a study of 30 domestic homicides involving older women, it was judged in 14 cases that the death was preventable. Eleven required an intervention in mental health; one needed help with an aggressive husband with dementia; one disclosure of abuse hadn’t been acted upon; one victim’s request to go into a care home, rather than return to her son, was ignored. A concise and deadly microcosm of how little is being done.
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