Practice blog

An introduction to coercive control

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control describes a range or pattern of behaviours that enable a perpetrator to maintain or regain control of a partner, ex-partner or family member.

In March 2013, the cross-government definition of domestic abuse was extended to include ‘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 sexuality.'

Last month (21st August), the Home Secretary opened a consultation to establish whether a specific offence capturing patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships should be introduced.

What are the characteristics of coercive control?

The types of coercive control being used will differ from victim to victim. Perpetrators will often use a combination of tactics and/or take advantage of any perceived weaknesses or insecurities in order to maximise the victim's distress. Some examples might include:

  • Controlling or observing the victim's daily activities, including: making them account for their time; restricting access to money; restricting their movements (including being locked in the property).
  • Isolating the victim from family and friends; intercepting messages or phone calls.
  • Constant criticism of victim's role as a partner, spouse or parent.
  • Threats of suicide/homicide/familicide.
  • Preventing the victim from taking medication or accessing care (especially relevant for victims with disabilities).
  • Using children to control their partner, eg threats to take the children away.
  • Extreme dominance; a sense of ‘entitlement' to partner or the partner's services, obedience etc - no matter what.
  • Extreme jealousy (“If I can't have you, no one can”), giving the victim cause to believe they will act on this.
  • Threats to damage the property and cause injury to pets.
  • Threats to expose sensitive information (eg sexual activity) or make false allegations to family members, religious or local community including via photos or the internet.
  • Involvement of wider family members or the community; crimes in the name of ‘honour'.
  • Manipulation of information given to professionals.

How prevalent is coercive control among victims of domestic abuse?

Data from CAADA's Insights service found that patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour were present in around 80% of cases. Among victims who experienced no physical abuse, only 17% made a report to the police.

What should I do if I suspect coercive control is taking place?

In the first instance:

  • Make a referral to a specialist domestic abuse or IDVA service at the earliest opportunity. Visit your local authority website for information on domestic abuse services in your area.
  • Consider making a referral to children's services to ensure any children are protected. Record any strategies that the perpetrator is using, for example: if the perpetrator does not let the victim leave the house, what is the impact on the child?
  • If you are working with a young person under the age of 18, refer to specialist young people's service where available locally, or to children's services where there are safeguarding concerns.

If you work with the victim on an ongoing basis, you should also:

  • Never assume an incident is a ‘one off' - look for patterns of abusive behaviour.
  • Be aware of the victim's levels of fear and the impact this is having on them and their children, including their family, social and work life. They may have difficulty articulating the abuse and what they are afraid of.
  • Refer to the Severity of Abuse Grid to help assess whether the harassment, stalking or emotional abuse is getting worse, or happening more often.
  • Suggest that the victim keeps a diary of events, where safe to do so, to enable them to gather evidence of the abuse. Use a Power and Control Wheel to help them articulate this.
  • Be mindful of inadvertently colluding with the perpetrator, and further isolating the victim. For example, the perpetrator may pose as a victim or manipulate professionals around them. If you have any concerns, speak to your local specialist domestic abuse or IDVA service.

Interview: Zoë Billingham, HMIC

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

‘The overall police response to victims of domestic abuse is not good enough': this was the conclusion drawn from the review of police forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) earlier this year. In a special interview for eNews, HMIC Inspector Zoë Billingham reflects on the implications of the review, and offers tips to police and practitioners on working together to tackle coercive control.

What key findings did the inspection make? 

That the police response to victims of domestic abuse is just not good enough. Forces told us that domestic abuse was a priority on paper, but we found that this just isn't being put into practice. What was most disappointing is the way in which victims of domestic abuse are being failed with respect to even the most basic elements of policing. Too often domestic abuse is seen as the 'poor relation' in comparison to other types of crime.

What impact have HMIC's recommendations had so far? 

We were really determined that any report we wrote didn't just sit on the shelf, but that it led to a real difference being made. We'll be continuing to work with the Home Secretary, the police and with women's voluntary organisations to make sure that the recommendations happen.

What findings and recommendations did you make around coercive control in particular? 

We identified that, while police are aware of the definition of domestic abuse, they're generally poor at being able to identify coercion and threatening, controlling behaviour on the frontline. We also found very limited examples of frontline response officers having been trained effectively in domestic abuse.

