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Is this love? A teenager’s experience of domestic abuse

A teenager from the South West has spoken of her experience of an abusive relationship.

Maddie* was just 17 when she experienced physical, emotional and verbal abuse from her boyfriend, also aged 17.

During the relationship, Maddie was beaten on a number of occasions, strangled, threatened with a knife, as well as verbally abused and criticised.

It wasn’t long into the relationship when Maddie’s boyfriend started to become abusive.

“He hit me, he would call me names, put me down and talk about my weight.

“He tried to isolate me from my friends and didn’t like me talking to other guys.

“I thought I loved him. But when I looked back, I was in love with the idea of companionship and having a relationship.”

Maddie reported her experiences to the police, and is currently being investigated.

“The scars can heal, wounds heal, but the verbal abuse really gets into your head. It’s always going to be there at the back of your mind.”

Maddie is now getting on with her life and looking forward to a bright future, and has applied to university.

Maddie has been supported through Safer Futures – delivered by Barnardo’s and First Light. She attends a Recovery Toolkit programme for young adults to support them to be resilient and future relationships and spot the warning signs early.

She says: “You don’t have to suffer in silence. There is support here for you and people to listen to.”

7 signs that your relationship might be abusive, according to Maddie:

  1. If they are trying to control what you wear
  2. If they are trying to control who you see
  3. If they are trying to get into your phone while you are asleep
  4. If they are looking over your shoulder, checking who you are talking to on your phone
  5. If they criticise you a lot
  6. If they don’t let you express your opinions
  7. If they rush into telling you they love you. Sometimes this can be a way to win you over or control you.

*Maddie’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

First Light delivers new sexual violence services across the South West.

South West charity First Light today (1 October) delivers new services to support people who have been affected by rape and sexual assault.

First Light is now delivering the Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) services across Devon, Cornwall & Isles of Scilly.

The Plymouth-based charity has also expanded further into the South West after winning the contract to deliver Swindon and Wiltshire Sexual Assault Referral Centre.

First Light is working closely in partnership with Northern Devon NHS Foundation Trust, which is now delivering SARCs in Truro, Plymouth and Exeter.

Find out more about Swindon and Wiltshire SARC here.

Find out more about the ISVA service here.

First Light to lead £7.2 million contract for domestic abuse and sexual violence services in Cornwall

South West charity First Light together with national children’s charity Barnardo’s have won a £7.2m contract to deliver vital services to support people in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The seven-year contract is described as “transformational” and has been awarded by Cornwall Council on behalf of the Safer Cornwall partnership and jointly commissioned with NHS Kernow.

Starting on 1 July, First Light and Barnardo’s will deliver several enhanced services to support thousands of adults who have experienced domestic and sexual abuse as well as the children, young people and families who are affected.

The work includes a single point of contact for domestic abuse in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, domestic abuse and sexual violence training, healthy relationships education, domestic abuse crisis response, individual advocacy, therapy and recovery programmes for victims as well as behavioural change programmes for offenders and perpetrators.

There will also be a new dedicated website for domestic abuse and sexual violence as well as awareness raising campaigns to support victims in reporting incidents.

It is thought to be the first time such a bold and ambitious domestic abuse and sexual violence service has been commissioned and subsequently won by a local southwest charity.

Chief executive Tom Dingwall said: ”I am thrilled that the Safer Cornwall Partnership have chosen First Light to provide this transformational new service.

“It is absolutely testament to the professionalism, passion and determination of our teams who go the extra mile every day for people affected by abuse within our communities.

“I am particularly delighted to have been able to partner with Barnardo’s. They share our vision and values for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and have a track record in providing first-class services to children and families affected by domestic abuse.

Barnardo’s regional assistant director Oliver Mackie said: “This new integrated service is bold and ambitious. It aims to make domestic abuse and sexual violence everybody’s business and to end domestic abuse in any form, ensuring every child’s right to a safe childhood.

“We look forward to working with our partners and communities across Cornwall to listen to what works and be brave about doing things differently, finding new solutions and ending the cycle of abuse that blights so many lives.”

During 2016 to 2017, there are thought to be at least 20,000 victims of domestic abuse living in Cornwall, but of these around 7500 reported to the police.

Of 5,800 incidents of rape or sexual assault, just 955 reported to the police.


Crisis Workers

A crisis worker is a highly trained, yet compassionate and empathetic professional, who is skilled at supporting people at a time of trauma and personal crisis.

