'Being stalked makes you feel like you're going crazy'
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Going through a divorce or a break-up can feel like one of the loneliest moments in a person’s life. Add on top of that having to go through family court, or being stalked by your former partner, and it can be a pretty hellish time.
And one woman who understands these sentiments all too well is Sarah (who does not wish to reveal her surname). A teacher by day, Sarah is the founder of Suffolk Survivors Network, a peer-led group of women who help others going through the same experiences they have gone through.
Set up last year in May 2021, Sarah drew upon her own past and felt there was a need for a group that was there to listen to women, offering advice and counselling.
“I’m a survivor of domestic abuse, and after 10 years of doing nothing, my ex took me to family court and made my life hell,” she says.
Following a series of court dates and a subsequent nervous breakdown in 2018, Sarah headed to London and joined in with a The Court Said protest, which aimed to highlight the family court system, and the abuse that occurs within it.
“When I was there, I was interviewed by investigative journalist Louise Tickle, and following that I was on the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered.”
The show highlighted and exposed the family court process here in England - and how in many cases, courts can order the police to forcible remove children, who are not in danger, at midnight from their mothers and sent to be live with their fathers.
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“With family court, you’re not allowed to discuss. It’s a closed court and very secretive,” she adds.
With no one to turn to, and realising others may be in similar situations, Sarah set up Suffolk Survivors Network – creating a safe space for mothers and families in their time of need.
“It started off as a secret group with my friends and fellow survivors I've met on my journey of the last four years, and it’s grown into this place where we can talk about family court. It’s a safe space where people can discuss what they’re going through. You can be anonymous if you like, and we also have access to family court solicitors, trained counsellors, nurses, as well as help with housing.”
To date, there are around 380 members in the Suffolk Survivors Network group.
“I currently have a caseload of around 10 people I’m supporting at the moment who are currently going through family court. It’s really distressing what people go through, especially the children.
“My own little boy wanted to move back with me. So I put in an application with court to let him come home, and they wouldn’t let him. It took him for years, and he only came back after an instance of domestic violence. No one would listen to us, and it was really sad.”
Sarah adds that she spent thousands of pounds trying to get her son back.
“It was quite horrendous, and there are a lot of women in a similar position to me,” she adds.
As well as dealing with mothers going through custody courtroom battles, Sarah also helps women who have been the victims of stalking.
In January this year, Suffolk Rape Crisis said it had seen a 5.5% increase in the number of stalking and sexual violence reports – and a total of 6,529 reports of stalking and harassment reports were made in Suffolk in the year to September 2021. This is compared to 6,230 in 2020.
“People don’t often realise the impact stalking has on someone’s life,” she says.
“The women I talk to, they say it’s made them scared, incredibly fearful, and a shell of who they used to be. It’s essentially ruined their lives, as they’re always living in fear. One woman in our group, she sleeps on the sofa because she’s scared her perpetrator is going to put something through her letterbox.”
The physical effects that being a victim of stalking can be just as damaging, Sarah adds.
“I’ve also had health problems because of everything I’ve been through, including having a period that lasted for four years, and bad psoriasis and rosacea on my face. It's all to do with cortisol, the stress hormone.
“People don’t understand – they think when you leave someone and end a relationship, that’s the end. But often they will still try and abuse you in any way they can. Stalking can ruin lives, and it needs to be taken seriously.”
A number of women within Sarah’s support network have been on the receiving end of stalking – and joined Suffolk Survivors Network to not only heal their own trauma, but to help others.
One of these women is Faith, who says she has faced a never-ending campaign of fear at the hands of her ex-partner and the father of two of her children.
“We were moved during the first lockdown, and we had brilliant help from Women’s Aid and the local police. But then my ex found out where we lived, so we moved again.”
Faith says she spends her time logging every incident. Just a fortnight ago, she came out to find all four of her car’s tyres had been slashed.
“The stalking makes you feel like you’re going crazy, and that it’s all in your head. These incidents happen, and you keep a diary so you can tell the police, but most of the time nothing happens. It’s so disheartening. I have to be careful about where I park, and I’ve got a Ring doorbell now – but it still rules your life. You still have to get up every day and go to work.
“Nothing is a quick fix, but Suffolk Survivors Network has given me the ability to pick myself up, carry on, and actually believe in myself. It’s made me realise I want to make a different. Moving here hasn’t been the best journey, but Suffolk Survivors Network has taught me I can go on and help other people who’ve been through similar.”
Michelle has also been subjected to a torrent of abuse, which first began in childhood.
“I’ve experienced familial, domestic, and sexual abuse, which has a big impact on your self-esteem as you grow. I was also stalked as a teenager, after a man put a ladder up against my bedroom window and took photos of me. It was shocking that someone could have such bravado.”
And at the age of 20, Michelle was stalked once again.
“Something similar happened later in life, and I was followed home by a man. He wasn’t known to me, but whenever I would walk home from work, he would follow me up my driveway. I did go to the police on both occasions, and they interviewed me, but I didn’t hear anything else after.
“It was incredibly difficult for me, and my family thought I was exaggerating, or had brought it upon myself. This was 18 years ago, but the damage is still there – including the victim-blaming and shame associated with it.”
However, after meeting Sarah in October 2021, Michelle began working with Suffolk Survivors Network – and says she will draw on her own experiences to help uplift other women.
“Sarah and I both have business backgrounds, and we’re in the process of applying for funding for the group, so we can help more women. At the moment, we’re doing safeguarding training, so we can deliver the services we’ve always needed. I think it should be peer-led, as you’ll know it’s a safe space where you can get help and advice from people who care.”
Sarah is also hoping to get Suffolk Survivors Network registered as a community interest company (CIC).
“Ultimately, we’re hoping to be a wraparound service for survivors. I’m going to a Dr Jessica Taylor conference in September, and we’ve managed to get funding for eight people to do her anti-victim blaming course, to help those who have gone through abuse and trauma. There is a massive need for what I’m doing – and so many people are grateful once they find us,” Sarah adds.
If you’ve been through similar, or wish to get involved with Suffolk Survivors Network, email Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
* The women's names have been changed to protect identities.