Davina James-Hanman has spent 30 years fighting to protect survivors of domestic abuse. Now she investigates the deaths of women killed by their partners. What has she learned?
Simon Usborne – The Guardian
Davina James-Hanman … ‘Did you think austerity was going to have no consequences? Women are calling the police and they are not turning up.’ Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
Davina James-Hanman has only met one self-aware murderer. It’s not that they are generally monsters. “They are often personable and likeable, and that is how they have been able to abuse women,” she says. But self-awareness? That’s a rarer commodity among the men – and it is overwhelmingly men – who now kill their partners or ex-partners in the UK at a rate of three every week.
She met the exception to the rule after he had been in prison for 18 months. “By then he was really owning what he’d done.” Generally, she says, men who kill their partners are, “still defensive, still in denial – and they still want you to accept that she was asking for it”.
For more than three decades, James-Hanman, 52, has fought to protect survivors of domestic violence. Her career, which started in a women’s refuge in the late 1980s, has included stints running a major charity, advising the government and eight years in charge of strategy for the mayor of London (until Boris Johnson fired her, more of which later).
As a consultant on violence against women, she now devotes much of her time to women whose time has run out. Since 2011, every domestic murder has triggered a domestic homicide review (DHR). This is a detailed multi-agency inquiry into the circumstances of the victim’s life and death, and their contact with agencies and services. James-Hanman, who has completed more than 30 DHRs for the Home Office, says it “forces you to ask what would have made a difference”.
She applies to each review the lessons of a frontline career in a sector that barely existed when she started. She talks to police officers, doctors and local authorities, as well as the grieving family and friends. She searches victims’ social media accounts. “Occasionally, I get to read their diary,” she adds.
She also writes to the killers. About a third agree to meet her.
Her workload is huge. Two days before we meet, the BBC publishes new domestic abuse-related homicide data. In 2018, 173 people were killed, the highest number for five years. The perpetrators were predominantly male (from 2014 to 2017, 73% of domestic homicide victims were women and 61% of male victims were killed by other men).
“Well, did you think austerity was going to have no consequences?” James-Hanman asks. “If anything, I’m surprised it has taken this long for the numbers to go up. Women are calling the police and they are not turning up. Or abusers are breaching bail and not being arrested. Legal aid has been cut,” she says.
“Women are turned away from refuges because they are full. Money for prevention work has all but dried up … this stuff makes a difference.”
The figures came out three days after Theresa May, as the departing prime minister, awarded a knighthood to Geoffrey Boycott. James-Hanman listened to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 when Boycott lashed out at presenter Martha Kearney for daring to ask about his 1998 conviction in a French court for repeatedly punching his then girlfriend, Margaret Moore, which he still denies. “I don’t give a toss about her, love,” he said of the chief executive of Women’s Aid, who had described his knighthood as “extremely disappointing”.
“What was she thinking?” James-Hanman asks of May’s decision to honour Boycott. “When abusers say they should have anonymity until they are convicted because otherwise it would ruin their careers, you can say: ‘Well, you can get convicted and then knighted.’ It’s depressing because it reminds you how far there is to go.”
Only weeks before Boycott’s knighthood, May had announced a domestic violence bill, to which the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has now expressed his “full commitment” (it fell when he prorogued parliament in September). James-Hanman is positive about some of the measures in May’s bill – it would place new statutory duties on councils among other things – but says they “ring hollow” after a decade of austerity.
Her cynicism could be forgiven. Murder is the worst result of a flawed system. One in four women will experience domestic abuse of some kind in their life. Protecting them has been her life’s work. After a conservative upbringing in a military family, James-Hanman remembers a formative school trip to an exhibition about the suffragettes. “Learning about them was electrifying – this group of really badly behaved women,” she says.
You can get convicted of domestic abuse and then knighted – it’s depressing
As a history student at the University of East Anglia, she was struck, while volunteering at a free pregnancy testing service in Norwich, by how many women were checking their reproductive status as part of decision-making about an abusive relationship.
James-Hanman’s first paid job was at a refuge in Hillingdon, west London. This was the late 80s and domestic abuse murders were not even added up officially. James-Hanman still remembers the sole civil servant who looked at national policy (“Geoffrey Marriage. He had a beard you could hide a badger in”). Police forces, meanwhile, would typically assign women officers who were new mothers to domestic cases because the hours were easier.
