I delivered some training around domestic abuse to frontline professionals recently to increase their knowledge of what it looks like and how best to support people experiencing it. Usually during questions I’m asked things like “why don’t people leave” or what signs to look out for in customers and service users. While I do always briefly cover class in my training (I’m expected to cover a lot of ground in just a few hours) it’s unheard of that I am ever specifically asked about it, until this session when I woman asked me if class made a difference to someone’s experience of domestic violence.
It was good to have permission to go into the subject a bit more as we just don’t talk about it enough. Domestic violence and abuse cuts across social class and when we discuss it, it should never try and be a race to the bottom. It is found in all walks of life, and over my 15 years of doing this job I’ve met both survivors and perpetrators from just about every background you can imagine, from a woman who gave her address as being a phone box on a high street as it was the only place she felt safe from both her abuser and Home Office officials, to another woman who insisted on us meeting in a completely different town, as a stranger wearing non-designer clothes in the elite, leafy millionaire suburb she was from would alert suspicion from the neighbours and would put her in danger if she was questioned about who she had been talking to.
There are financial barriers for working, middle and upper class survivors to escaping domestic abuse too. While those from wealthier backgrounds may often have the means to leave an abusive situation quickly- such as owning another property they can move in to, or having a friend or family member with plenty of space to take them in for a while- their perceived wealth can also be an utter illusion. Abusers will control every aspect of their victim’s life, and this will of course include money, with the ways to abuse financially are almost endless. A survivor can live in a big house, drive an expensive car and have an extravagant lifestyle, but may have nothing in their name. While a good lawyer may help with this, it can take months or even years before this is looked at. Similarly I’ve met someone whose abusive husband had her name put on the mortgage and a car in her name- despite her not being able to drive. Because these were seen as ‘assets’ in legalese, she was not eligible for legal aid, despite not having access to any documents or keys which would allow her to sell ‘her’ car, which prevented her from leaving or obtaining an injunction against him and meant she couldn’t have him removed from the home.
The changes that were made to legal aid in the UK in 2013 were catastrophic for victims of domestic abuse and those going through the family court system. The threshold for eligibility is shockingly scarce, and what they class as disposable income is certainly not what you or I would class as it when things like utility bills and food are hardly luxuries we can go without. As such, survivors are being told they will have to pay up to a grand for one protective order when they are living hand to mouth working two jobs. Some are representing themselves in court in desperation, sitting up till 3am sobbing while reading law books before having to physically stand up in front of the person who abused them in court.
Calling the police is another barrier to survivors of all social class, for different reasons. Those from poor and working class neighbourhoods may be used to a police presence in the neighbourhood, but to be seen as the person who called them there may increase your risk considerably and not just from the perpetrator. For many people I have known personally and professionally, their own past experiences of the police means they would be the last people they would call if they were in danger and it is important to remember that not everyone sees them as protective. If you are involved in any criminal activity yourself either by choice, necessity or coercion, the chances of you ringing them for help decrease even more. It’s not entirely uncommon for abusers to ensure there is a small cannabis farm, or a sizeable amount of other drugs in a property because they know full well their victim is unlikely to call police during an incident, particularly if they have children.
For those from more affluent households, the reasons may be different. They also don’t want police in marked cars seen coming to the address in a ‘good’ neighbourhood. It is also entirely possible that the perpetrator has strong police, legal and political connections that would make prosecution near impossible. It’s also important to remember that all survivors will try and protect the person harming them and that them not wanting their abuser to lose their important job is as strong a reason to not press charges as someone not wishing their abuser to be recalled back to prison on licence is.
Accessing refuge is also increasingly difficult with changes to the benefits and immigration system. Not all poor and working class victims of domestic abuse are entitled to housing benefit and refuge is surprisingly expensive to stay in if you are not covered. While someone may need the security that a refuge can offer, many of my wealthier service users have outright recoiled at the suggestion of refuge or making an application for social housing. While it may be tempting to judge those women, we need to keep in mind that no one ever wants to leave their home in the first place and a fear of losing absolutely everything that is familiar to them sometimes causes people to make decisions the rest of us don’t understand.
While we can see that the same barriers to escaping domestic abuse for people can work in different ways depending on their economic and social status, how working class and middle or upper class survivors are perceived by the authorities differs massively. Those who have had an upbringing where they are taught to trust authorities and had access to decent education to be able to properly convey what has happened to them are more likely to have a positive experience with the professionals who become involved once they have made a disclosure of domestic abuse. They are less likely to show any hostility to the police because of their past negative experiences and they are more likely to believed or taken seriously.
Some professionals I have met just expect certain groups of people to have domestic abuse factor into their lives, such as those living with drug addiction or extreme poverty. For families and individuals from poor BME and Traveller backgrounds it is passed off as their culture or “just what they are like, just to throw both classism and casual racism into the mix. If you are wealthier you are more likely to have the resources, skills and faith in authorities that are seen to safeguard your children and therefore less likely to have children’s services involvement, and if you have better access to legal services or family support, your kids are far less likely to go into the care system.
Being rich or poor does not make your experience of domestic abuse better or worse. It is terrifying, traumatising and heart breaking for everyone. But professionals need to be mindful of how their perception of survivors of domestic abuse may change depending on their class prejudice and privilege- and also that there are a thousand barriers as to why someone “doesn’t just leave”.