Working with Parents - An essential guide to… Coercive control


What is coercive control, how does this form of domestic abuse affect young children, and what support is available to families? Meredith Jones Russell reports

In its new draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the Government has specifically included coercive control in its definition of domestic abuse for the first time. The draft bill will introduce measures to address coercive control, or controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse, as well as economic abuse and how domestic abuse affects children.

After falling twice, first due to the prorogation of Parliament and then because of the General Election, the bill will now be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament. As a result of the bill, England and Wales will join Scotland in recognising coercive control as an element of domestic abuse. Scotland has defined coercive control as domestic abuse since it passed its Domestic Abuse Act in April 2019.

The inclusion of coercive control in the definition follows several high-profile cases which have brought the issue into the spotlight, such as that of Sally Challen, whose murder conviction for the killing of her husband was overturned on the basis of diminished responsibility after she was subjected to what the judge called ‘years of controlling, isolating and humiliating conduct’.

COMMON EXAMPLES

According to Women’s Aid, some common examples of coercive control are:

  • being isolated from friends and family
  • being deprived of basic needs, such as food
  • having time monitored
  • being monitored via online tools such as spyware
  • aspects of everyday life being controlled, such as where you can go, who you can see, what you can wear and when you can sleep
  • being deprived of access to support services, such as medical services
  • being repeatedly put down
  • being humiliated, degraded or dehumanised
  • having finances controlled
  • being threatened or intimidated.

Coercive control, which has been compared by Evan Stark of Rutgers University to being taken hostage, was not made a criminal offence in England and Wales until 2015, when it became punishable by up to five years in prison.

‘The victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser,’ explains Professor Stark, ‘entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.’

As awareness of controlling behaviour grows, reported incidents have been on the rise too. In 2018/19, the number of coercive control offences in England and Wales had doubled from the previous year.

Although the issue is largely assumed to affect women, according to research commissioned by IBB Solicitors, more than a third of men in the UK have admitted to being the victim of coercive control.

MALE VICTIMS

Ippo Panteloudakis, head of services at Respect, which runs a confidential helpline, email and webchat service for domestic abuse perpetrators and those supporting them, says it is important to note that coercive control can often affect men too.

‘Many male victims who contact our men’s advice line are not experiencing physical violence and question whether they should be asking for help or whether they will be believed,’ he says.

‘It is difficult to quantify coercive control, and if you haven’t experienced it, it’s easy to dismiss it by saying, “Why don’t you leave?” The right question to ask is, “Why doesn’t the perpetrator stop?”

‘The legal recognition of coercive control will encourage more victims to come forward for help and it will, hopefully, change society’s perception, removing the stigma and embarrassment victims experience.’

However, analysis of Merseyside Police domestic abuse data by Women’s Aid found that women still make up 95 per cent of those who experience coercive control, while 74 per cent of perpetrators are men. The charity is adamant that domestic abuse remains a gendered crime.

Certainly, instances of domestic violence often increase during pregnancy, and it is estimated that between four and nine in every 100 pregnant women are abused during their pregnancy or soon after the birth.

‘There is an element of control in it for a lot of men when they have got a woman pregnant and they want to show she is theirs, and so is the child,’ explains Amna Abdullatif, children and young people’s officer at Women’s Aid. ‘Abuse reinforces the power mechanism at play for a lot of men and begins for children from the very start of life.’

IMPACT ON CHILDREN

A high proportion of children living with domestic abuse are also abused by the same perpetrator. Estimates vary from 30 per cent to 66 per cent. However, even when the child is not physically abused, coercive control can have an effect on them.

Ms Abdullatif continues, ‘Coercive control is often about blocking what the mother does, but as their child’s primary carer, this becomes the child’s experience as well. What impacts a mother impacts a child.

‘A father may try to negatively impact the mother-child relationship, often using feeding as a time to start abuse, which makes the process more difficult for mother and baby as they start to associate it with a negative outburst.

‘When the child is a toddler, the abuser can then try to influence where the mother and child go, so a toddler loses the chance to go to the park or play with friends.

‘In this way, they build a gulf between mother and child. Often a mother will try to protect their child, or find it too hard to build a relationship with them, scared their child may be taken away.’

Typical signs

It can be very hard to spot signs of domestic abuse in young children, Ms Abdullatif says, but they might respond in some specific ways.

She explains, ‘Sometimes we see children who grow up in an environment of abuse showing very adult responses to things and a need to look after people, often comforting others by patting them and saying “it’s OK” at a very early age, maybe two or three. This might be because they have needed to take care of their parent in a similar way, or because they have experienced their parent doing that for them after an outburst.’

While children may mimic behaviour they have witnessed by lashing out or becoming violent, many will have learned to be quiet.

Ms Abdullatif says, ‘Especially at a young age, children may be very shut down and reserved, not talking a lot because they have learned that being too noisy is “wrong”. Acting out tends to occur more when they are older.’

