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Our father’s deadly dominance: brothers describe the devastating impact of coercive control

Luke and Ryan Hart. Photo: Priya Dabasia. - Credit: Archant

In the wake of a landmark legal case which redefines domestic violence, EMMA JONES speaks to two bereaved brothers about the devastating effects of living in a ‘coercively controlled’ family.

Claire and Charlotte Hart. Photo: Contributed. – Credit: Archant

When Sally Challen’s conviction for murdering her husband was quashed last week, domestic violence was redefined.

Challen, 65, had admitted the 2010 killing, but denied murder. Since her conviction, in 2011, she has – with the support of her sons David, 31, and James, 35 – been campaigning to challenge the verdict.

The Appeal Court last week heard that she had withstood years of sustained ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ at the hands of her husband, Richard, 61, which contributed to her mental condition and led her to kill her him.

Coercive control – by which abusers harm, punish or frighten their victims – has only become a criminal offence in England and Wales since Challen was jailed. As last week’s hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice showed, that development has profoundly changed the understanding of domestic abuse and the case was described by campaigners as a ‘watershed moment’ for victims.

Among the supporters who had attended the hearings was Ryan Hart, 27, a friend of David Challen’s and a young man with his own horrific experience of coercive control. His mother Claire and sister Charlotte were shot dead in July 2016, in the car park of a sports centre in Spalding, Lincolnshire, by their father, Lance, who then turned the single-barrelled shotgun on himself.

Since the murders, Ryan and brother Luke, 29, have sought to use their own positions as ‘white educated men’ to tackle the gendered belief systems, which lie at the heart the domestic abuse.

After the Challen verdict, I met Ryan and Luke at their home in Ashford that they share with their much-loved family dogs, Bella, a Labradoodle, and Indi, a black Jack Chihuahua cross.

‘It’s vitally important, what David (Challen) is doing is a precedent for how the law interprets coercive control and also how people see it,’ Luke says.

‘Given the fact that one in four women suffer in an abusive relationship, it shows there are a lot of men who hold those belief systems that they are entitled to power and control over a woman.’

Ryan agrees: ‘[The Challen appeal] recognises that coercive control exists, which is a start, given that it was only brought into law a few years ago.’

The brothers were introduced to David by a friend from the East Surrey Domestic Abuse Services who was struck by the similarity of their experiences.

‘We recognised so many similarities between our family’s and David’s – a slight change of circumstances and it could easily have been our mother in jail and us campaigning for her release,’ says Ryan. ‘Our support for David has mainly been as friends to talk to. We lived through similar experiences growing up and they aren’t many male voices out there talking about coercive control and domestic abuse – having someone who understands is a big help.’

He adds: ‘In our case our father killed, not because he should, but because he believed he had to – to defend his position of dominance in the family. The murder was planned for months, for years even.

‘He was just waiting for the right time, that would form a convenient narrative for his murder note.’

The brothers believe their father’s calculated plan to dominate their mother began with Luke’s conception.

‘He left his first wife,’ Luke says. ‘Threw away my mother’s contraceptive pills, and said to her, ‘you are having my child’ (me). It was the first hook to make her dependent.’

It was the beginning of what the brothers describe as ‘a whole series of ratcheting away freedoms’, beginning with isolation from society.

‘For ten years, we lived in a run-down farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, growing our own food. Our parents didn’t work at all, and we had no income.’

A prerequisite to control was an all-pervasive fear. Ryan explains: ‘The teachers saw us as perfect students, I didn’t put my hand up in class once. I was so afraid of saying something wrong. [I was] always there on time, never a detention, never says anything wrong, never steps out of line, never breaks any rules.

‘Our coping mechanism was to try and become as small as possible… because then we weren’t shouted at when we got home.’

Luke adds: ‘We just knew we had to work hard at school if we wanted to get out and that is what we did.’

Then came the control, which is as destructive as violence, say the brothers. ‘We didn’t think it was dangerous,’ Luke says. ‘We thought, ‘he doesn’t hit us, we are safe’. But we never realised that control was just as lethal, as an indicator.’

Both studied engineering at Russell Group universities to get good jobs so that they could rescue their mother – who was also suffering from MS – and sister from the house.

But their father began charging them £100-a-time to visit the family home in Moulton, near Spalding – including £20 each way for picking them up from the station.

‘It was costing me five grand a year,’ says Ryan. ‘Then, when I got a promotion, he doubled the charges, because he could see that we were starting to save money, and he was trying his very best to make us poor.

‘He would have happily have lived in poverty his entire life, if it had meant that mum had no options.’ Luke adds: ‘To be poor meant he had more control.’

When mum Claire got a job on the meat counter in Morrisons supermarket, her husband took her wages, refused to let her have a pension and blocked promotions. One of the controlling mechanisms their father used was to shout at their mother for hours on end, in order to deliberately trigger painful attacks from her MS.

