She has been working as an IDVA (Independent Domestic Violence Advocate) in England for three years. She is Polish and the majority of women she supports also come from Poland. She knows almost everything about violence happening in the homes of Polish migrants, especially about its most violent forms.

What do you do as an IDVA?

I help victims of domestic violence. My role is to assess the risk to a particular person and to prepare a safety plan and I take actions to bring the victim and their children to safety. My department deals with high and low risk cases. The risk level is determined after completion of the questionnaire with questions relating to situations set in the home  where the abuse takes place. People I work with are referred to me by the health service, educational organisations, police or they refer themselves. The vast majority of our clients are women but we support men as well.

More than eighty Polish women requested your help in three years. Is this a little or a lot of clients?

Its a lot of them. There were only five referrals when I started my work and only one of these women asked for our help. My telephone number is passed on by my clients which helps me to reach out to new people in need.

What usually makes Polish women contact you?

Contact with me is a lifeline for them. Theyve had enough of their situation; they want to improve it and start a new safe life with their children away from the perpetrator. I would like people to know that our role is to increase victim safety whether they choose to stay or to leave. They can also speak to me in Polish. Even those women who can speak English well prefer to talk to me rather than someone from an English organisation because it’s easier for them to express their feelings in their native language.

Why do Polish women living in the UK not contact anyone for help?

The basic problem for them is the language barrier. Apart from that there is a lack of knowledge about available help, legal and governmental systems and where to obtain information.

Tell us about the violence within homes of Polish migrants in the UK. Is there anything specific to this group?

Polish families are affected by domestic abuse in the same way that English families are. The worst abuse usually happens when perpetrators are under the influence of alcohol. Additionally, they scare their partners by threatening to take the children away. They abuse the fact that in this instance most migrant women don’t work. They are isolated from family and friends, they have nowhere to go and ask for help. They don’t know the English law and the language barrier prevents them from looking for information about available help.

What problems do Polish women face when they finally contact you?

They often ask what they can do to leave their abusive partner. They dont tell me that they are beaten and humiliated to start with, it all comes out when we complete the risk assessment questionnaire. It turns out later that they may need help in looking for a flat, work, assistance in getting benefits or information about living safely.

Do they actually leave their partners?

Yes, those who come after making the decision that they want to leave dont look back and just leave. Only a half of women who telephone to enquire about available options decide to leave. Sometimes its easier to stay in a relationship because they know what to expect. They know their partner and know what they can do and what they are capable of. If they leave, they have to start their life again and they worry that they wont be able to provide for themselves, that their children will hold it against them and that they simply won’t manage alone.

As an IDVA you deal mainly with the most serious cases of domestic violence. What were the worst cases you came across working with Polish families?

I have often worked on cases with attempts to strangle. Other cases involved kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, grievous bodily harm and physical and emotional abuse of the children. What is most hurtful to the victim is that they suffer abuse from people they love and trust, they are either the father or mother of their children.

How does domestic abuse affect children and how do the local authorities respond when they are at risk?

In a situation where child safety is at risk, local authorities take action to support the parent who suffers the abuse and his/her children in order to bring them to safety. Their aim is to support people who are in danger, not the removal of children. Mothers often think that children don’t suffer because they haven’t seen or heard what happened. Children can hear what is happening in the next room and even if they can’t see the incident they see the following day that mummy is crying, is upset and has got bruises on her face. Violence has an impact on unborn children during pregnancy. Constant stress experienced by pregnant woman causes slower development of the foetus. I know from my own observations that when the perpetrator disappears from the lives of their children suddenly they start to develop faster, they become more open, talkative, they achieve better results at school and it’s so distinct!  Children growing up in abusive families mature quicker; they don’t have a real childhood. They feel responsible for their parents, they plan what to do to avoid the conflict or to protect mum, e.g. they do the washing up so daddy won’t shout. Children don’t want to talk about what’s happening at home e.g. at school because they are afraid that they might get their parents in trouble. Perpetrators often use children to control their partners, they ask what they’ve been doing and who with. It’s a great burden for the children; they feel torn between their parents because they love them both.

You can often hear people saying "If her life with him is so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?” Is it difficult to leave an abusive relationship?

Yes. It is very difficult because of the control in that relationship. The perpetrator uses emotional abuse for so long that the victim starts to think: "Am I doing something wrong? Am I guilty?" He has told her so many times that she is stupid, fat, and worthless that she starts to believe it. He also isolates her from friends and family, she can’t speak to anyone about her situation. There is also fear of the unknown, whether she will manage on her own. She knows what to expect from the relationship, e.g. she knows that he will give her enough money to buy food this month. Some women stay for the sake of the children because they believe that they need a father, no matter what, even if he torments the whole family. The most difficult factor however, is the fact that these women often love their perpetrators and still believe that they will change.

Can women do anything to stop the violence themselves?

Perpetrators will never change and victims are not able to change their behaviour. They are adults and know exactly what they are doing and it’s their choice to do so. They often try to shift the responsibility for their actions onto victims by saying for example: "I drink because of you, if you didn’t annoy me, I wouldnt have hit you. Women are not to blame for the violence and if the other party doesnt want to change, e.g. undertake treatment for alcohol abuse, they will not be able to do anything.

What should Polish female victims of domestic violence living in the UK do? Where should they go first?

First of all, they should contact the police because they will be able to take immediate action and make sure they are safe. You can call the police dialling 999 .They can also give information about organisations that can offer further support.

The person who was interviewed works for Cheshire East Domestic Abuse Family Safety Unit. (DAFSU), e-mail: CEDAP@cheshireeast.gov.uk


The interview was originally published in the Polish weekly magazine "Cooltura" no.513 18 January 2014