Under Claire's wing

Claire Osment endured years of torment from an ex-partner before escaping, but has now received an MBE for her services to other women facing abuse after setting up Ongoing Women’s Local Support

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When Claire Osment planned a night out in Blackpool with friends from work, her ex-partner would smash the house up. He would throw her phone and hairbrushes out of the window and subject her to silent treatment during the run-up to the night out.

When the day arrived, he would offer her a lift to wherever she was going.

“I just thought that was nice because it saved me on a taxi but looking back now it’s because he wanted to know who I was meeting.”

When she was out, he would bombard her with text messages demanding to know what she was doing and who she was talking to.

“I would have to answer him because if I didn’t, I knew his mood would be horrendous when I got in and he would be screaming in my face.”

I am interviewing Osment at Ongoing Women’s Local Support (OWLS) in Stockport, a peer support group offering help to women who have been through or are going through domestic abuse. OWLS is an organisation started by Osment herself three and a half years after she found the strength to leave her abusive partner.

With the support of the police and Women’s Aid, Osment fled from Blackpool to a Stockport women’s refuge with her 15-year-old daughter Courteney. In January this year she received an MBE from Prince William at Windsor Castle for services to domestic abuse in Stockport.

As I wait for her to arrive, I am welcomed into the lounge by Courteney and invited to sit on a large, comfortable sofa with the black office Labrador resting at my feet. A volunteer smiles as she tells me the dog provides emotional support to anyone who needs it.

At the end of last year Osment made her daughter the first paid volunteer at OWLS.

“I love working with my mum,” Courteney tells me. She says the best thing about being in the safe house in Stockport was “getting the bond back with my mum and being able to spend time with her again as I was never allowed to back in Blackpool”.

The scent of rich coffee wafts out of the bustling kitchen next to the sitting room filled with women’s laughter. A steaming mug is placed before me accompanied by a vast assortment of biscuits. It’s not Christmas time but it feels like it here.

“He told me I’d be nothing without him. But that’s not true.”

As I listen to the staff members chatting, overflowing with pride at Osment’s recent MBE I take a moment to appreciate what a far cry this is from Osment’s life back in Blackpool.

“My ex-partner knocked me down,” she says. “He took away my confidence and destroyed me as a person. He told me I’d be nothing without him.

“But that’s not true, I’ve gone from setting up a coffee morning to becoming a national multi-award winning group to receiving an MBE.”

“Everyone who works at OWLS has first-hand experience of domestic abuse and I want it to stay this way.

“I want women who have been through domestic abuse volunteering for me because when somebody asks us ‘Do you get me?’ we can say ‘Yes, we really do.’”

Osment was 43 years old when she had the lightbulb moment that led to her escape from her ex.

Three days into a holiday with her mum, a trip she says her partner “surprisingly” let her go on, she asked her if she could go to the shops. “My mum said to me: ‘Claire, you’re 43! Why are asking me if you can go the shop?’”

Osment broke down. “I told my mum I couldn’t do it anymore. I feel like a prisoner in my own home.”

This realisation came after – unrelated to the abuse she was suffering – Osment broke her neck twice and suffered a stroke. When she came round from surgery her partner was sitting at her bedside.

After he left the hospital the girl in the bed opposite asked her: “Do you know he recorded you for a good 45 minutes? That’s not right.”

“I thought this is really weird now,” she says.

Following her operations Osment was more dependent on her partner for support, an opportunity he seized. “He took control of everything,” she recalls – from the finances to the food she ate.

“When I met him, I was a gym freak and he’d make little hints to me saying he wished I was that size again and that he missed the girl he fell in love with.”

When she met her mum on a Monday, she would have to send him a photo to prove where she was and who she was with.

He also bought her clothes in the size she was before her operations.

The abuse she experienced was relentless and when she met her mum on a Monday, she would have to send him a photo to prove where she was and who she was with.

On her return from holiday, armed with a fresh perspective she contacted the charity Women’s Aid, and it supported her to create a safety plan for her and her daughter.

She tells me the decision to leave her ex was a “terrifying move”, but her anxieties were eased by a warm welcome from staff at the Stockport refuge.