To combat this, we've recommended that the College of Policing conducts a thorough and fundamental review to ensure its training reflects the fact that domestic abuse – including coercive control – is core policing business and is relevant to all officers and staff. Forces have a tendency to use online e-learning packages as a cheap and easy way of training staff, but we know from our inspection that it's not a good way to learn. It's absolutely vital that police officers have the time and space to think and reflect on such an important issue, and a classroom setting is essential to this. The voluntary sector has a massive role to play in this too.

You talk about domestic abuse being the ‘poor relation' in comparison to other crimes. How can forces go about changing this organisational culture? 

We're asking Chief Constables and senior officers to review how they, as individuals and as leaders, give priority to domestic abuse. This includes looking carefully at the force's own culture and values, and its performance management framework. For instance - are officers that are really good at understanding victims rewarded through the selection and promotion processes? What sorts of messages do senior leaders send to their force about the importance of tackling domestic abuse? And so on.

What other advice can you give to senior officers to help them make changes within their force, particularly in relation to coercive control? 

The advice I would offer would be:

  1. Take on board the recommendations we've outlined in the report, and act on them. When you put together your action plan, make sure it's realistic – work with partners, victims and charities to develop it, and look at how you can move training away from e-learning to something that includes proper input from victims.

  2. The College of Policing is pulling together a range of evidence about what works in identifying and tackling domestic abuse, and identifying coercion and control. This will feed into updating the Authorised Professional Practice and training programmes for policing at a national level, and be delivered to staff through education at a local level. As soon as that's available make sure that you're aware of it.

  3. Lead by example and show that domestic abuse is a priority for you. Attend the training with frontline officers, talk about the issue on your blog and social media, and raise it with the public at roadshows and local groups.

What about frontline officers? What advice would you give to them? 

The best thing you can do when you go into a domestic abuse incident is:

  1. Make sure you've got all the available information. Things like a history of incidents at the property will help give you an idea of the nature of the relationship and who is likely to be the victim.

  2. Separate the parties immediately and listen carefully to what each has to tell you. Never jump to conclusions or make assumptions about the victim or their lifestyle. Be aware not just of what they are saying but how they are saying it, and observe whether they seem to be holding back. If the victim is being uncooperative, consider why this might be - it's possible they are simply terrified.

  3. Ask questions that will help you to ascertain whether this is a relationship which is controlling and abusive - remember that there doesn't have to be visible injuries in order for you to act.

  4. Above all, take your time. Doing the best you can to understand the relationship in front of you will help you to identify what support the victim needs, and what police action is required in order to protect them.

Finally, what can domestic abuse practitioners do to support the police? 

They have an invaluable role to play. In some areas, we're even seeing IDVAs accompanying police to incidents. In the report, we're extremely clear about the important role IDVAs play because we just couldn't conceive the overall response to victims being where it is without them. IDVAs give such extraordinary levels of support - often across all risk levels.

During the review, we found so many benefits in forces where IDVAs are co-located either in police stations, or working in the specialist domestic abuse or protecting vulnerable people units. It's not just the support the IDVAs provide to the victims that's important, it's the knowledge and understanding that IDVAs bring into an organisation, a police force.


Tips for domestic abuse practitioners: Helping other agencies respond to coercive control

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

Top tips for domestic abuse practitioners from our Learning and Quality Services Manager, Jo Morrish.

As a domestic abuse practitioner, you are an expert on coercive control. But the agencies you work with may find it a troubling issue, might not understand and may feel unprepared to tackle. So it's crucial that you are proactive about sharing safe practice and building awareness with other professionals on the frontline.

The problem: Incidents of abuse are identified in isolation 

If a client reports an incident to the police, the police should look back through the history of the case to gain a fuller picture of the abuse. If agencies only look at isolated incidents, it's easy to underestimate the severity of the abuse and put the victim at even greater risk.

The solution:

  • Identify examples of behaviour that can indicate future harm, using the Severity of Abuse Grid. This may include obsessive phone calls or messages (including on social media), uninvited visits to the victim's home or workplace, loitering, and destroyed or vandalised property.

Useful resource: CAADA Domestic Abuse, Stalking and ‘Honour'-Based Violence (DASH) MARAC Risk Identification Checklist. Includes the Risk Identification Checklist, Severity of Abuse Grid and full IDVA practice guidance.

