Charities hope new law can stop abuse

Islay O'Hara

Levels of crime in Tunbridge Wells have risen slightly over the past 12 months, according to latest figures from Kent Police.

The total number of incidents was 4,626 for the year up to September 2015 compared with 4,501 for the same period in 2014.

Police said the rise was attributed to an increased rate of reporting of violent crime and sexual offences, yet the force stressed that Tunbridge Wells still had the lowest reported crime rates in the county.

In terms of domestic abuse, police findings showed that between April 2014 and April 2015 there were 1,194 incidents within the area, which had increased from a total of 992 for 2010.

However, charities and the police believe a new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour within relationships, which carries a five-year prison sentence, would prove valuable in tackling abuse cases.

According to the Domestic Abuse Volunteer Support Service (DAVSS), which has a base in Tunbridge Wells, the latest legislation could be vital in securing criminal convictions.

Jan Berry, co-chair of the group, revealed there had been a significant increase in referrals to its West Kent services since it set up in 2011. Between June 2014 and June 2015 it handled 638 cases (also involving a total of 750 children), representing a 40 per cent rise on the previous year. Around
a third of these incidents related directly to Tunbridge Wells.

The co-chair, whose team of 28 volunteers operate from offices including one at Tunbridge Wells Police Station, explained that many victims still find it difficult to report incidents of abuse.

She said: “This legislation will draw attention to the issue – a lot of people think of domestic abuse as being something that is purely about violence, so this will assist in tackling that perception.

“However, I do not underestimate how hard it is for people to prove that they have suffered from controlling and coercive behaviour, as it is something that has to be investigated, and a diary of events kept to show people have been undermined and controlled.

“Causing psychological damage is something that is already an offence, but it is something that is hard to prove. Having a specific offence on coercive behaviour may have the ability to make victims come forward and realise that they don’t have to put up with it.”

As she explained, its confidential services involve outreach visits in places that its clients – both women and men – are comfortable with outside of their home environment.

She added that in many instances, victims could typically endure dozens of instances of abuse before finally deciding to take action.

“Our number one priority is that we offer people advice on how to stay safe – one of our biggest challenges remains recruiting sufficient volunteers for our work in order to help everyone who comes to us.”

Tunbridge Wells District Commander Dave Pate explained that a greater number of victims are now coming forward, which helped significantly with its work on tackling the issue.

He said: “Our officers are bringing more offenders to justice and we are continuing to encourage more people to report any incidents of domestic violence.”

Detective Chief Inspector Susie Harper of the Kent Police public protection unit added that the new legislation would prove particularly valuable in the force’s work.

She said: “Domestic abuse takes many forms and spans all of society groupings; it is not just physical violence. Emotional and controlling behaviour can cause significant harm to a victim, and we will do everything to protect and support victims of domestic abuse.

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