All of our crisis workers have been selected on the basis of their integrity and openness. They know how important it is for your voice to be heard at this time – it is their job to make sure you have all the information you need to make informed decisions about your immediate options. They will carefully explain the options open to you, including the process of a forensic medical examination.

Imagine your Crisis Worker as your eyes and ears. At times of stress and trauma, it is normal to feel shocked and numb. It can be difficult to take in and understand what is being said to you. It can be frightening when you feel that you are losing control of a situation. Your Crisis Worker is trained to make sure that they listen to the information being asked or given to you and to observe what is happening all around you. They represent you and your best interests and make sure that you have the time and space to reflect on what is being said so that you can make an informed decision regarding your choices.

At any time, you can stop the process or change your mind about an examination. Your Crisis Worker will be next to you throughout your examination. If you want to change your mind, you simply need to tell your Crisis Worker, who will immediately stop any further action.

Above all else, your Crisis Worker is there to make sure that you are treated with dignity and respect at all times

Considering Reporting to the Police

Devon and Cornwall Constabulary are committed to supporting those who have experienced rape or serious sexual assault. They have specially trained officers – Sexual Offences Liaison Officers (SOLOs) who can assist you through the Criminal Justice process, if that is what you decide you want to do.

This information has been put together by Devon and Cornwall Police for your guidance. We appreciate that not everyone affected by this type of crime will necessarily want to talk to the police right away and still encourage you to make contact with an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) if you need more information. However, the following information may make that decision easier to make;

First steps: contacting the police

You can either come to a police station or you can phone us and we will arrange for an officer to come and talk to you. You can have a friend or family member present when you meet the police. Please call 999 in an emergency and 101 in a non-emergency.

You can choose whether to speak to a male or female Sexual Offences Liaison officer (SOLO), who will be your single point of contact with the police. They will keep you updated about the investigation.

They will ask you the following initial questions:

  • Your name and address
  • When and where you were assaulted
  • What happened to you
  • Whatever you can tell us about the attacker (what they looked or sounded like, what they were wearing, how old they were, etc.), or even if you know who they are. We want to be able to pass on a description so that the police officers on patrol can be looking out for them

We realise it might be difficult or embarrassing to talk about what has happened, but it is important that you tell us everything you can remember. If you don’t understand any words the police use, or what they are telling you, please ask them to try and explain it to you in a different way. We will endeavour to treat you with sensitivity and respect.

When you report to the Police, they will want the clothing you were wearing at the time of the assault. You will need to tell the Police where this clothing is, and an officer will advise you of the best action to take.

Medical examination:

You may be asked to give your permission to being examined by a doctor. This is to retrieve vital DNA evidence after the assault. Please click here for further information about Forensic Medical Examinations.

Police interview:

If you decide to report the assault, you will need to be prepared to give the specialist officer (SOLO) as much information, in as much detail as possible. The officer will understand that the interview is likely to be difficult for you. They should understand that you may need to take things slowly and have breaks when you need to. If you feel you need a break- please tell the officer. It is in everybody’s interests that you are as comfortable as possible during the interview. Otherwise your account may suffer by missing important details. Our specialist officers are trained to make sure you are treated tactfully and sensitively during this interview.

Normally the interview will be filmed using a discreet camera and recorded on video or DVD. If you are interviewed in this way, the Police can apply to have this played in court. However, you will have the option to make a written statement. This would be fully explained to you by the specially trained officer.

Will I have to go to Court?

That’s up to you. We will continue to support you whether you choose to go to court or not.

Gathering Evidence

A forensic medical examination is an invaluable way to collect evidence against a perpetrator. Since the great majority of victims know their assailant, the purpose of the medical examination is often not to establish identity but to establish non-consensual sexual contact.

A forensic medical examination is carried out by a qualified Forensic Physician (FP) with the help of a trained Crisis Worker or Sexual Offence Liaison Officer (SOLO), if you have reported to the police. The aim of the examination is to collect and document evidence; which may include:

  • Taking a history of the assault
  • Documenting the general health of the victim, including menstrual cycle, potential allergies, and pregnancy status
  • Assessment for trauma and taking photographic evidence of injuries
  • Taking fingernail clippings or scrapings
  • Taking samples for sperm or seminal fluid
  • Combing head/pubic hair for foreign hairs, fibres, and other substances
  • Collection of bloody, torn, or stained clothing
  • Taking samples for blood typing and DNA screening

The duration of a forensic examination can vary depending on the number of samples required by the doctor or nurse. This will be discussed with you at the start of the procedure. Although we appreciate that for many people, the thought of undergoing a forensic medical examination is both scary and deeply unpleasant, you can be assured that everyone is treated with sensitivity, dignity and respect.