  • To help gather evidence of a pattern of abuse, where safe support the client to keep a diary of events including screenshots of messages on social media and copies of letters or emails. Recommend that they maintain any messages/gifts that are sent to them, and use all this as evidence when making a report to the police. Keeping clear case files will also support this information.Compiling evidence in this way will help to encourage appropriate use of stalking legislation by police, and if they use new powers of entry they'll also be able to gather forensic evidence. 
  • Talk to key services such as police and suggest allocating a single point of contact for the victim, such as the investigating officer, to collate past and future incidents to identify patterns of abusive behaviour.

The problem: Perpetrator behaviour is not being effectively addressed

Perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour are often adept at manipulating those around them – including professionals.

The solution:

  • If you see evidence that an agency is inadvertently colluding with the perpetrator, challenge it. Similarly, at MARAC, if you feel a perpetrator's behaviour is not being actively addressed or ‘closed down' (ie, by taking steps to divert, manage, disrupt or prosecute), be sure to raise your concerns with the Chair and work in partnership to address them. 

Useful resource: Guidance for MARACs: Addressing the abusive behaviour of alleged perpetrators.

  • Perpetrators may make allegations against the victim, so it is important that partner agencies are aware. Using a screening or assessment tool will help establish any underlying controlling behaviours that indicate the primary victim or perpetrator. If the perpetrator is found to be making false allegations, this should be used as evidence of abuse. 

Useful resource: Responding to counter-allegations.

The problem: Wider risks to the family are not being identified

Coercive control can affect not just the victim, but the whole family. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are more likely to harm their children both physically and sexually, while the impact on children of watching a parent being abused can be as negative for a child as being abused directly. The perpetrator may force the child to take their side, undermine the victim's relationship with the children or prevent them from caring for the children.

The solution:

  • Liaise with partner agencies – including Children's Social Care – to ensure that you address the impact of the abuse on the children, and that other professionals understand the complexities of coercive control taking place. This will ensure that children and the victim are supported and protected on an ongoing basis.

Useful resource: The Batterer as Parent by Lundy Bancroft, Jay G Silverman and Daniel Ritchie.

  • Encourage a ‘team around the family' approach at MARAC, identifying separate lead workers for the victim, perpetrator and children to engage and co-ordinate the safeguarding response.

Useful resource: Guidance for MARACs: National MARAC Scrutiny Panel: Coercive control

  • Work with other agencies to identify aggravating factors, including any mental health or substance misuse issues.

 Useful resources: Child Protection, Domestic Violence and Parental Substance Misuse by Hedy Cleaver, Don Nicholson, Sukey Tarr and Deborah Cleaver, and Domestic Violence and Child Protection edited by Cathy Humphreys and Nicky Stanley.

Young people at risk: online intimate abuse and coercive control

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

New technology creates another avenue for young people to display coercive and controlling behaviours, says Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation and one of the Young People's Programme partners. She explains how practitioners can best support young victims of online abuse. For an audio version of this blog, visit our Soundcloud profile or scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Early findings from the Young People's Programme showed that young people are experiencing high levels of harassment and stalking, jealous and controlling behaviours and emotional abuse. As using a mobile phone and the internet is now the default position for young people when communicating with friends, the abuse frequently takes place online in addition to offline behaviours.

Examples of online abuse include:

  • Being encouraged to send compromising and/or illegal explicit sexual images of themselves, or to ‘talk' in an explicit sexual manner, often with threats or blackmail that this will be sent to others.
  • Multiple mobile phone calls, emails and/or text messages from their partner.
  • Being asked to take photos showing who they are with/where they are.
  • Being forced to give their partner passwords for social media, email accounts etc.
  • Contact from adults pretending to be younger, which can lead to grooming.

Why is online abuse more prevalent among young people?

  • Widespread use of smart phones means young people are continually accessible.
  • Abusive online communication is often hidden from a caring parent, adult or peer, who is then unable to take protective action.
  • Young people are less inhibited online, including the nature of the images they may send to one another. They may take spontaneous actions which could be used against them as a threat or blackmail.

Young people may be reluctant to disclose abuse as it's likely they have built emotional dependency on their partner. They may be feeling embarrassed and ashamed about the highly sexualised nature of their language when communicating online. They might also fear they will be judged as being an active partner in the abusive scenario and therefore partly responsible for what happened to them. Fear of peer group and family responses to what young people have done is another reason why they might be reluctant to talk about what happened.

