‘Eastenders’ and domestic abuse

This is a post by Yanoulla Kakoulli. Yanoulla is an experienced family law solicitor practising  at Pinney Talfourd LLP, which has a tier 1 Legal 500 family team. She has also volunteered as a family law advisor for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and GAIA, a domestic abuse charity. Yanoulla tweets as @YanKaks1

Eastenders has recently aired a domestic abuse story line. Gray and Chantelle are a relatively new couple to the Square. They have two children together and it seems from the outside world that he is a dedicated husband and they are a perfect couple.  However, behind closed doors, we see Chantelle being repeatedly controlled, belittled and mentally abused by Gray. 

I must confess that I have not watched Eastenders for more than ten years. However, as an advocate against domestic abuse, I tuned in for the episodes that have aired since lockdown ended. 

One of the reasons this story line is so important is that it focuses on mental and psychological abuse and coercive control and how devastating this can be, rather than looking at physical abuse. Abuse can be gradual, insidious and sometimes hard to identify. The government published the following guidance to help people recognise this type of abuse:

  • Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim;
  • Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Some examples given of coercive control are set out in the Safe lives Guidance for Multi Agency Forums include: 

  • Controlling or observing victim’s daily activities, including: being made to account for their time; restricting access to money; restricting their movements (including being locked in the property). 
  • Isolating the victim from family/friends; intercepting messages or phone calls.
  • Constant criticism of victim’s role as a partner/spouse/parent. 
  • Threats of suicide/homicide/familicide. 
  • Preventing the victim from taking medication/accessing care (especially relevant for victims with disabilities). 
  • Using children to control their partner, e.g. threats to take the children. 
  • Extreme dominance; a sense of ‘entitlement’ to partner/partner’s services, obedience etc. – no matter what. 
  • Extreme jealousy (“If I can’t have you, no one can”), giving the victim cause to believe they will act on this.

In these episodes, we repeatedly see Gray controlling Chantelle and his abuse escalates and intensifies throughout the episodes. For example, he puts a ‘find my phone’ app on her phone which he uses to track all her movements and when she leaves the house without her phone he questions and accuses her.  At one point he makes her fully submerge under water including her head until he gives her permission to get back up for air. We see her panicked face under the water wondering how far this will go. There is no physical contact. However, this scene demonstrates how much control a perpetrator can exert through threats and psychological abuse over a long period of time. 

Many may not understand that this type of abuse is dangerous and debilitating. It can have long term negative effects on victims, such as low self-esteem, no self-worth, living in a state of constant fear, depression, and anxiety.  It can also negatively impact the children of the family.

The worst part of watching Chantelle’s story and her suffering, particularly for someone who practises in family law, is knowing that there are ways she can protect herself from this abuse if someone had recognised what was happening to her or if she spoke out to someone. We see her surrounded by her family on a staycation in Southend and the viewer is willing her to say something to someone. On another occasion, she meets with a divorce lawyer and if she could speak about the abuse at this stage the lawyer should have strongly advised her of her options and referred her to the right support services.

Coercive control is a criminal offence in England and Wales, carrying a maximum sentence of five years or a fine or both. 

Chantelle could also apply for a domestic abuse injunction from the family court called a non-molestation order. These orders can be applied for and put in place without the perpetrator being given advance warning to ensure that the victim has protection in place at the point when the abusive partner finds out. She could also apply for an occupation order under the same powers to remove him from the home. If Gray breached a non molestation order he would be liable to arrest and a criminal charge. Legal aid is often available for these applications and there are no court fees.

Although the abuse throughout this story is predominantly non-physical, when Chantelle finally tells Gray she is going to leave him, he kills her (18 September 2020 episode). He pushes her and she falls backwards onto knives in the cutlery compartment of an open dishwasher. He then leaves the house. He tells her he is getting help but instead carries out a number of tasks for an alibi, such as having a drink in the Vic pub and buying milk from the local shop, while she bleeds out on the kitchen floor and the children are upstairs sleeping. Is this graphic violence really necessary? I think it is. This story line is tragically planted very firmly in reality. Two women each week are murdered by a current or ex-partner in England and Wales alone. (Office for National Statistics (2019) Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2018 (average taken over 10 years). There is also some evidence that this figure has increased during lockdown. Karen Ingala Smith, the founder of Counting Dead Women, a project that records the killing of women by men in the UK, has identified at least 27 killings between 23 March and 1 June 2020. This is a 42% increase from the year before looking at the same period during which she records 19 killings. See https://kareningalasmith.com/2019/03/10/2019/ and https://kareningalasmith.com/2020/04/14/2020/

With another lockdown or series of lockdowns on the horizon, it is such an important time to be discussing these issues. Many suffering from domestic abuse face a terrifying time ahead of them with the prospect of being trapped with their abuser. 

Eastenders episodes are available to catch up on BBCiplayer here.

If you need support on this issue, the national domestic abuse helpline can be reached on 0808 2000 247, or visit https://www.womensaid.org.uk/

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Thanks for reading!

Image SOAP OPERA by Alain via Flickr creative commons licence – thanks!