In the six months leading up to the murders, Luke and Ryan began to secretly plan to get their mother and sister freedom.

Covertly, they established communications with the pair by buying Claire a mobile phone so she could talk to them, and setting-up a hidden Facebook account – Claire had never been allowed access to the internet.

‘In a sense, it was our first sense of freedom,’ Ryan says. ‘She could actually start to communicate with her children without him overlooking. Especially, since our work moved us around the world.

‘I think mum missed us. You could see in her eyes, when I would Skype home from Australia, how she wasn’t really allowed to say anything, how she was really disheartened, she just really wanted to talk about things to me, but she couldn’t.’

After the boys left, their father set out to ‘destroy’ their now isolated sister, Charlotte 18, undermining her decision to become a teacher, instead of a midwife and destroying her self esteem, until she developed severe depression and had to go on medication.

‘Of us three children, she was the strongest. Charlotte was always the one standing to up to him for mum,’ Ryan says.

‘He was just using that opportunity to grind her down as much as he could because he knew that Charlotte was a strong woman.’

The walls of the brothers’ living room are filled with pictures of mother and daughter, who shared the same smile. Also pictured is their pet Yorkshire terrier Max.

Luke says: ‘We are pretty sure he [Lance] killed Max, in the final weeks. He was pretty chuffed the dog was dead. He was jealous of Max because it took attention away from him.’

Eventually, Luke and Ryan rented a small semi-detached house for their mother and sister. They then moved their mother in without their father’s knowledge. Their sister was away with her boyfriend at the time. From there, she went to join her mother at the new property.

‘Escaping from home was rushed . Our father didn’t know. Luke and I rented a van and moved mum out the family home in the morning, before our father returned home for lunch.’ Ryan explains.

They were killed only five days after their escape, after agreeing to meet Lance on their way to an early morning swim at their local leisure centre.

‘I knew that mum had agreed to go with Charlotte to meet our dad there before they would go swimming. Because when we left the house five days beforehand we were in quite a rush. So there were things that we didn’t take that we wanted – we just grabbed documents that we thought were mum’s and left. We apparently had some of dad’s documents he needed back.

‘He had been talking to mum over email, being creepily cooperative, so the whole meet-up was planned.’

Conspicuous as his change in attitude might have been, no one had imagined Lance had planned the meeting that morning in order to orchestrate their murders.

Ryan was working away in the Netherlands when saw a breaking news report on his phone. He recalls the headline: ‘Spalding Shooting: Three Dead in Castle Sports car park.’

‘I didn’t actually know it was mum and Charlotte at that point,’ he says.

Luke says: ‘I think at that point we said ‘shall we ring the police? Let’s just give mum and Charlotte’s names and see what happens’.

Then it took ages, it felt like an hour before they came back.

‘Normally, the police send a family liaison officer to break the news but that wasn’t possible because we were in different countries.’ Ryan says.

Luke adds: ‘It was just an overwhelming sense of confusion. Your first instinct is to try and understand why it’s happened, why someone would do that. Then you just try and make sense of it. And then, from the level of an individual, I don’t think it’s something you can understand.

‘It took me about a month before I accepted it. It wasn’t until the funeral day that I accepted it.

‘The complete shock and trauma of it makes you feel like you are living in some sort of fantasy world.’

Today, in between Ryan’s job working on oil rigs in the Middle East on a 28/28 rotation, and Luke’s in digital innovation, the brothers are dedicated to tackling male abuse and violence, in the hope that they can save lives.

They have written a book about their experience, and spend their spare time speaking at conferences and events on domestic abuse and coercive control.

Their next challenge is to set up an organisation to train professionals and to send survivors and speakers into schools, to educate boys about domestic violence.

Luke says: ‘The boys of today will be the men of tomorrow, and it is our duty to use our lived experience to educate and promote a more harmonious concept of masculinity to boys.

‘Working on the awareness of domestic abuse gives us something positive to put our energy into as well.’

Ryan adds: ‘We grew up with our entire life, trying to protect mum and Charlotte, trying to break them free – that was the main goal in our life.

‘Then having that taken away from you and having nothing to fall back on was very, very difficult and it wasn’t until we started the campaigning and advocacy work that I found a new purpose in life. It was something to live for.

‘So it’s not completely altruistic. I get so much joy and happiness knowing that we are making a difference. And it gives me a reason to wake up each day, which was what was missing.’

Luke says: ‘For me that’s important as well but I also I get a kick from making it difficult for people like my father to operate.

‘If we can create a world that makes that more challenging then we are at least shifting the burden somewhat. I think the more we can put the burden on them and relieve it from the victims, that’s a really important thing we can achieve.’

The 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline is 0808 2000 247.

Luke and Ryan Hart’s book Operation Lighthouse: Reflections on our Family’s Devastating Story of Coercive Control and Domestic Homicide is available in all major bookstores and Amazon

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