Policy blog

Reflections on a landmark year for Scotland

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold, it’s hard to escape the troubling times facing us all – but our thoughts are particularly with those adult and child victims living with abusive perpetrators, where home is not a place of safety, but a place where they will face a potential increase in violence and psychological abuse as well as even greater isolation. Now more than ever, support services are crucial and the police must remain alert to domestic abuse in its many forms.

On the 1st April 2019 the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act came into force, providing greater safety for victims of domestic abuse, by making coercive control illegal for the first time in Scotland.  In the 12 months since, almost 1,700 offences have been recorded.

Coercive control involves deliberate tactics to isolate, undermine, threaten and degrade victims. It is a subtle, insidious crime, and it was vital that the legislation was accompanied by training, tools and awareness raising measures to help relevant professionals spot the signs and respond appropriately.

Thanks to funding from the Scottish Government, we’ve been able to put some of those measures in place. Working closely with Police Scotland and our partners ASSIST, the Caledonian System, Sacro (Fearless) and Scottish Borders Safer Communities team, we’ve been delivering our domestic abuse programme for the police: Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland.

Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland provides a practical awareness of the legislation and offers long-term attitudinal and behavioural change by helping the police understand what is meant by the term ‘coercive control’ and the specific manifestations and impacts of it. It also prompts officers to think about children – who don’t just ‘witness’ abuse in the home, but experience it and are victims in their own right; and it explores the tactics used by perpetrators to manipulate both victims and police responders.

As well as specially developed e-learning we’ve delivered face to face training with nearly 14,000 officers and staff, using a dual-trainer model with every session being delivered by a trainer with a proven police background alongside a domestic abuse specialist. From the executive team and frontline officers, to control room staff and Specials, a wide range of police staff and officers have engaged in the programme.

Preliminary evaluation results have shown that since completing the training 84% of respondents felt very or extremely competent at understanding the key provisions of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act and how to apply the new Section 1 offence, compared to 10% before the training. 95% felt very or extremely competent after the training at understanding the tactics perpetrators of domestic abuse demonstrate when they are coercively controlling their victims, compared to 20% before. We have also trained almost 700 Domestic Abuse Champions who will take forward the learning and help sustain the change.

COVID-19 presents new challenges for us all. At a time when we are all asked to stay at home for our own safety, we must remember that home is not a place of safety for many people. Now more than ever, we need a comprehensive response to domestic abuse that sees the impact on the whole family.

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act and the completion of our Domestic Abuse Matters Scotland programme puts the police in good stead to protect victims across Scotland. But we won’t stop there. This work must be ongoing – with a continued focus, determination and commitment to ensuring all adult and child victims get the support they need to become safe and well.

At SafeLives, our latest focus is to create an online awareness-raising tool about coercive control and domestic abuse legislation for the widest range of organisations and we look forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and all of our partners to ensure home can become a place of safety. For everyone.

Coercive and controlling behaviour in a family relationship

Becki Meakin – General Manager, Shaping Our Lives

Becki is a disabled person with expertise in the inclusive involvement of people from marginalised and under-represented communities. She has conducted many user-led research studies into the inequalities experienced by people when they use health and social care services. She has also worked with a range of organisations to develop inclusive involvement strategies including the British Association of Social Workers and the University of Essex. Becki appeared in the BBC Top 100 Women's Series 2018/19 for work with disabled women experiencing violence and abuse; raising awareness of the barriers disabled women face when trying to access support services. In this piece, alongside a previous blog by Cyrene Siriwardhana of Surviving Economic Abuse, Becki argues for the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour to be extended to family members who aren't living together.

Controlling or Coercive Behaviour by a partner, ex-partner or family member is already recognised as domestic abuse, and is an offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. But section 76 contains two exclusions which leave certain victims unprotected by the criminal law, namely, anyone being abused by a family member or ex-partner who is not living with them.

The need to plug this gap in the law is illustrated by the account of the survivor Jane*. Jane’s abuse lasted 22 years, only ending with the death of her sister. Several safeguarding alerts were raised with Social Services by concerned friends and local charities, but fear induced by coercion inhibited her from discussing the reality of her degrading situation, to which she had become thoroughly habituated. The Office of the Public Guardian also declined to intervene. Without any possibility of a ‘victimless’ domestic abuse prosecution, the Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 were both effectively powerless to safeguard this lady.