In most cases, a forensic examination is performed within 72 hours of the assault, though DNA can still be found up to 7-10 days after the assault. However, it is always worth obtaining advice before discounting a forensic examination. Even if the opportunity of collecting forensic DNA has passed, the investigation can still continue. You should also consider speaking to someone about sexual health screening and pregnancy.

You can assist with the retrieval of evidence by trying to:

  • Not drink, eat or smoke immediately after the assault
  • Avoid going to the toilet if possible (Take a urine/faeces sample if you can)
  • Avoid disposing of sanitary products – keep tampons and towels in a paper bag.
  • Write down the names of any potential witnesses
  • Avoid washing clothes and cleaning shoes
  • Keep any underwear

Preserve any evidence used by the offender i.e. cigarette ends/beer bottles etc

Gypsies and Travellers

Around 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers live in the UK. Around 200,000 live in houses and 100,000 in trailers (caravans). Some continue to live a nomadic life, travelling from area to area for part or all of the year. Around 25,000 Gypsies & Travellers are homeless and have nowhere legal to stop. It is important to recognise that Travellers are NOT all the same – they are individual communities. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers of Irish Heritage are identified as racial groups and covered by the Race Relations Acts as legitimate minority ethnic communities.. These communities are, therefore, subject to all the rights and protections under the Acts as enjoyed by all other minority ethnic communities. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities frequently experience social exclusion and discrimination, which can be intentionally or unintentionally racist in character.

Domestic Violence

Research shows that domestic abuse is a significant health issue for the Gypsy & Traveller community. A recent study estimated that between 60% – 80% of women from travelling communities experience domestic abuse during their lives, compared to 25% of the female population generally. While many incidents of domestic abuse are perpetrated by husbands and intimate partners, other family members may be perpetrators of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is accepted as normal for many women. Trapped by culture, poor literacy and education, distrust of the police and social services, and fear of separation from family and friends, Gypsy and Travellers are far less likely to report an incident or to seek help. Domestic abuse, often physical violence, impacts upon the victim’s mental health and upon their children. The isolated nature of the communities can also lead to domestic abuse being seen as normal by successive generations of both men and women. This is a very hard to reach and vulnerable part of society who face discrimination on individual, institutional and societal levels.

Barriers to accessing Services and Support

  • Loss of community
  • Fear of racism
  • Concerns about living in a house
  • Beliefs that it is impossible to escape violence as the partner will find the women and children
  • Lack of knowledge of mainstream services and mistrust of authority
  • Racism by or within some refuges
  • Many refuges unable to take large families
  • Some refuges won’t take more than one Traveller woman

While the close-knit nature of Gypsy and Traveller communities is supportive, it can also act as a barrier to seeking help if a woman is unable to access services privately or is concerned that a member of the community may tell the perpetrator. Further accessibility issues such as problematic access to telephones and difficulty reading correspondence; make contacting services difficult for victims. Low literacy levels and frequent movement are likely to have an impact on victim’s knowledge of the services available. This lack of knowledge and awareness often means that victims are left with little choice but to remain with the perpetrator(s). When a victim decides to leave an abusive relationship they may also have to leave their whole community, which can mean leaving their culture and way of life and facing the prejudice of the settled population alone.

Cultural and social taboos exist amongst all travelling groups against involving the police when violence occurs. There is a cultural resistance to engage with the police for fear of repercussions from within the traveller community. Experiences of racism and inequality discourage many victims from accessing mainstream services, as well as a lack of understanding of the cultural issues and barriers that exist among professionals. Frontline services which may be able to identify cases of domestic abuse such as GPs are not always accessible to Gypsy and Traveller Women. Research has found evidence of large numbers of GPs who will not accept Travellers onto their practice lists. Due to these barriers it makes seeking help even more difficult for victims from Gypsy + Travelling backgrounds.

Further sources of help and advice

Please note that we cannot accept responsibility for the content of any external sites. This information is for signposting only.


If you have been the victim of sexual abuse you may be able to claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA).

This kind of criminal injury wrecks lives and can have a far more deep rooted effect on the victim than a violent physical assault.

Some people struggle with the thought of claiming compensation due to moral/personal reasons. Though we understand these reasons, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) is there to compensate those who have been harmed and shouldn’t have.

