I thought running away from my abusive partner, with our seven-year-old son was the hardest thing I would ever have to do. It wasn’t.
The court case was.
I was testifying against the person who had threatened to kill me on numerous occasions, who had scarred my body and mind and taken away every ounce of my self-esteem.
After nine years of abuse, I did something I had been warned never to do — left him and took our son.
And now I was standing up to this person by refusing to let him have parental responsibility for our son.
The first time I saw him after running away was at court when the hearing dates were set. I had been offered a video link but wanted to be there because I thought it was important to physically stand up to him. I had nothing to be ashamed of.
It all sounded so easy when I was talking to my solicitor, but as my ex walked past, I found myself frozen to the spot.
I couldn’t get up from my chair. My solicitor took my arm, but as I rose my legs turned to jelly.
Somehow I managed to get into the courtroom. As I sat down, I forced my head up and looked directly at my ex. He did not look at me, and I felt a flash of courage course through me.
As we left the courtroom, my legs were still not working properly and my heart was hammering, but I felt proud of myself for getting through this first hurdle. Step one over.
The big day arrived. My chance to tell my story, to share things I had never shared with anyone.
It was my word against his, as he had denied all of my claims. This made me doubtful of a good outcome. I was sure he would manipulate the judge, just like he did everyone else.
I had my mum with me, who was giving evidence. My ex had already threatened her by throwing a brick through her window, which caused my sister to withdraw from the proceedings. She couldn’t risk anything happening to the rented property she was living in.
He denied vandalizing my mum’s house, and we had no proof. However, the CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) support worker informed us that she had spoken to him about the child psychology report on our son earlier the same day. This report recommended that my ex have no contact with his son.
I knew this report would be a shock to my ex. It was a clear indication that he might not get his way — something he wasn’t used to.
I had previously submitted a long statement containing numerous incidents of physical violence, infidelity, controlling behaviour and emotional abuse. I was about to air all our dirty secrets — something he had always told me not to do, with a threat that he would kill me if I did.
I was also aware of the impact the CAFCASS report was going to have on the outcome and that he was extremely angry about it.
I was disobeying him in both the ways he had warned me about. The fear was almost paralyzing.
I was up first. I took the stand and made my oath on the Bible. Immediately, I started to panic.
What if I had got it all wrong? What if it was all in my imagination? What if no one believed me? What if I messed it all up? What if I broke down on the stand?
Self-doubt, insecurities, fear and embarrassment were churning in my belly. My throat tightened up. I wasn’t sure my words would come out.
As his barrister stood up to question me, I braced myself. I had never experienced anything like this before and didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the severity of the attack on my morality and character.
Over and over, she made claims that I was lying, and manipulating the truth to comply with my selfish desire to keep my son to myself.
I was made out to be someone who had falsely built a case against my ex, over several years, to get my way.
“It didn’t happen, did it?” or “That’s not what happened, was it?”
She tore apart every single incident in my statement.
“But why would I make it up? Why would I move miles away, tear my son away from everyone he knew, and choose to restart my life with nothing?”
I initially put up a fight, but she quickly wore me down, until all I could answer was “it did happen” over and over again.
We stopped for a break and I went into an interview room with my solicitor. My mum was waiting in there until it was her time to give evidence. Having my mum there, looking as nervous as I felt, was the final straw and I burst out crying. I honestly didn’t think I had the strength to go back in there and be subjected to more questioning and disbelief.
But I knew I had to. I knew this was the only way I could be truly free of the person who had taken years of my life, and broken my heart and spirit. I knew I was doing the right thing for my son.
The barrister did the best she could to support her client, but the evidence was stacked against him. There were police, doctor and health visitor reports spanning the whole nine years of our relationship. There had also been a previous conviction of ABH.
I started to relax slightly but my low self-esteem and self-worth made it impossible for me to see how someone would believe me over this person who could charm and talk his way out of everything.
It was his turn to take the stand.
He looked flushed and nervous and I felt a flash of sympathy for him and a pang of guilt for putting him through this. I know that sounds crazy, but I loved this guy for nine years. We shared a child and some good memories.
Lie after lie left his lips as he denied everything I had reported. His main argument was that these incidents were stories about a friend of his. Apparently, I was so messed up, I had made myself believe they had happened to me instead.
His arrogance leaked into his comments, some of which were ridiculous. This did go some way to further relieve my worries, but this person could make you think black was white.
