It was four years ago while speaking at a public meeting on society's responsibility to tackle domestic abuse that I was approached by Irene (not her real name), a lady in her late seventies. She told me that her 40-year marriage had been abusive but her husband, whom she had loved, had now been dead 10 years. I still remember how she gripped both of my hands in hers as she whispered, "I'm now having the time of my life".
The tragedy of Irene's situation haunts me. But it helps keep me focused in my role. So today, as we celebrate International Women's Day and recognise both the achievements and the struggles facing women across the globe, let us spare a thought for those closer to home who are living within a controlling relationship & grappling with abuse hidden from view.
I made it clear when I was elected Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012, that tackling domestic abuse would be a priority. That is why one of the key strands of my Police and Crime plan focuses on victims. I was delighted when a short while after coming into office, Sussex Police became the first force in England and Wales to be awarded White Ribbon status for its commitment to reducing violence against women.
This was a great start. The establishment of PCCs allowed for the devolution of what had previously been Government-allocated funds to purchase support services for victims. It presented an important opportunity to review the quality and accountability of service providers and to seek better value where possible. As a result, in Sussex I have enabled longer-term contracts to be awarded ensuring vital continuity of services to victims. And a new framework for victim assessment, referral and non-specialist support services which was developed by my office alongside two other PCCs, has subsequently been used to help secure victim support services in other areas of the country.
Additionally, over the past three years nearly £550,000 has been made available from my Safer In Sussex Community Fund to support 115 community-based projects with one strand focused specifically on victims' services. Through this I have been able to support programmes to help female victims of abuse within both the Travelling and BME communities and co-funded a project that helps victims of stalking.
However, while this focus on support for victims of domestic violence is of vital importance, alone it is not enough. These more conventional approaches do not address the cause of the problem - the perpetrator's behaviour.
Nationally, two women die each week at the hands of domestic abusers and 100,000 people a year are at high risk of being murdered or seriously harmed. One domestic abuse survivor asked me: "Why is it that the victim is the one who has to move and seek refuge, when the perpetrator carries on as normal?"
It is time we stopped asking "why doesn't she leave?" and start asking "why doesn't he stop?"
I have just invested in the pilot of a unique approach to address this injustice. "Drive" is a new project aimed at the most dangerous offenders at risk of causing serious harm or death. It is the first national attempt to reduce the number of victims of domestic abuse by disrupting the behaviour and abuse patterns of perpetrators. Every perpetrator of domestic abuse has, on average, six different victims, so this is an important way to tackle the problem at its roots.
Through the project, case workers act as a single point of contact for offenders and are responsible for driving positive behaviour change, working with 100 people per year for three years, for up to 10 months. They also work closely with Independent Domestic Violence Advisers to ensure the safety of victims who, as part of the project, receive extended support. It's a ground-breaking and important initiative and I am proud to be a part of it.
Since I became a PCC, HMIC inspection results for Sussex Police show we have made great strides in how we tackle domestic abuse and deal with victims. Our recent HMIC Vulnerability Assessment judged Sussex Police to have improved victims' satisfaction levels with well-run investigations, safeguarding embedded as a priority for staff, and much improved assessment of the differing vulnerability and needs of victims.
All of the innovations, interventions and improvements we've made are designed to provide a better service for victims and to build their confidence in the police. Everything I do as PCC reflects the desires and wishes of the residents I serve. And every day I remember Irene.