Abigail Blake suffered life-changing injuries at the hands of her violent husband. After a six-month prison stint, he is free and she lives in constant fear of him tracking her down. How is this justice?
This summer I spent 24 hours in hiding with my three-year-old son Thomas*, terrified that his father would come for us. That night, closeted in a hotel room, I couldn’t sleep. Knowing my estranged husband was out of prison reignited all my fears and anger, and triggered memories of the attack that had happened almost two years ago to the day – the day when Thomas’s father Sebastian Swamy beat me at our home and left me for dead.
In June this year, I was told that Sebastian would be released from prison after just six months.
On 31 July he would be free to travel, unaccompanied and unmonitored, to Surrey, where he would then have to check in with his probation officer. He is monitored by a GPS tracker and has a curfew, but during his free hours he can do whatever he likes. Even now, despite a restraining order, I’m terrified he could come back and find me – there is nothing anyone can say to convince me that I am safe. He can live his life as a free man, whereas mine has changed for ever. He attacked me, and yet I’m the one on the run, constantly fearing for my life.
It hadn’t always been like this. When I met Sebastian in May 2014 through a mutual friend, he seemed charming. He drove to visit me in Cheshire from Berkshire, where he had a flat, to take me out to an expensive restaurant for our first date. ‘Treat yourself like a princess,’ he said. ‘You deserve to be taken care of and looked after.’ At the end of the meal, he tapped down his pockets. He had forgotten his wallet. I thought nothing of it and picked up the bill.
It should have been a warning sign. At the time, I had a great job as an operations manager at Manchester Airport, a lovely house and supportive friends. The only thing I lacked was a partner. My parents had just split up after 46 years and I was heartbroken. Then Sebastian appeared.
Two months later, I was cooking dinner for us at his flat and opened what I thought was the cutlery drawer. I found bundles of letters about arrears and debt collectors. I confided in a friend, who told me to run for the hills. But I felt sorry for him. He assured me that he was paying it all off.
After five months together, we got married. But even when he sold his flat in Berkshire and moved in, he never offered to contribute to the running costs of the house. At least he got on well with my son Toby* and my friends found him fun and generous – he paid for their drinks with my card when we went out.
However, when Sebastian drank, he became violent. He’d head-butt me like a bull and call me names. Once, when he offered to look after Toby, I came home to find him passed out on the sofa, empty wine bottles across the carpet. Toby was asleep upstairs. When I asked Sebastian what was going on, he punched me in the head, smothering my mouth with his other hand to stifle my screams.
Of course it frightened me. I was in shock, but I was so angry about what he’d done – the drinking, not looking after my son – that I just went to bed while he slept downstairs. The next day, I took Toby to school and went to work. He called to say he was sorry. I thought more about how irresponsible he had been towards my son than about his aggression towards me. ‘You had a duty of care to my child,’ I said. He promised none of it would happen again. It was a mistake. He wasn’t used to having children around. He’d lost his temper. I wanted to believe it was a one-off.
In 2016 we had our son Thomas. On our first family holiday, to Greece, he got drunk on the plane and spilt vodka into Toby’s lap. When I pleaded with him to stop drinking, he slapped me round the head. I was holding my 13-week-old son. The couple beside us were so worried they took my contact details and emailed me days later at our hotel.
In spring 2017, I finally asked Sebastian to leave. He burst into the kitchen with a shovel. ‘If you throw me out of this house, you’ll be 10ft under in the back garden,’ he said. ‘Each time I play football with the boys over your dead body, I’ll tell them, “Mummy walked out and left you.”’
The final attack happened in July 2017. Sebastian had been out nearly every night drinking, and on that evening he stumbled through the door at 10.30pm, completely out of it. He pulled a can of lager from the fridge. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. ‘Have another one, why don’t you?’ I snapped.
I followed him upstairs to our bedroom, telling him to pack his bags. ‘I’ve had enough,’ I said. ‘I want you out of the house.’
I thought he was too drunk to hit me. But as I turned to leave the room, he punched me in the back of my neck and I fell to the floor, fracturing my cheekbone. He stamped on my back in his boots, telling me to shut up. I rolled over on to my front, hoping that if he looked me in the eye, he would stop, but he was out of control. The stamping continued, on my chest, my wrists, my calves. I struggled to breathe.
As I lay there, I saw Sebastian pick up my two mobile phones and head upstairs where he locked himself in a room. I was in agony, but I managed to crawl downstairs and on to the pavement outside, where I stopped a passing couple. By the time the ambulance arrived, Sebastian had left, driving away in one of my cars and hurling abuse at me through the window. Thankfully, Toby had been staying at his dad’s that evening while the baby had been in a room next door to our bedroom – I’m so relieved Sebastian didn’t take him because I probably wouldn’t have seen my son again.
I spent four days in hospital, where I was treated for a punctured lung and five broken ribs. I then went home for a day, but was in such pain I had to go back. Doctors found I had two fractured vertebrae and would need two serious operations. The police were involved immediately – I had reported Sebastian to them before for hitting me several times, but I had continually retracted the statements because I didn’t want more trouble. I was so scared Sebastian would return that I begged an officer or a nurse to hold my hand each night until I fell asleep. Sometimes, I would find myself sitting bolt upright, convinced he was there, ready to hit me again. I spent three further weeks on a ward, starting a long recovery. Two years later, I have been left with tremors in my arms, and am still in too much pain to walk without injections.