She adds that boys who have witnessed domestic abuse are often more likely to act out and display aggressive behaviour, while girls are more likely to subdue their emotions. ‘This is often because they are acting out the roles they have seen at home,’ she explains.

However, she acknowledges that displaying any of these responses at a young age is relatively rare. ‘The majority of young children do not express anything, but block things out and carry on, and use friends, extended family and other supportive adults around them as a coping mechanism.’

SUPPORT

Professional support for the 690 children in England who face the threat of domestic violence every day, according to Action for Children, is therefore vital to offer them an escape from their home environment and an outlet to seek help. However, the charity’s investigation into domestic abuse services in 30 councils across England and Wales found:

  • More than 10 per cent of councils had no specialist support services for children affected by domestic abuse.
  • Access to children’s domestic abuse services was restricted by their postcode in more than a third of local authorities.
  • Two-thirds said their children’s services are at risk long-term due to limited funding.

With domestic abuse costing England and Wales £66 billion a year, the charity Refuge has reported cuts to 80 per cent of its services since 2011, while funding for refuges across the country has been cut by nearly £7 million since 2010.

Ms Abdullatif explains, ‘We don’t have the services to deal with the numbers of children who need support. A large proportion of our refuge provision has been cut, and the population of our refuges are always vastly more children than women, because women bring their children with them.’

GOVERNMENT COMMITMENTS

Between the draft bill and its consultation response, the Government has made 120 commitments to tackle domestic abuse. Among these are a series of non-legislative measures, including:

  • £8 million of Home Office funding to support children affected by domestic abuse
  • a new crisis support system for those with no recourse to public funds
  • an additional £500,000 funding for provisions for male victims.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, says the Domestic Abuse Bill has ‘the potential to create a step change in the national response’, but warns that it must be backed up with ‘sustainable funding’ for specialist support services.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, agrees, calling the bill a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to address domestic violence’, providing ‘its aspirations are matched by adequate resource’.

Ms Abdullatif warns that the general nature of the promises in the bill as it stands need to become more concrete if the Government is to help children in families that are controlling or abusive.

‘One of the biggest things that needs to come from this bill is ensuring coercive control and harm are better understood. I have seen social workers receive half a day’s training on all forms of domestic abuse, when coercive control should be an entire training programme in itself.

‘The problem at the moment is that the bill does not actually specify any guidelines on how to help children. In reality, children are often quite invisible with regards to this kind of abuse. People often prefer to think that a child is fine as long as they are not being hurt directly. It is one thing talking about the harm this can cause children, but we must be able to provide the necessary support for them too.’

Case study

Jane’s* husband insisted on having control of all her movements at all times. He wanted to know who she was with, where she was going and when she would be home, and got angry if she ever changed her plans. She was expected to go to work, come home, look after their young son, and go to bed, and any diversion from this resulted in a huge argument.

One Christmas, she agreed to go for a meal with her team at work. While she was eating her main course, she got a text. Her husband had sent her a photo of their son’s new haircut. Without any discussion, he had shaved the boy’s head, supposedly to ‘punish’ her for spending too much time without him.

*Name has been changed

Domestic abuse defined

Domestic abuse is defined in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill as:

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, economic and emotional forms of abuse.

‘Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour.

‘Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse.’

Domestic abuse in numbers

  • For every three victims of domestic abuse, two will be female and one will be male.
  • One in four women and one in six to seven men suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime.
  • Around 2.4 million adults experienced domestic abuse in 2018/19. Of these, 1.6 million were women and 786,000 men.
  • One in seven children and young people under the age of 18 live with domestic violence at some point in their childhood.
  • 130,000 children in the UK live in homes with domestic abuse where there is a high risk of murder or serious harm.
  • 62 per cent of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse.
  • On average, victims at high risk of serious harm or murder live with domestic abuse for between two and three years before getting help.
  • 85 per cent of victims seek help five times on average from professionals in the year before they get effective help.
  • In relationships where there is domestic violence and abuse, children witness about three-quarters of the abusive incidents.


Signs of domestic abuse

According to the NSPCC, signs that a child has witnessed domestic abuse can include:

  • aggression or bullying
  • anti-social behaviour
  • anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts
  • attention seeking
  • bed-wetting, nightmares or insomnia
  • constant or regular sickness, such as colds, headaches and mouth ulcers
  • problems in school or trouble learning
  • tantrums
  • withdrawal.

In response

If a child talks to you about domestic abuse, it is important to:

  • listen carefully to what they are saying
  • let them know they have done the right thing by telling you
  • let them know it is not their fault
  • say you will take them seriously
  • refrain from confronting the alleged abuser
  • explain what you will do next
  • report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

MORE INFORMATION

Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, https://bit.ly/32nFqiW

Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act, https://bit.ly/2PkFvyJ

The economic and social costs of domestic abuse, https://bit.ly/2HS7XDG

Legal guidance on controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, https://bit.ly/39X3Y4T

Domestic abuse in England and Wales overview, https://bit.ly/2VhX9a7

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