When the refuge applied to social services to fund summer activities for the 25 children it housed, “We were turned down by a female committee chair on the grounds that we were encouraging feckless women to leave loving husbands.” She laughs sardonically. “Even in the late 80s, ‘feckless’ was quite an antediluvian word.”
“We used to say domestic violence was everywhere but nowhere because it was nobody’s focus,” she adds. But soon the sector would learn from emerging American “multi-agency” approaches, including health and education as well as police and the criminal justice system. In 1992, James-Hanman became Britain’s first local authority domestic violence coordinator, in Islington. Among other measures, the London borough placed crisis intervention workers in police stations.
After 1997, the Labour government pumped money into the sector. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act offered local authorities and police forces central funding if they hit new crime targets, creating a financial incentive to tackle domestic violence. In 2000, the new mayor, Ken Livingstone, asked James-Hanman to develop the city’s first domestic violence strategy. Attempting to unite the women’s sector, police and 32 boroughs was a major challenge, she says: “I went home and cried every day.” She kept banging heads together until, 10 days after Johnson was elected mayor in 2008, he dismissed her by letter. (He eventually announced his own strategy.)
The new focus and funding were pivotal but fraught. As the sector became more professional, faultlines opened between the women who had started it as a feminist movement – many were themselves survivors – and a new generation of professionals who had followed the money. The priority became prosecution and the highest-risk cases, which neglected victims of coercive control and other forms of abuse. Then came austerity.
In 2015, coercive control became a crime, but we still neglect the root causes of abuse, James-Hanman says. They permeate a society in which “wife beating” is viewed as an inevitability, even a punchline. “In the early days I used to have paranoid fantasies that there was some kind of secret abuser’s handbook,” she says, so similar were the stories victims brought to refuges. “Eventually I realised that there is, and it’s not secret at all – it’s called mainstream culture.”
James-Hanman sees it in her homicide reviews and in prisons. She meets men who fear losing the power that comes with a rigid belief in traditional gender roles. Men who repackage “girly” emotions such as insecurity, stress and fear as anger. “Often they are not feeling anger at all but that’s the only safe emotion to feel because if they stop believing in gender roles, their whole world starts to crumble,” she says. Substance abuse and financial stresses don’t help.
Progress means more women now recognise abuse and get out of toxic relationships sooner. But when a woman becomes a mother, the power balance in a couple changes. James-Hanman draws a direct link to the inequities of parental leave. “Violence against women is a cause and consequence of women’s inequality,” she says – repeating a mantra in the sector.
She has seen the pernicious effect of technology, too. Abusers now use video calling so they can see which rooms their partners are in, and put satellite trackers in their cars. Also, pornography is ubiquitous and fills a gap in young minds that should be filled with learning about relationships. For 17 years, until 2014, James-Hanman ran the Against Violence and Abuse charity. When she worked with the Home Office on its “This is abuse” campaign, she moderated the teenage chatrooms. “Some of them were just …” she drops her jaw. “Things like, ‘My boyfriend made me give a blowjob in front of his mates; is this abuse?’”
In the recent homicide review of Shana Grice, 19, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2016, James-Hanman noted that the prevailing culture among young people, in which teenage girls face “an endless bombardment of messages that inform them they are valued for how they look”, means harassment is often “minimised, normalised or even rationalised as ‘romance’”.
There are morbid patterns in the murders themselves. Stabbing is now the preferred method for killers. While homicide rates are up in the UK, they are in long-term decline in most countries. “There is a very depressing theory, which I’d rather not believe, that this is down to progress in medicine,” James-Hanman says. What she means is that women are dying less frequently because surgeons elsewhere have become better at repairing stab wounds.
James-Hanman clings to a sense of momentum. While she lobbies for a strategy that properly considers the complex causes of domestic violence, she remains driven by fascination with her subject and a sense of justice. She is able to switch off; she has a long-term partner and creates mosaics (“making something beautiful out of broken pieces”).
And when she completes a homicide review, it isn’t the murderer she remembers. For months she will have immersed herself in the victim’s life in search of lessons. “It’s a very intimate process but it does create a sense of loss,” she says. “I frequently feel as if I have lost a friend.”