The charity provided Osment and her daughter with a large family room with more than enough space for them both. They had a big, fitted kitchen and a huge deep bath.

“I still miss those baths,” she laughs.

After a short stay at the refuge Osment found housing but the emotional and practical support she was receiving ended abruptly due to funding cuts. “I went from getting all this help to absolutely nothing,” she says.

During a meeting with her housing officer, Osment told her that since she had left the refuge her phone had not stopped ringing from other survivors still in, or who had just left the local safe house asking for advice or just a chat.

The Stockport Homes officer suggested to her that she set up her own coffee morning as a peer support group. She laughs in disbelief when she tells me: “I said to her I’ve had my ex-partner telling me I’m thick and I’m stupid so I can’t set up a group. I’ll never be able to do it.”

Despite battling debilitating self-doubt, she overcame her fears and hosted her first OWLS coffee morning. It quickly gained momentum.

Domestic abuse survivors who attended asked her if she could accompany them to court, which initiated her buddy system. A handful enquired if they could have one-to-one support, which inspired her peer support service. Another woman asked if she delivered the Freedom Programme, a domestic violence awareness course. This motivated Osment to apply for funding for the programme, and her application was successful.

“Then we needed premises,” she says. Additional funding applications were submitted, and the Stockport Local Fund agreed to award her £10,000.

She came up with the name Ongoing Women’s Local Support (OWLS) inspired by her own experience of the support she was receiving ending so abruptly.

Alison called OWLS for advice and tells me the most valuable thing to her is the support doesn’t end. “That’s the point of OWLS – it’s ongoing women’s support. Claire realises that just because you’ve had counselling for 12 weeks you’re not better. Something can still trigger you.”

Alison has attended around six sessions at OWLS and says when she called them for support it was the first time she had spoken to someone who understood her.

“I knew Claire understood because I said I felt embarrassed that I’d gone from one abusive relationship to another, and she said to me that had happened to her. So I could relate to her straight away.”

OWLS has continued to grow. Before the pandemic it was receiving 21 referrals a month. During Covid this rose to 108 and it currently receives around 80-90 referrals a month.

Claire’s been through domestic abuse, and she’d tell me things and I’d look how far she’s come

After fleeing domestic abuse just over a year ago Maya* who now volunteers for OWLS got referred to the service. She says without their support she would not be here physically or mentally.

“They’ve made me into a person again. Claire’s been through domestic abuse, and she’d tell me things and I’d look how far she’s come and how well she’s done and think that could be me.”

Motivated by her own experiences of leaving her ex-partner multiple times and going back, Osment reassures survivors of domestic abuse who are still in an abusive relationship.

“All you need to know is when you are ready to leave, OWLS is here for you. Even if you come to our premises and we ring up Manchester domestic abuse helpline and get you refuge space we are here or if you decide to stay in the relationship we are here because women go back, I went back twice because he knew what to say and what buttons to push.”

Osment is open about her own recovery from domestic abuse and says it is not linear, but ongoing. Despite running a successful business and receiving her recent MBE, she says she can still be plagued by self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and triggered by memories of abuse.

She uses grounding techniques and self-care to help her cope. “If I am triggered, I go back to a moment when I was happy. I love the sound of water. When I was little, I would sit under a willow tree with my feet hanging in the river. I go back to that memory – it helps.”

* Name has been changed

Photo: Claire Osment with her daughter Courteney (Aaron Bray)

Ongoing Women’s Local Support (OWLS)

How long to leave?

*There are many reasons why families live with domestic abuse for a significant period or return to their abuser after attempting to leave.

*It may not be apparent to the victim that a relationship is abusive. They may be afraid of the abuser and fear the consequences for others if they disclose the abuse. The victim may not know where to turn for help

*On average high-risk victims live with domestic abuse for 2.3 years and medium risk victims for three years before getting help.

*85% of victims sought help on average five times from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse.

*On average victims experience 50 incidents of abuse before getting effective help.

*Each year there are over 1 million calls to police in England and Wales about domestic abuse, and on average someone contacts the police every 30 seconds for help with domestic abuse.

Statistics and information from Safelives

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