Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 18 April 2018
It isn’t easy to break the silence about domestic abuse, even if you have been a victim over a long period. Some people will be amazed to read that 22-year-old Alex Skeel was said to be ’10 days away from death’ when he finally got help from police and paramedics last summer – and even then it was a neighbour who called for help after hearing shouts from the couple’s home in Bedfordshire.
Skeel was too scared of his former partner, Jordan Worth, also aged 22, to go to the police, even when his injuries were so bad that he feared his limbs might have to be amputated. Earlier this week, Worth pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm, wounding with intent and coercive control. The seriousness of her offences was reflected in the sentencing, when she was given seven-and-a-half years in prison.
It is believed to be the first time a woman has been convicted of coercive and controlling behaviour, which became a criminal offence only at the end of 2015. The new law has been in operation for just over two years and so far the number of convictions has been disappointingly low. It is easier to prosecute in cases like Worth’s where physical violence is present as well.
But Skeel’s terrible experience at the hands of his former partner tells us a number of things, and not just that women can be abusers as well as men. The fact that Worth was a personable young woman, a graduate who did voluntary work, seems to have deflected attention from her behaviour towards Skeel – she just didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an abuser. So, perhaps, did the fact that the couple were so young, only 16 when they met at college in 2012.
Abusers are often thought of as men in their 20s and 30s but research shows that teenagers are just as likely to become perpetrators. The abuse started behind closed doors when Worth and Skeel began living together and she embarked on what appears to have been a successful attempt to take control of his life.
In a classic pattern of escalating abuse, Worth told Skeel what he could wear and isolated him from family and friends. She broke his mobile phones and took over his Facebook page, creating a situation where he was afraid to seek help when – three years into the relationship – she became physically violent towards him.
Bullies seek out vulnerable victims and Worth turned on Skeel when he developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. Among a horrific catalogue of injuries, she blacked his eyes, stabbed him and scalded his arms and legs with boiling water, leaving him to cover the burns with clingfilm.
Skeel was often seen limping or with an arm in a sling, while neighbours heard arguments and the sound of objects being thrown inside the couple’s house. When one of them called the police in June last year, after hearing shouting in the early hours, the ambulance crew discovered that Skeel had second and third degree burns on his arms and legs.
‘I had open burns,’ Skeel said after the case. ‘I lost three stones in weight. I went from ten stones down to seven. It was awful. It was three years of mental abuse and then it turned physical.’
Outsiders may wonder why Skeel or any other victim of such severe abuse wouldn’t seek help on their own behalf. But this awful case demonstrates how perpetrators succeed in isolating their victims, turning themselves into the only conduit to the outside world. On one occasion, when Worth tormented Skeel by falsely telling him his grandfather had died, he believed her – and was too cut off from his family to discover the truth until Worth revealed she had lied.
This is how coercive control works, weakening victims and cutting their ties with the world until they are too terrified to tell anyone what is going on. It’s such a new offence that many people don’t know what it means and don’t understand, either, that it’s more likely to be a pattern of behaviour than a one-off incident.
Domestic abuse is more common than people realise and about a third of offences reported to the police involve physical injury. That poses a dilemma for the rest of us – friends, family, neighbours – who may suspect abuse is going on in a relationship but feel nervous about getting involved. Skeel’s experience is extreme – but the fact that his physical injuries were overlooked for so long should act as a wake-up call.