Practice blog

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.

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.

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

Top tips: Working with victims of gang violence

Conflict is inevitable in young people's lives, but practitioners can empower young people to understand and manage it, says Nik Pitcher, Senior Trainer at Leap Confronting Conflict and the organisation's lead for the Young People's Programme.

Here, Nik gives some advice to help practitioners engage young women affected by gang-related abuse.

  • Help young women to understand risk. When supporting young women, it is important to first understand what they feel they are gaining from a gang relationship. You will also support them by helping to define what abuse means, and what the potential risks of being associated with a gang member are. Help them understand how to make informed choices to reduce risk.
  • Build resilience and strength. Our research suggests just one positive, non-abusive relationship in which a young woman's authenticity, life experience, skill, ability and achievements are affirmed can significantly increase self-esteem and self-efficacy. That one person could be you.
  • Address multiple factors. A comprehensive and holistic service is needed to address the issues of immediate safety, physical, emotional, sexual and mental health, parenting, drug and alcohol awareness, education and employment. You can also help young women by providing space to affirm self-image and build confidence and esteem.
  • Provide trusted support. Tackling negative relationships needs to happen on two levels: by establishing trustworthy and supportive relationships between you and the young women you work with, and by supporting young women to reflect on their current and previous experiences. It is particularly important to offer a female-only space to talk about and tackle the difficult challenges of rape and sexual exploitation.
  • Engage with immediate family. Girls and young women who are siblings of young people actively involved in gang activity cannot be forgotten. They are relatively easy to identify and they need targeted support to help them deal with their situation.

Find out more

This content originally appeared in our newsletter in January 2014 and reflected our views at the time.
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By Kate

Top tips for Marac coordinators

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between July and October 2013 and reflected our views at the time. 

From administrative to strategic management duties, Marac coordinators can cover a whole multitude of roles. Coordinators from across the country offer their top tips for effective working.

Building awareness

Creating promotional materials
“As part of my role, I'm responsible for identifying and engaging with new agencies to ensure they're represented at Marac. To help with this, I've put together a leaflet and poster, asking professionals to 'Remember Marac', which explains what the Marac is and how to refer in a case. I have circulated these to all Marac representatives and asked them to leave them in key places around their offices to help encourage a wide range of agency referrals.” Beth Aynsley, Cardiff

Holding events
“I've been a coordinator for five years now, and helped to set up the Marac process in this area. We've had good relationships with agencies throughout this time, and I think one of the things that has helped this are the ongoing Marac awareness events, which we run twice a year. This helps to promote Marac within agencies: particularly those where staff turnover is high. It gives a real insight into domestic abuse and Marac, and explores how partner agencies fit into the process. Where appropriate, we also invite survivors who have been through the Marac process themselves to speak, which really helps to emphasise to attendees why they should be referring into Marac. I also follow this up with specific team training for agencies if they require it.” Pip Burrows, North Worcestershire

Training and collaboration

Be visible
“In Cumbria we are always looking to recruit other organisations who may benefit the Marac process, as well as increase referrals. Delivering free training throughout the county and attending team meetings to raise awareness has helped to increase the number of referrals we receive.” Joanne Belas, Cumbria

A point of contact
“My role is really varied: I obviously work closely with our main partner agencies, but I also liaise with a wide range of potential referral agencies. While communication and organisation are key, collaborating with such a large number of teams means it's the little things make a huge difference too: always being available as a point of contact for any queries, giving positive feedback when things have worked well and generally making the Marac meeting a comfortable and welcoming environment can really help. Biscuits always go down well too – especially chocolate!” Sonia Knight, West Sussex

Local links
“In addition to a regional Humberside steering group, here in North Lincolnshire we regularly hold one at a local level too. This means that our key agencies can all input into any decisions that are made regarding the running of the Marac. I think this helps to make everyone feel as though Marac is something that belongs to us all and is a big support to me as coordinator.” Kristy Burns, North Lincolnshire (Scunthorpe)

Before and after the meeting

Engaging with agencies
“I check outstanding actions and chase agencies prior to the meeting by emailing them a copy of their outstanding actions. Similarly, if the number of referrals seems low, I often send a polite reminder to agencies informing them of the cut-off date and inviting them to submit their referrals.” Karen Lolotte, Suffolk

Planning ahead
“All the reps are given the dates for the following year's Marac meeting every October, so they can plan ahead more easily and ensure they are available to attend.” Alan Thompson, Oxfordshire

Feeding back
“I record statistics on all Marac cases for our strategic public protection unit, such as contributory factors and case analysis (whether it's a repeat, how many children are in the home, pregnancies, vulnerable people etc). I also provide a breakdown according to whether the victim is from a BAMER community, identifies as LGBT, is disabled, whether they are male and, more recently, if the victim or perpetrator is aged 16–17 years. This information is then used to review local services by our strategic group.” Wendy Whiteley, Halton and Warrington