Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

“He had the house, the kids – I had nothing”

Last week, the House of Commons debated the state of the family courts, calling for a full review. Here, one woman devastatingly describes how the current system does little to help those who need it most

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A line that came towards the end of The Archers’ hour-long jury special worried me almost as much as whether the jury would find Helen innocent or guilty of attempting to murder her husband, Rob. He said: “You haven’t got rid of me and, as long as we have a child together, you never will." In the death throes of an abusive relationship, there is one thing in the wreckage that will survive: the familial ties – the bonds of love – between parents and their children.

As low points go, finding myself standing outside my house at 2am with a bin bag full of clothes was one of my lowest. It wasn’t my choice. An hour earlier, anything of practical use had been taken from me, including my car keys. I had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. Worse still, my three small children were asleep inside. I promised myself it would only be a temporary separation but I had no idea how I could fix it.

To begin with, there was a rush of post-traumatic relief. It was the freedom, I think, going to my head. Then, reality kicked in with the arrival of divorce papers (he didn’t hang about) and soon after came a request for child maintenance. It was a crippling double-whammy – a merciless gut-kick with the sole intention of finishing me off. He meant to ruin me. In the 1990s, in cases like mine, possession was nine-tenths of the law and he was in the marital home, with our children, while I was sleeping on a friend’s sofa with no visible means of support. It was a simple binary choice: do I give up, let him walk all over me and take the lot, or fight and survive?

The first step was to get a job, but I’d given up work to be a mum – that’s what you did then and it left me vulnerable. That first goal gave me some very necessary focus because I was doing it for my children. I polished up my shorthand and went to work in a local office. It was a start and it was going well until the day my ex walked in off the street. In front of everyone, he gave me a long look, said something like, “Now I know where you work”, and left, slamming the door behind him. If you knew what had gone before, you’d know what that would do to me. I can imagine Rob Titchener doing something very similar to Helen.

The most difficult thing was trying to maintain regular visits to my children. Some abusive fathers use this point of contact to continue to maintain control, to manipulate and intimidate. In my case, pick-up and drop-off times would be changed at short notice; I was not allowed into the house; I was not allowed to have all three children together, only one at a time. "I bet you love dealing with him," said a policeman after my ex slammed the door on his foot. I’d asked the police for back-up because he’d wrenched the door off my car the previous weekend. Nobody who witnessed any of this ever asked if I was all right.

Next, my solicitor lost me everything. Family courts in those days were very different places to what they are now. The advice was "Don’t leave; stay in the house", but how can you do that when you’re physically picked up and dumped on the pavement, and terrified? Nonetheless, that was the way the court saw it.

It was a simple binary choice: do I give up, let him walk all over me and take the lot, or fight and survive?

By now, I’d clawed my way up to renting somewhere and furnished it with second-hand furniture from a house clearance. I had bedrooms made up and ready for my children, more in hope than expectation. After the court’s decision, every time I walked through the front door it felt like falling into a great big black pit of despair. I don’t know where I found the strength to pick myself up after that, but I did.

I sued and got my legal fees back. I appointed another solicitor (a woman this time) and, on the day she won my case, I remember hearing When Love Comes To Town in the background as I drove to collect my children. It was the first time in two years we’d all been together under the same roof. In a spiteful act, my ex sent them to me with only the things they stood up in – he made them leave behind all their toys and clothes. A year later, I got a call from my solicitor to tell me he’d dumped the lot on the pavement outside their office.

The last time I ever spoke to him was when I phoned to arrange for his child access. He never turned up. He didn’t turn up for the next eight years and nor did he support us. It’s impossible to explain that to your children. I worked at whatever I could and we did all right. Occasionally, for old times’ sake, he’d drive by and lob a brick through the window of my car.

When he did eventually reappear in our lives, it signalled the end of our little family. It was inevitable, really, and for all the usual reasons, but mostly money – he had it and I didn’t. And then we resumed a familiar dance. I was "banned" from our children’s weddings (and, yes, I could just show up, but it’s not about me and him, is it?). I am similarly banned from the town where he lives now, with his latest wife. Every so often, one of my children will become estranged from me for a while because of something he’s said or done, like buying them a house with the condition they do not come to see me and I never visit them, and I tell them, "Do it – get your house" because I want them to have the financial security I could never give them. They always come back again. Eventually.

When Rob said what he said, I knew exactly what he meant by it. He will be like a deeply driven splinter in Helen’s life, a constant painful presence that niggles and occasionally flares, is treated and then subsides, gathering more poison around himself to discharge again the second she drops her guard. Over the years, I’ve learnt to tolerate my splinter and become resilient to it; sometimes, it even makes me laugh because, after all this time, it’s taken on the slightly pathetic aura of a failed politician, but somewhere, underneath it all, there is still a raw, tender line of fear. I accept that there always will be.

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Photo: Getty Images
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Family
The Archers
motherhood
Children

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