There is no other suitable offence for tackling this kind of abuse. It is not in general covered by offences of stalking or harassment. Elderly or disabled people who live alone, but are dependent in some way on a relative, are particularly vulnerable to exactly the same kind of controlling or coercive behaviour – and in particular economic abuse – as can be perpetrated by relatives living at the same address. It is the relationship of dependency, rather than their living arrangements, which enables control and coercion not only to take place but also to lie hidden from the authorities.

Jane’s story shows that this kind of abuse need not resemble stalking or harassment any more than does controlling or coercive behaviour between partners, or between relatives/ex-partners who live together.

The case for change is explained more fully in a joint submission by Shaping Our Lives and Andrew Todd to the Joint Select Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19.

Action on Elder Abuse found that over 50% of financial abuse reported to them is carried out by adult children. They said, “elder abuse within older people’s own homes … often perpetrated by members of their own family ... is the hidden abuse of UK society”.

Shaping Our Lives advised in relation to disabled victims, caring relationships provide additional opportunities for perpetrators to abuse and coercively control. The perpetrator can coercively control the disabled person by withholding essential support such as food, medication or prevent them going out independently. This type of abuse can be done by a family member wherever they live and this type of coercive control would not be easily recognised by the legislation around stalking”.

Advice to government from a policing expert said, “there is a gap where harassment and stalking legislation does not explicitly cover behaviour within the context of a familial relationship”

The time has now come for this kind of abuse to be recognised by the criminal law for what it is, namely controlling or coercive behaviour in a family relationship. 

*name changed

Extending the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to post-separation (economic) abuse

Cyrene Siriwardhana is the Legal and Policy Advisor at Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA). In this blog she explains why SEA is campaigning to extend the definition of coercive and controlling behaviour to include post-separation abuse and economic abuse in particular. You can also read a transcript of a survivor, Jane*, telling her story.

Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) with the support of SafeLives and others is calling for the legislation on controlling or coercive behaviour to be extended to post- separation abuse. Coercive control continues after separation and victims are most at risk of homicide in this period. Given that economic abuse does not require physical proximity it can continue, escalate or even begin after separation.

The Domestic Abuse Bill was an ideal opportunity to achieve this change, and we drafted a proposed amendment to this effect. Now that the Bill has fallen, we will be calling on a new government to extend the offence via a new Bill.

The current legislation covers situations where people are either a) in an intimate relationship with each other or b) living together and are either family members or have previously been in an intimate relationship with each other. This means that where two individuals are no longer in an intimate relationship and they do not live together, behaviour by one of them towards the other cannot fall within the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. Similarly, family members who don’t live together are excluded.

It has been argued that abuse by an ex-partner or family member who no longer lives with the victim is captured under existing legislation on stalking and harassment. However SEA contends that this legislation is not a good fit for economic abuse. The stalking offence is framed as a course of conduct which causes the victim to fear that violence will be used against her, or causes serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on her day-to-day activities. The wording used to describe stalking does not naturally fit with the kinds of economic harm commonly experienced by women following separation, and neither do the examples of the offence given in the legal guidance relating to it.

Economic abuse both during and after a relationship generally consists of an abuser exercising control over the survivor, through denying access to economic resources such as money, sabotaging economic resources or exploiting them, so as to create economic instability and prevent a survivor from rebuilding their life safely and independently. For instance, a common experience of post-separation economic

abuse which would fall outside of the stalking legislation is the deliberate non- payment of a joint mortgage to the point of repossession. This represents ongoing economic control, sabotage of an economic asset and creating economic instability resulting in homelessness. Similarly the stalking legislation would not appear to cover other kinds of economic harm experienced by women following separation, such as: spending money from a victim’s personal bank account or a joint account; running up bills in the victim’s name; prolonging the sale of joint property; interfering with the victim’s employment; and continuously taking the victim to court.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 must therefore be amended to extend the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to post-separation abuse.

For a more detailed briefing and the draft amendment proposed, please see our website.


*Name changed

Poem: 'Dear dad'

This poem was written by Susie (now an adult and SafeLives Pioneer) when she was 13 years old


Dear Dad

The darkness waits outside my door.
The silence brings comfort to me no more.
The fear in my soul makes my body shake.
Who knows what torment comes; when will he wake?

Mum sits nervously Dad; awaiting orders.
My coping framed as age related disorders.
I wonder will this uncertainty ever end?
Today as always we will have to pretend.

I know at my age, running is all that’s real.
Honestly Dad I don’t know how to feel.
This man she chose is so far from you.
He’s cruel and scary; controlling too.