There was no way I was going to underestimate his power of manipulation.
Fear and courage played together in my mind and body. I switched from boldly watching my ex in the stand to quickly diverting my eyes back down to my lap. Our eyes met at one point and there was a strange, playful moment between us.
I remember thinking, He thinks this is all a game, and he believes he’s going to win.
I had been under his control for nine years and he had instilled into me a belief that no one would ever believe or help me. It was, therefore, just a matter of time, before everyone called me stupid and admonished me for wasting their time.
He was on the stand for a fraction of the time I was, and then my mum entered the courtroom.
I could feel her discomfort. She couldn’t look at my ex. She hated him. But she was composed and fair in her answers. I was so proud of her and thankful for her support. I felt guilty for everything she had gone through over the years because of me.
“She became a shell of herself,” my mum commented, and it made me choke with emotion.
That was exactly how I felt during those years. Empty, emotionless and cold. Dead inside.
As the interviews came to an end, I looked at the judge, trying to read his mind. But he maintained his straight face and seemed almost detached from the highly charged environment we were in.
From what my solicitor told me, the judge was experienced in domestic abuse cases. I was hopeful of the outcome, but my stomach was in knots as I left the court and started counting down the days to the verdict.
Days later, we walked back into the same courtroom for the judge’s summary and order.
I felt that familiar wobble through my legs, took a deep breath, and awaited the fate of my future with my son. I knew it was rare for a judge to order no contact between a father and his child, but I also knew that was the only way my son’s safety could be guaranteed.
It wasn’t just the verdict I was concerned about. I had laid myself bare and put my faith in the justice system at a time when I barely knew my own mind and was extremely vulnerable. For years I had been made to believe the abuse wasn’t that bad, that no one would believe me if I told them what was going on, and that my son would be taken away from me if social services got involved.
What if the judge didn’t believe me? What if he decided our son was better off with his dad? What if I have failed to protect the only good thing in my life?
I began questioning my memories and version of events. Running through them all trying to build confidence in the truths I had told.
My ex didn’t turn up to this hearing. It was me, my solicitor and the barrister that had represented him.
The judge walked in, and I felt sick. I was trying to read his face again — to gain insight into his decision.
Immediately, he threw out all counts of infidelity, as they were irrelevant to the case. Then he discounted the reports of how my ex had controlled both me and my son. It was 2007. Controlling and coercive behavior were not yet recognized as domestic abuse.
This shook me. What if nothing was relevant and did not warrant the outcome of denied parental responsibility and contact? I started to worry that my ex had been right and it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it was.
The judge moved on to the reports of violence and emotional abuse.
“For count one, I prefer the claimant’s version of events.”
“For count two, I prefer the claimant’s version of events.”
I felt tears stinging the back of my eyes. My whole body was stiff, but I couldn’t move to relieve the tension.
He threw another couple of things out because they weren’t relevant to the case. But then stated numerous times, “Again, I must say I prefer the claimant’s version of events.”
As he got to the end of the long list of incidents, he summarised his findings. I held my breath. This was the moment when it could all come crashing down around me. But, he got it exactly right.
He mentioned how my ex had held me to “exacting standards, that he never applied to himself” and that he had horrifically abused someone whose only desire was to love and support him. He accurately portrayed him as the monster he was.
Tears poured down my face and my whole body started to shake. He believed everything I had said!
Nine years of pain, sadness, lies, secrets and being made to believe I was crazy — all out in the open.
My ex hadn’t been able to manipulate this person. The judge had seen right through him.
Relief and the emotions of the last few weeks flooded through me, draining me of every last bit of energy I had. I could barely hear his recommendations of contact because my heart was pounding so loudly in my ears.
No parental responsibility was to be given to my ex and no direct contact unless he attended a domestic violence and an anger management course (which he never did). My son was safe.
I had nothing left in me, but I felt validated.
It wasn’t as bad as I had thought it was. It was worse. My solicitor told me it was the second worst case of domestic violence she had ever represented.
Whilst it was, and still is, an awful truth to own, it confirmed I wasn’t crazy. And, it justified my decision to run away and stop my son from seeing his dad. I returned to the women’s refuge and felt lighter and stronger than I had for years.
He told me that no one would ever believe me.
He told me to stop exaggerating and lying.
He told me he would kill me if I ever left with our son.
He told me I was crazy.
He told me it was all my fault.
He was wrong.