The Hidden Horror of Strangulation: Why UK Family Courts Must Wake Up


She remembers that day with sickening clarity. The rage in his eyes as his hands wrapped around her throat, squeezing until the world began to fade. The panic as she realized he might not stop this time. The bruises left behind, dark ugly marks on her skin.

For Lucy, it was one terrifying incident in years of escalating abuse by her ex-husband. But it encapsulates a disturbing truth – strangulation is one of the most common and serious forms of violence used by abusers, yet too often it is minimized or overlooked by the systems meant to protect victims.

A Terrifyingly Common Act

Strangulation is purposefully cutting off oxygen to someone’s brain by compressing their windpipe. While any form of physical violence in a relationship is unacceptable, research shows strangulation is often a major warning sign that abuse could turn deadly.

One study found that victims who had been strangled by their partner were 750% more likely to be killed by them later on. 43% of women murdered in domestic violence attacks had experienced at least one prior strangulation incident. Over 50% of abused women who entered domestic violence shelters had been strangled in the past year by their partner. 1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lives. Of those, studies estimate up to 68% will be strangled.

Given how common it is for victims to be strangled by abusive partners, public awareness and understanding of its gravity is critically lacking. A largely unseen weapon, it leaves less obvious physical evidence than hitting or punching, though its effects on the victim can be severe.

Lasting Trauma Of A Brutal Act

Being strangled can be agonizingly painful and utterly terrifying. Unconsciousness can occur within just 5 to 10 seconds of strangulation pressure. Death within minutes.

During the weeks after, survivors may suffer traumatic symptoms like anxiety, PTSD, depression, trouble sleeping, and flashbacks to the attack. Brain damage from oxygen deprivation can also occur, leading to memory loss, vertigo, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

Society pays lip service to abhorring domestic violence against women, yet our legal systems betray victims by refusing to treat strangulation with the urgency such a potentially lethal act warrants. Share on X

Strangulation can damage the larynx and trachea, causing symptoms like coughing, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and shortness of breath. In 1 in 5 cases, victims are left with visible injuries like scratches, bruises, red dots on the face (petechiae), or bloodshot eyes from burst capillaries. But often there are no visible marks at all.

For many victims, being strangled by someone they loved and trusted deeply compounds the psychological trauma. They are left feeling violated, betrayed, and hypervigilant about setting off another attack.

Minimized By The Justice System

Despite clear research showing strangulation is one of the most violent and dangerous acts abusers inflict, justice systems have been slow to recognize its severity.

Policing and court systems downgrade charges, minimize allegations, and treat cases without due urgency. Worst of all, family courts tasked with deciding custody of children rarely treat a history of strangulation with the gravity it deserves.

Because strangulation often leaves no visible injury, police sometimes overlook or dismiss victims’ accounts. Cases get filed as minor disputes or general domestic violence instead of the more serious charges strangulation merits.

Victims are often too overwhelmed, traumatized, or fearful to properly document evidence in the moment that could back up charges later. Bruises take time to appear, and vital forensic evidence is lost.

Reclassification of charges to lesser offenses and dropped cases are common, letting abusers escape accountability.

When custody disputes do go to family court, a recorded history of domestic abuse and strangulation is rarely given sufficient weight in final rulings over children’s safety.

One leading organization of domestic violence experts summarized the gravity strangulation deserves this way: “A man who strangles a woman has his hands around her neck; if he chooses to squeeze or continue to restrict her air supply, she could die. The proximity of strangulation to dying is immediate and visceral.”

Yet this act that could easily kill a victim in seconds, with the offender’s bare hands, is continually downplayed even in systems created to protect the vulnerable. It is a discrepancy that must be urgently addressed.

Giving Strangulation Cases High Priority

Instituting proper legal and social safeguards for victims means taking strangulation as seriously as the life-threatening act it is. Women’s safety advocates in the UK have put forth proposals for change:

  • Specialized training is needed for police, first responders, lawyers, and judges to ensure strangulation is correctly identified and charged appropriately. Strangulation often leaves subtle or delayed symptoms that require effort and expertise to detect.
  • Strangulation should be classified at the highest level of domestic violence offenses, not minimized as a minor dispute. Recognizing it as among the gravest possible abuses would help ensure commensurate penalties follow.
  • Allowing medical professionals like forensic nurses to document evidence from strangulation exams could provide vital proof in court cases even when victims are too afraid or overwhelmed to testify. Utilizing all available channels to build evidence is vital.

A record of past domestic abuse and strangulation attempts should be the deciding factor in family court rulings over custody, not just one consideration weighed equally. The safety of victims and children must come first.

Wake Up Calls For UK Family Courts

Nowhere is the gravity of strangulation minimized more than in UK family court decisions over which parent should retain custody rights to children after abuse allegations.

While judges weigh many issues during proceedings, women’s advocates argue a proven history of domestic violence and strangulation attempts should virtually guarantee custody denial for the abusive spouse as an urgent safety measure.

1 in 4 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lives. Of those, studies estimate up to 68% will be strangled. Share on X

Yet innumerable examples exist of UK courts awarding unsupervised visits or even primary custody to fathers with multiple allegations and documented evidence of choking, beating, and abusing both the mother and children.

Shocking cases where courts ignore real danger to mothers and children remain appallingly common, though abuse victims report strangulation as the most viscerally terrifying act an intimate partner inflicted. Allowing any access, rights, or authority over victims to men with such a history trivializes the brutality of strangulation and needlessly gambles with vulnerable lives.

Strangulation Must Be A Red Line

Society pays lip service to abhorring domestic violence against women, yet our legal systems betray victims by refusing to treat strangulation with the urgency such a potentially lethal act warrants.

Police, lawyers, judges and the public must recognize strangulation is among the gravest dangers victims face, often a precursor to escalation that ends in homicide. Downplaying its severity and allowing any family access to fathers who choke and terrorize puts both women and children squarely in harm’s way.

Strangulation should represent a bright red line for our courts and communities, where excuses end and accountability begins. Nothing less will deliver justice to vulnerable victims.

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