Dad, I watch him watch me...my every move.
Our compliance as always we will have to prove.
I wonder are all relationships like this out there?
Love being served as a threatening stare.

Dad, I know one day I’ll be free from this hell.
I hope finding the courage – my story to tell.
But, today I am silenced; keeping the peace.
Dreaming of happiness.... freedom.....release.




'Not just witnesses': children, domestic abuse and mental health

This blog was written by a SafeLives Pioneer, for World Mental Health Day 2019. Content note: this blog contains descriptions of domestic abuse and coercive control, and the mental health impacts

I am my father’s pride and joy; the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Whenever he talks about how much he cares for me, he’s moved to tears. He loves giving me surprise birthday presents. He boasts about my achievements to his many friends. He loves me so much that he always sends me two happy birthday messages – one by text, then another posted publicly on Facebook (in his own words, “so everyone else can see it”).

My father is a perpetrator of narcissistic domestic abuse and coercive control, and has been for decades. But the vast majority of harm he’s caused me happened in the first 15 years of my life.

Even though Rosie Duffield’s incredibly powerful speech to parliament last week was about her experiences of intimate partner violence, I related to a lot of it. That alternation between intense affection and abuse, that calculated manipulation, that fear of punishment – it’s all experienced by children too. 

When my father demanded that my mum sit motionless and silent, he didn’t have to tell me the same rules applied to me. If I irritated him at all, I knew things would get worse. I took on responsibility for his moods in the same way my mum did. We did everything possible to keep him happy in order to protect each other.

When I did something he approved of – like fawning over his interests while distancing myself from my mum’s, or enthusiastically telling his friends how fantastic he was to help him hide his true self – it would placate him. My mum would have a short break from the worst of his behaviours, and I would be rewarded with love and affection.

When he gaslighted my mum into thinking the abuse was her fault, he gaslighted me too. When we watched him throw my new jacket in the bin, then insist it was actually my mum who had done it, I questioned my own reality. Every time he used his eyes to ‘dog-whistle’, subtly conveying his fury with her, she heard it loud and clear, and so did I. I knew it meant we would be walking on even more eggshells than usual all day, and what would happen at home that evening. When he threw frying pans and plant pots, I might not have been his intended target, but I still had to dodge out of the way.

I never felt safe while he was around. Being in a constant state of fight or flight emotionally and physically exhausted me, but that was how I stayed safe. I played out a dozen scenarios in my head, calculating how I could best minimise the harm he was about to cause. The effects of this hypervigilance are still with me today. I often had days off school with a stomach ache, a common symptom of anxiety in children. As an adult, I’ve taken time off work due to anxiety and the fatigue it causes several times. Even a loud noise can send my brain into overdrive, and living with complex PTSD means I frequently experience emotional flashbacks.

He constantly looked for ways to use me as a weapon against my mum. One of his favourite tactics was making me repeat horrible things to her. I felt immensely guilty about this, and internalised the messages from him that I was a terrible daughter when I didn’t obey him. I was convinced that whether I did it or not, I was a bad person. I remember self-harming when I was only seven years old.

When we left the family home, my father soon found out our new address. He screamed at my mum through the letterbox for what felt like hours, and I vividly remember how terrified I was that he might break the door down or smash a window to get in and hurt us.

Once we moved out, he found new ways of controlling her through me. He regularly did things that put me at risk of harm in some small way – at the time I thought he was just a cool dad, but looking back I can see he did those things as cleverly veiled threats to my mum. Over time, using me as a tool developed into direct abuse. The effects on me of the domestic abuse and direct abuse are all mixed together, but the root cause of both is the same – his entitled, vindictive need to control everything around him to make himself feel superior.

Although I had a childhood, I grew up very quickly. I was depressed, anxious, self-harmed, suicidal, felt helpless and worthless, wet myself for years, had recurring nightmares, always had stomach aches and colds, regularly refused food for days, engaged in dangerous sexual behaviour, had panic attacks when I did something wrong at school, and extreme mood swings at home.

I hope this little window into my life helps people understand that children are victims of domestic abuse just as much as adults are, and the effects on their mental health can be just as long-term, wide-ranging and severe. At 29, I still struggle significantly with my mental health as a result of my father’s abuse. I have low self-worth, persistent negative thought patterns, and still find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. I have an incredible support network and millions of coping strategies that I’ve been refining my whole life, but I will always carry the impact with me.