A few days after the attack, Sebastian handed himself in and was put in prison on remand. For a few weeks, I felt safe. Then he was allowed out on bail on an electronic tag. He lived at his family home in Surrey, had a curfew and wasn’t allowed direct contact with me or the children, but still found ways to intimidate me. He called one of my friends to tell her that if I know what’s best, I’ll drop the case. He contacted my family solicitor to tell me to meet him to hand over my baby. ‘At the end of the day, I’m his dad,’ he said. ‘She needs to drop the criminal case.’
Although I knew he was 200 miles away, I couldn’t control my fears. As the weeks went by, my mental state deteriorated. In town, I panicked in crowds. I was having flashbacks and was hyper-vigilant, even at home, startled if I heard the rustle of a tree or a knock at the door. I kept thinking it could be him.
We were meant to go to trial in May 2018 but he postponed it, saying he wasn’t ready. I’ve since found out that offenders sometimes do this to manipulate the system, in the hope the accuser will crumble or that witnesses will no longer be able to make it at a later date. If they’re on an electronic tag, they can also use this extra time to reduce a possible custodial sentence.
The trial was rescheduled for December. I had just come out of hospital after more surgery on my neck. The Friday before, I received a call from the police on behalf of my barrister at the Crown Prosecution Service. Sebastian’s lawyers were offering a plea bargain: instead of facing trial for grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent, he would accept a lesser charge of GBH. It could also prevent further trauma from cross-examination in court. I was told he would still get a sentence. The officer called me three times in an hour for an answer. Under pressure, I accepted the plea bargain.
I went to the sentencing in January this year. I wanted to look him in the face. He showed no remorse. But the judge was kind, telling me I needn’t be ashamed, and Sebastian was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. For the first time in years, I felt relief. I could start to move forward with the boys. I am desperate to get a divorce I just don’t have enough money for it at the moment.
But in April this year, I was told there had been a ‘discrepancy’ in the sentencing. The 17 months Sebastian had spent under curfew before the trial had not been included in calculating the time he should spend in jail. He would be released in July after just six months. I fought for answers from a victim liaison officer – it was a struggle to even find out the date of his release. He has been fitted with a GPS tracker until the end of the year, but from 2020 he will be on licence, which means he has to check in with a probation officer. This lasts until 2021. Under Clare’s Law, which is designed to protect potential victims of domestic abuse, future partners would be able to receive information about his conviction. But it’s no punishment at all. He’ll be able to rebuild his life.
The charity My CWA (Cheshire Without Abuse), which has provided me with incredible emotional support throughout this ordeal, recommended I go into hiding for all our safety. I couldn’t stop thinking of Nicola Sutton from Warrington who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in 2006 when he was let out of prison early. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I want to be there for my children.
Toby stayed with his dad, and the night before Sebastian’s release, I took Thomas to a hotel, but I couldn’t sleep. The next day I got a call from the police to say Sebastian was back in Surrey. It was a huge relief.
He still has an indefinite restraining order. If he comes near me, he could go back to prison. But I’ve never thought that would stop him. I can’t help but worry for my children, especially Thomas. When he goes to a new school, I dread that Sebastian will find out which one. Often he’ll point to my scar and say, ‘What’s that, Mummy?’ When he’s older, I will tell him gently about his father. I won’t tell him how serious it was. My life has completely changed. I can’t lift anything and will never be able to pick up Thomas. It’s hard – physical contact is so important and I long to hold him. I have lost my job because I can’t sit down for long.
Toby, now ten, has been really supportive. No child should become his mother’s carer when she can’t carry a pint of milk without screaming in pain. Once, at a shopping centre, when I couldn’t walk up the stairs, he took my hand and said: ‘Don’t worry, Mummy, we will climb this mountain together.’ When he hears noises in the house, he worries that Sebastian has broken in. Recently, he has started being disruptive in class. He’s now seeing a school counsellor. He’s angry. We all are.
I am now working with My CWA one morning a month, running a group for other survivors. I also give talks. At the moment, I think you’re better off being an offender than a victim. They get counselling, life skills and rehabilitation help, all for free. Victims get nothing – not even legal advice. The justice system is completely imbalanced.
I would love to see cases get to court much faster, so you don’t have to put your life on hold until a trial. I want to make sure that people understand what a plea bargain is, and that time spent on an electronic tag can count towards a sentence. And I hope that offenders will get longer in jail so that it is a punishment for their crime and survivors have time to recover, feeling that they are safe.
Eventually, I hope to go back to work, too, helping families who have been abused. Without my children, I would never have got through. I need to protect them, and will do everything I can to make that happen.
Domestic abuse: How you can help
By Saskia Lightburn-Ritchie, chief executive of My CWA (Cheshire Without Abuse)
The most important thing is to be aware of the signs of domestic abuse, so if a friend or family member does speak to you, you can respond appropriately and point them in the right direction. These include any harassing behaviour, lack of privacy or even not being able to have a mobile phone.
Equally, if you know someone whose behaviour in their relationships is worrying, talk to them about it. We need to make sure perpetrators are being held to account too. Anyone who’s worried should seek advice. You can ring the Refuge and Women’s Aid helpline on 0808 2000 247.
My CWA supports children as well as adult victims, and we also offer a ‘behaviour change intervention’ to the perpetrator which has resulted in victims being made safer. Domestic abuse often escalates following separation, and our programme can help families develop safe co-parenting and improve relationships with children. We can also identify when co-parenting is unsafe.
With regards to Abigail’s case and others like it, we urge the Ministry of Justice to review sentencing in domestic-abuse trials and to prioritise the safety of victims over the rights of perpetrators.
Readers who want to help should ask their local MP to back and push the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is aimed at supporting victims and their families as well as pursuing offenders. We’re concerned this might cease to be a priority under the new prime minister.
For more information and to make a donation, go to mycwa.org.uk