The new definition of domestic violence, which has been expanded to include 16 and 17 year-olds and elements of coercive and emotional control has only been in force a week, but already at Researching Reform we are seeing cases where the broader definition is being abused. Here is a case study which highlights the problem, not with the definition, but with the way it is translated. (There is no legal definition of domestic violence at present. That is, the above definition is not enshrined in law, but is a working definition being used in the family justice system).

Mina and Mohammed (not their real names) are originally from a South Asian country. They have three young children and together they have lived happily in England for several years. English is not their first language, but they are able to articulate themselves well, and can be understood with ease. There have been no complaints about the family and they are not known to social services. Until now.

Mina and her husband have an investment abroad but they are worried that it may be fraudulent. The money they were hoping to raise with it is intended for university fees for their children once they reach 18. They are worried about being able to provide their children with higher education. They have had arguments about this, but these arguments have always been controlled and the children have always been placed in a different room prior to any discussions on this delicate issue taking place. Neither Mina nor Mohammed have ever physically hit or coerced each other in these conversations. They finally decide together that the best thing to do would be to go to their local authority and see if they can help.

Together, they both arrive at the local council and ask for help. Upon hearing their story, the social worker decides that there must be more to the story and after the couple leave, they receive a surprise visit from a social worker, at their home.

The social worker decides that Mohammed must leave the home and that the mother and the children must go to a refuge. The oldest child wants to stay with the father, and the social worker initially agrees. She then changes her mind. Mina asks if she can go to the pharmacy to collect her medication which she needs, only to be informed by the social worker that she can wait for a couple of days. Mina needs her prescription now. Mina and Mohammed are terribly confused. They do not understand why Mohammed has been asked to leave or why the social worker says one thing and then another.

The social worker tells Mina and Mohammed that they mustn’t fight in front of the children. Mina and Mohammed try to explain that they don’t and they understand the impact of doing so. The social worker does not listen to them and insists they do not understand. She tells them that if they do not try to understand this, their children will have to be removed from their care. No other behaviour or incident has been cited to justify removal, other than this. There is no evidence at this point, that the arguments have caused the children any harm.

Mina and Mohammed are frightened and anxious and they don’t believe the social worker when she tells them she is not there to break up their family.

Mina is then told by the social worker that there are no refuges she can go to at this time, so she must stay at home. She is told that a support worker will come around to help her. Mina begins to feel threatened and very frightened by the social worker.

When Mina tries to explain that their issue lies with the investment problem they have and has nothing to do with Mohammed, the social worker tells her that she is trying to protect her husband and that Mohammed is emotionally abusing her. Mina feels so strongly about this that she writes an email outlining her grievances. The letter is strong and insightful and not at all typical of a domestic violence victim.

Mohammed and Mina are now asked to sign an agreement plan. They are both scared to sign it. They instinctively don’t trust social services. No one has listened to them, trusted them or spoken without frightening them. 

Mina is very disappointed by social services. She can’t understand how a request for help has turned into a full-blown investigation of her, her children and her husband. Mohammed is staying in a hostel. He doesn’t know when he is going to get to see his family again. No one has told him. He is not sure whether he should sign the agreement plan. Both he and Mina don’t agree with what is written in it, but they are afraid that if they don’t co-operate, they will lose their children.

The question remains: who is abusing whom?