You can contact the CICA yourself or seek a solicitor who may be able to help you complete an application, though you should be aware that most solicitors will take a percentage of the claim in administration charges.

If you wish to discuss a compensation claim with one of our ISVAs Please contact us

Please note: Most Criminal Injuries Compensation Claims require a Police Log Number.

Older Generation

Ensuring that stereotyping older people is to be avoided, experience shows that some older people may feel less able to access services; they may be less able to access services; they may be less aware than younger people of the services and options available to them; or they may believe that services are only for younger people, or people with children.

The ‘self-help’ model familiar to younger people, and the possibility of calling a stranger to discuss personal or family problems may also be unfamiliar to some older people. The age profile of users of many domestic violence services tends to veer towards younger people.

Older people with no formal education or economic resources are also likely to be more economically vulnerable and more likely to be financially dependent on their abuser than younger people. They may have suffered abuse for many years in a long-standing relationship and feel shame or embarrassment from years of accepting abuse without apparent complaint.

Older people are likely to have grown up in a time where the home was a private domain, and it would not have been deemed socially acceptable to discuss matters that occurred behind closed doors

It could be extremely difficult for some older people to accept help – they may need more time, more reassurance and more confidence in what might happen and the services available, before they disclose abuse and accept help to move forward.

Also, when older people are seen to be injured, unhappy, depressed or have other difficulties, these may be assumed to be the result of health or social care needs if individuals are stereotyped using their age. Professionals should take great care to assess older people in a holistic way which avoids a rush to judgment based on their own expectations of the needs of older people and the services they require.

Although there is no widely accepted prevalence data for this age group, it is estimated that in 2015 approximately 120,000 individuals aged 65+ have experienced at least one form of abuse (psychological, physical, sexual or financial)

A six-point plan for tackling this abuse

  1. Do not assume that because a person is older they cannot be experiencing domestic abuse or because their partner is frail they cannot be a perpetrator of such abuse
  2. Be aware of the different types of abuse and how domestic abuse may differ from abuse in institutions
  3. Be aware of how to undertake a sensitive enquiry that does not put the person being abused at more risk
  4. Ensure you have local policies in place for identifying incidents of domestic abuse and take a team approach on delivering appropriate support
  5. Know what support services are available and how to access them
  6. Ensure pathways for greater coordination exist between the full range of professionals that provide regular services with older people, to ensure that domestic abuse concerns are not lost in the ‘umbrella’ term of safeguarding.

If you are worried about someone

If you are worried about someone: Supporting a friend or family member experiencing Domestic Abuse

If you know or suspect that a family member, friend or work colleague is experiencing domestic abuse, it can be difficult to know what to do. It can be very upsetting to discover that someone you care about is being hurt or abused.

Your first reaction may be to intervene or want to help them to leave, but this can be dangerous for both you and the person experiencing the abuse. However, that doesn’t mean you have to ignore it because there are things you can do to help.

Encourage them to contact First Light and speak with a fully trained member of staff who can assess the risk, discuss safety planning and offer emotional support and advice about the person’s available options.

You can support your friend or family member by talking through the advice they have been given and discuss ways to keep safe, for example:

  • Agree a code word or action that is only known to you both so that they can signal when they are in danger or are in a situation where they are unable to access help for themselves
  • Don’t make plans for her/him yourself, but encourage them to think about their safety and that of any children more closely and focus on their own needs rather than the needs of the person hurting them.
  • Remember, that leaving is the most dangerous time and so this should be done in a safe planned way if possible.
  • Find out information about local services, support groups, and refuges.
  • You can offer to keep a spare set of keys or important documents, such as passports, benefit books, in a safe place for them so that they can access them quickly in an emergency. Perhaps keep a small amount of money available to help them in a crisis, or offer to care for their pets if they want to leave.
  • Keep your own phone charged and on your person in case you need to use it in an emergency. If you are concerned for someone being in imminent danger, do not hesitate to dial 999.
  • Input numbers for the police and support services into your mobile via speed dial if required in an emergency
  • Think about keeping a diary of what you see and hear. Offer to take photographs of any injuries that you are shown. This may be helpful to this person at a later date.
  • Remember to try not judge this person and to reassure them that the abuse is not their fault. Show them they are supported and believed by you.
  • Look after yourself while you are helping someone through such a difficult and emotional period. Ensure that you do not put yourself in danger; for example, do not offer to talk to the abuser about the situation.

If you want to talk through your concerns, please contact us for further support and advice if you are worried about someone who is experiencing domestic abuse.