It was only when Abi Blake was nearly killed by her abusive husband that she decided to break up with him and press charges. A new policing pilot in Cheshire encourages women not to leave it so late, reports the BBC’s Sue Mitchell.
They were introduced by friends just after Valentine’s Day in 2014. She was an operations manager at Manchester airport, with a son from a previous relationship, and he was a telecoms manager down south.
Just months after their first date, Abi Blake ignored the doubts of friends and family and married the man she called her “prince”. As they drove to the hotel afterwards she told him it was one of the happiest moments of her life. But the happiness didn’t last long.
Moving to live with Abi in the Cheshire village of Knutsford, Sebastian Swamy told his new wife that he wanted to help make her son’s life happier than his own had been. But from the start there were things that troubled her about her new husband. He kept telling her how to behave – “from wearing make-up, to wearing high heels, to how I looked, how I’d speak, how I’d conduct myself”, Abi says.
“He used to tell me, despite my degree, and he even used to point his finger at my head and say, ‘For someone with such intellect, you know, you’re pretty stupid.’ And I started to doubt myself and question myself, and that was just at the beginning.”
For a long time Abi tried to shrug things off, making excuses for him and focusing on the things she loved: the times he looked after her and was kind and charming, the occasions when he would take her out, buy her flowers and fix things in the house. He was handsome and she felt touched by gifts that meant so much to him, like the ring that had belonged to his grandfather in India.
Once the violence started, it was harder to ignore. The first time was after he’d persuaded her to go out with friends. She returned to find traces of what looked like cocaine on her son’s Thomas the Tank Engine table and bottles of drink on the floor. She demanded an explanation and Sebastian exploded.
“He slapped me very, very hard and then he gripped hold of my mouth and told me to shut up.
“I ran up the stairs and the next morning he apologised and said he didn’t mean to do it, he’d never do it again and how sorry he was for it. He said it was because of me, because I was screaming and shouting, and it was just to keep me quiet so that the neighbours wouldn’t hear. That was the first hit.”
Abi would try to hide the bruises with long sleeves and scarves, but it was harder to hide the shame. When she got really scared she would call the police, who would come and take Swamy away, and then return to talk to her hours later.
But she always refused to press charges, even when her husband appeared to have started a fire in the house as she slept upstairs.
“I sat down, I could see the house and I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to paint it, I’ve got to clean it.’ And I just said, ‘No, I can’t do it., And [the police officer] said, ‘Well Abi, you know he needs to be charged with arson.’ I said, ‘Oh no, no, no.’ It was just all so daunting.”
Her husband had made her believe that she couldn’t live without him, she says.
“Your self-worth and your self-esteem are so low that you believe everything that they say,” she explains.
Abi’s mum warned her one day that she would end up in a body bag. Five days later her words almost came true, when Swamy kicked and stamped on Abi’s body with such force that he damaged her spinal cord, punctured a lung and broke her ribs. As she lay injured, he shouted that he had had enough of her and she needed to shut up.
Abi survived thanks to neighbours who came to her rescue and surgeons who carried out surgery on her damaged vertebrae through an incision in her neck. She suffers from permanent spinal cord damage and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This time she realised she had to leave him.
Dr Keri Nixon, a consultant forensic psychologist, is convinced that if she hadn’t, she might soon have been killed. “He was a violent person but that level of alcohol that night, I think, made that particular attack so much worse, and that’s why potentially she would have ended up dead. Because he would have gone out again and he would have got drunk again, and he would have been angry with her again, and he wouldn’t have stopped.”
Swamy’s abuse of Abi was a textbook case of “serious, high-risk domestic abuse”, she says. There was coercive control and emotional abuse, isolation – Swamy discouraged her from seeing friends and family – and physical abuse. And as so often in such cases, Abi herself was in denial.
Discouraged by the number of times that police officers were getting called out to domestic abuse incidents, and finding that victims were declining to press charges or retracting their statements the following day, Det Insp Claire Jesson of Cheshire Police, together with a student on a placement from Cheshire University, came up with a proposal.
Instead of leaving the victim alone for several hours after taking the perpetrator away, it would be better to send a dedicated domestic abuse officer to every incident, who would remain with the victim and talk through the options for seeking help, they suggested.