How to help young people experiencing online abuse

  • Build a rapport with the young person and be honest about your concerns. Allow them to engage at their own pace. 
  • It is important that you know how young people communicate online. When asking the questions as part of your risk assessment, give examples of how abuse can take place online so that young people can identify and feel confident that you know how to respond to their disclosure.
  • Don't press the issue if the young person doesn't disclose. Instead work with the young person on a more general theme of what coercive/abusive behaviour is and how it can take place via social media/online.
    • How often do you use internet/social media to chat with your partner/ex-partner?
    • What sites do you use to do this? Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat/IM etc.
    • How secure are your accounts?
    • Have you shared passwords with girlfriend/boyfriend/anyone you know including people you trust? What access do they have?
    • What kind of things do you talk about?
    • Does he/she ever say nasty things to you online (in private or public online spaces)? What do they say? How does this make you feel?
    • Does he/she threaten you online? If so, what kind of threats? How does it make you feel?
    • Do you share any intimate pictures or information about yourself online/on social media? Do they make you do this? What happens if you don't? How does it make you feel?
    • What is their online profile? What names do they use? Do they have more than one online profile? 
  • The young person may minimise both the nature of the abusive content and the amount of coercive content that they receive from their partner. They may even deny any abusive activity.
  • When you use the Young People's Version of the CAADA-DASH Risk Identification Checklist to risk assess, consider online abuse as part of the assessment.

Top tips: 'Asking the question'

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between April and May 2014 and reflected our views at the time. Caada is the previous name of SafeLives.

To encourage a young person to share details about their personal life and the abuse they are experiencing, you first need to build a relationship with them, explains Jill Prodenchuk, Senior Regional Development Officer at Caada for the Young People's Programme.

Creating a suitable environment for disclosure

  • Remember that it may take a few meetings before you build a relationship with the young person and they open up.
  • Always try to use a familiar location where the young person will feel comfortable opening up to you, taking into account any safety concerns. For example, if you are meeting a young person at school, make sure that their partner does not attend the same school or that your meeting can be disguised as something else so that it doesn't cause suspicion.

Useful resources

Discussing healthy relationships

  • Start the conversation by discussing confidentiality. You should be clear that, in most cases, the experience of relationship abuse by a young person will be a safeguarding issue and will require a referral to the safeguarding children team. This will create transparency and clarity for the young person about how and when the information they disclose might be used and shared and it will prevent them from feeling betrayed. It's important to handle this carefully, so that the young person doesn't shut down and disengage. A practical and genuine approach will be most effective. You may wish to use words such as: If we talk about things that concern me, I will need to tell other agencies so that we can help keep you safe. How do you feel about that?
  • Young people may not be aware they are in an abusive relationship. Have a conversation about what a healthy relationship is, and then ask the young person questions such as: How do you think your relationship compares to this? Where is it similar or dissimilar?
  • Use tools to help you guide the conversation, such as the Teen Power and Control Wheel which gives a thorough list of example abusive behaviours.
  • You could discuss the young person's ideal relationship and encourage them to think about how their current relationship compares to this. For example: Describe to me what your perfect boyfriend/girlfriend would be like . Following this, ask: Is (name of partner) anything like this?
  • View an online video and encourage the young person to spot the signs of abuse, or use an online quiz and discuss the results. See links below for examples.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge young people if their understanding of what a healthy relationship is makes them unsafe.

Useful resources

  • Download the Teen Power and Control Wheel, a visual display of different types of abuse that occur in abusive relationships, developed by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.
  • Access resources including videos, quizzes and information on what abuse at the This is Abuse' website or visit The Hideout website for more resources on how to help young people understand domestic abuse and what to do if it is happening to them.

Identifying risk

  • Use the Young People's Version of CAADA-DASH Risk Identification Checklist which will guide you through a conversation with the young person to identify the levels of risk they face.
  • The outcome of the Checklist can be used to highlight to the young person that they are in an abusive relationship. It is important that this is handled in a sensitive manner. Revealing to a young person that they are at high risk of serious harm or homicide may well be frightening and overwhelming. State what your concerns are exactly by using the answers the young person gave to you and by explaining your professional reasoning/judgement.
  • Explain to the young person what the next steps are to be, eg risk management; safety plans; referrals to children's safeguarding teams and a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (Marac). In every case that is referred to a Marac, a referral to children's social care should also be made.

Useful resources

  • Access the Young People's Version of CAADA-DASH Risk Identification Checklist.
  • Read the accompanying Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Access the Young People's Programme care pathway and the accompanying guidance.

We would also like to include special thanks to Young People's Violence Advisors: Shirin Taherzadeh and Amy Byrum for their input in composing this guidance.

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By Kate