Jane Monckton Smith: ‘Domestic abuse isn’t a row. It’s when one person has become a threat to another’

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Reprinted from the Observer. By Andrew Anthony – 2021-02-21

Jane Monckton Smith on domestic control

Jane Monckton Smith: ‘The clues are very often in what the person says about themselves.’ Photograph: Gareth Iwan Jones Photographer/Gareth Iwan Jones for The Observer

The author and professor of public protection on the red flags of coercive control and how courts should change to give abuse victims an equal voice

Jane Monckton Smith is a criminologist specialising in domestic homicide. A former police officer, she is professor of public protection at the University of Gloucestershire, and is recognised for her groundbreaking work on coercive control and stalking. In her new book, In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, she lays out the eight stages of a domestic homicide timeline that flag up the potential for the coercively controlling to kill.

What is the empirical basis for your eight-stage homicide timeline?

The empirical basis is the data we collected for a research project. It looks at domestic abuse through the model of coercive control. The Home Office did a review of domestic abuse in 2012 and said that coercive control is the best lens through which to view it. The traditional lens has been the “crime of passion”, and from my work that doesn’t fit. As a homicide researcher I have used or seen used temporal sequencing in other forms of homicide, and nobody had done it really with domestic abuse.

Is the so-called “crime of passion” argument still used in court? And is it ever effective?

Yes, if you define the crime of passion as a spontaneous response to some kind of trigger, confrontation or challenge: you act spontaneously and you grab the nearest weapon and things turn out in a way that nobody could have predicted. That’s what I would call the crime of passion. And that’s how things are very often argued in court, because if you can argue for crime of passion you will probably reduce your charge from murder to manslaughter. It gets used a lot. It’s due to the way that we have understood domestic abuse as an anger management problem – it’s spontaneous, when somebody’s been drinking or after an argument. But that is not how coercive control works at all.

We already accept that a history of control or domestic abuse is predictive of more abuse because we’ve got the domestic violence disclosure scheme. If we didn’t think history had any importance we wouldn’t have that. But we do, so the police can tell a victim: “Look, your partner has got a history.” But I think in the eight stages, if the very first stage is somebody with a history, we’re saying they’re a type. And people don’t like that and don’t want to think that. They prefer to think it’s more spontaneous.

So should the starting point of any relationship be to establish previous history?

I think it should be. The clues are very often there in what the person says about themselves and maybe more importantly what other people say about them. If I was going into a relationship and someone said to me “my crazy ex-girlfriend”, I would automatically think: “Here we go, that is a big red flag.” This is a risk assessment. I’m not trying to convict anyone of domestic abuse. I’m asking, are you the type? And if I think you’re the type, my radar will be more finely tuned to other behaviours I have to look out for. Risk assessment isn’t a precise science.

You refer to stage two as the “commitment whirlwind”. Many romantic tropes like “love at first sight” underpin this idea. How can we distinguish love from danger?

What I would say is, did you have stage one first? When people think they’re in love, they’re totally happy for things to go really fast, and some of those relationships will be OK. But I would say the relationship won’t just be pushed along at a speed but also with all of these possessive things going on like pronounced jealousy. These things can happen in a normal relationship but if you’ve got someone with a history of control who is then going very fast, you’ve got loads of flags.

You question the effectiveness of the adversarial system in courts because it places the victim in opposition to the offender. What is the alternative?

No system is devoid of problems. But we know we’ve got an adversarial system so we need to be able to circumvent some of the problems it raises. If lawyers and judges had more knowledge about how domestic abuse works that would then become part of the adversarial arguments. I also think courts need to recognise the power dynamic. You’ve got someone who’s willing and happy to have arguments and the victim will do anything to avoid arguing with this person. We don’t even give them equal status. The victim doesn’t have a dedicated advocate and the offender does. Recognise those power dynamics and the way they’re used by controlling people.

People often wonder why the abused don’t leave their abusers. You’ve had personal experience from your daughter’s relationship with a controlling narcissist. Was she scared to leave him or did she hold on to a belief that he would come good?

She was very frightened, and for good reason, but she had also had all of her choices taken away as well. A lot of women who talk about this will say I recognised that this was about control and I thought that if I made them feel very stable within the relationship that need for control would disappear. But of course it doesn’t. No amount of love or stability will take away those control issues. For some people it’s definitely a bit of the good times are really good, I just want to make the good times longer and longer, overlaid with a very real fear of what will happen – that the bad person will come back with a vengeance if they tried to leave. Because that’s the main trigger point.

What should people do if they have a friend or a relation involved with a controlling and possibly abusive partner?

What you think you would do is go in all guns blazing, get everyone to see sense, remove your daughter from the relationship and then it’s all over. And that’s not what happens. From my own experience and research, it’s dangerous to just remove the person from the relationship. Very often they’re not going to want to go, for lots of reasons, fear being one of them. So you have to create an environment where it’s safe to leave. And that is hard because what you want to do is go round there and sort it out.

From a very broad perspective I’d like to see domestic abuse given more status. I think we need to stop seeing it as an argument between people and start seeing it as a dangerous situation in which somebody has become a threat to somebody else. We tend to assess domestic abusers as husbands, boyfriends, lovers. We don’t think of them as psychopaths, narcissists, killers. We need to make that leap.

You mention that many murders go unrecognised. Do you have any idea what kind of percentage of domestic murders in the UK that amounts to?

We could double it certainly. If you start bringing in suicides, you could probably multiply it by five, six or seven times. If we’ve got a serial killer they’re given a huge amount of forensic attention, as are terrorists. Why not domestic killers? Why have we still got that really low status? Police officers are not rushing into the domestic abuse department. It’s not got that cachet. And yet that’s where they are most likely to come across killers.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article

SD Law is a law firm in Cape Town with deep experience of helping women escape abusive men and find peace in a new life. We will connect you to relevant support services and make sure you and your children are safe. At SD Law, we understand how deeply distressing coercive and domestic control can be, and we will handle your case with discretion, empathy and compassion. Contact Cape Town attorney Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za for a confidential discussion.

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