This idea then became a pilot programme, which started in Crewe last June, and is now also being tried in Macclesfield, and could be rolled out more widely.
“From the minute they go through the door, they’re there for the victim. So we’re building that rapport from the off,” Claire Jesson says.
“What used to happen is if a perpetrator was arrested, the officers would have to take him or her to custody and then return later, by which time people had often decided not to press charges.”
Of 180 cases dealt with by the domestic abuse team in Crewe, 74 have resulted in a charge, summons, caution, or community resolution, Claire Jesson says – a far higher proportion than previously. The length of an average investigation has also come down from 32 days to less than 20.
“I think that we can show that it’s been successful. A full review is taking place at the minute and they’ll look at how viable it is to roll it out force-wide. The feedback on it has been so positive from the partners but it’s not a simple thing. It’s a huge investment from the police.”
Figures from the Office of National Statistics show how important it is for solutions to be found. In 2018, 4.2% of men and 7.9% of women suffered domestic abuse, which equates to about 685,000 male victims and 1,300,000 women. Murders related to domestic violence are at a five-year high, with an average of two women murdered every week.
Why does it happen?
Abuse victims often ask consultant forensic psychologist Keri Nixon what makes their partners act in the way that they do.
“Most of the time, the perpetrators I’ve worked with grew up witnessing domestic abuse,” she says.
“Sometimes you have perpetrators who have that very narcissistic personality, whose mother made them feel that they were the best thing ever. When they were told off, they defended them. It was almost like, ‘My son can do no wrong.’ And they created this narcissistic monster who thinks that they can just waltz through life getting their own way.
“And if that kind of guy [has] also witnessed domestic abuse, it’s very likely that they’re going to be abusive in their relationship and not take any responsibility. So when they get let out of prison, it’s ‘not their fault’. So they’ll get into another relationship and they’ll wine and they’ll dine and they’ll charm, and they’ll make that woman fall in love with them and then the pattern will start again.”
Dr Keri Nixon says that the focus on people who are murdered by their partners means that people like Abi are sometimes forgotten.
“I’ve worked with police forces across the country and examined many, many cases of domestic abuse where victims are almost left for dead, and we don’t hear about those cases.
“I’ve worked on a case where a woman got her head repeatedly bashed against the bath until she was nearly dead, a case where a woman was stabbed and then stood up in court and defended her attacker because she was at the point where she couldn’t leave,” she says.
Abi did see her case through to court and in January 2019 Sebastian Swamy admitted causing her grievous bodily harm and was jailed for three years and four months. He said he had been drinking heavily after losing thousands in a scam.
Sentencing him, Judge Steven Everett said he had caused serious and catastrophic injuries to his wife and that her life would never be the same again. “You were Dr Jekyll to people in the street, but it was clear you had the ability to be Mr Hyde when you were at home,” he said.
Although Swamy was sentenced to more than three years, he had spent time on curfew before the trial, and Abi suddenly learned last summer that he was going to be let out much earlier than her lawyers had led her to expect. When probation officers refused to give her the exact date, she appealed to Det Insp Jesson for help.
“It was flagged to me because bizarrely, and I still can’t quite understand it to this day, Abi wasn’t being given the date. For data protection reasons, probation weren’t willing to release the date, so I just rang them and told them, ‘This is a high-risk case, we really need to make this disclosure straight away.'”
Abi went into hiding as Swamy left Wrexham prison. He travelled to his family home in Berkshire and when she knew he was under electronic surveillance she went back home.
Abi is proud to be helping others now, through her work with a Cheshire-based charity, My CWA, which provides refuge places, a crèche, family support, a 24-hour helpline, a perpetrators programme, counselling for children, a relaxing area for people wanting to socialise and facilities for those seeking to train and learn new skills. Claire Jesson’s domestic abuse officers are regular visitors and get a warm welcome from the women they have helped.
Abi hopes that other victims do not suffer in the way that she has, and urges them to save themselves by taking action at an earlier stage than she did.
“It doesn’t start with the physical, it starts with the psychological. I didn’t know that this was abuse, not until I nearly died – and then I got the help that I so desperately needed. And so, on the psychological level, if they can get out, then get out. I’m speaking out to hopefully help or save one person and/or their children.”