Policy blog

Coercive control: “Why we want the law to change”

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between  August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time.

Diana Barran, Polly Neate and Laura Richards explain why they're backing proposals to criminalise coercive control.

It's an issue that's been widely publicised over recent months: whether the law, as it stands, adequately protects victims of domestic abuse. Last month (21st August), following a high profile campaign by Women's AidPaladin and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, 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.

To reflect patterns of abuse 

According to Laura Richards, Chief Executive and Founder of Paladin, current legislation falls short because it is too selective. She explains that the laws used to prosecute domestic abuse at the moment – such as assault, rape, kidnapping and murder – do not describe its essence. “It misses the fact that domestic abuse is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts.” It is these non-physical manifestations of power and control – which Laura likens to brainwashing – that are not recognised in law, despite often being the worst part for victims. “We need an offence that reflects the reality of domestic abuse in all its guises,” she emphasises.

For Laura, the recent reforms to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – in which she was also heavily involved in the campaign for – offer a useful starting point when considering ways of modernising the current law to include a pattern of abusive behaviour. “Stalking laws criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm, but they can't be used for ongoing relationships.” Like the stalking law before it, Laura hopes that criminalising this form of abuse will have a similar impact. “It would send a strong message that abusive and coercively controlling behaviour within a relationship is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

To improve the police response 

It seems likely, then, that any change in legislation will require a genuine change in attitudes to domestic abuse in order to have the desired effect. The police, in particular, have come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent months in relation to this. The 2013 review of forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), whose findings were published in March, concluded that domestic abuse is rarely seen as a serious crime. It also identified that frontline officers lack a proper understanding of the issue – particularly around coercive control.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, is more than aware of how this outlook translates into practice. “The main reason victims don't come forward is because they get such a poor response when they do,” she reflects. “The police just don't have the ability to act when the harm is mainly psychological, and they don't have the ability to criminalise or arrest anyone for a pattern of behaviour.”

Like Laura, Polly hopes a change in the law will be the wake-up call the criminal justice system needs to address the longstanding culture surrounding domestic abuse. She describes the lack of understanding among police as “profound”, but is a firm believer that improving the police response will be the first step towards increasing reporting rates. “If the consultation does lead to a change in the law, it needs to be accompanied by some significant awareness raising activity.” Training will also be essential. This is something which, at the moment, Polly believes not enough police forces – or indeed any other agencies – are investing properly in. “However, there is an opportunity in the concerted response to the HMIC Inquiry," she adds, "and if the law is changed this will need to inform that response.”

But Polly is clear that the police are just a part of the overall response, as many victims will only approach them when they feel safe to do so. If we want victims to disclose earlier, Polly says, we need to think about who that is likely to be to, and ensure there are clear referral routes in place. “We need to think much more widely than we do now to identify where that early identification can best happen,” she emphasises.

As a springboard for wider change 

CAADA's research indicates that less than a fifth (17%) of victims who experience no physical abuse will make a report to the police. "Victims call the police in a crisis,” Diana Barran, Chief Executive, explains. “Those who are worn down day after day by emotional abuse just won't make contact.”

And there are other victims too: the impact on children of growing up in a home where coercive control is present is well documented. Perpetrators may even cause them to become implicit in the abuse. “Children are often the biggest victims in abusive relationships,” Diana continues. “Our only concern would be that criminalising this type of behaviour won't necessarily help them.” However, since a non-molestation order can be used as proof of domestic abuse to access legal aid in applications for orders under the Children Act, this route will ensure more children living with these forms of abuse can access protection.

For CAADA, it's crucial that a non-criminal justice route is offered to allow victims to address their situation in a way that works for them. “This approach would have the advantage - particularly in cases where couples have not separated - of avoiding the immediate criminalisation of the perpetrator, and taking the opportunity to offer practical remedies for this type of behaviour,” Diana says. “We are also concerned that the definition of the behaviours that are criminalised is tightly drawn. We don't want a situation either where every unhappy relationship is criminalised or where the legislation can be used by perpetrators against their victims.”

With around 80% of IDVA clients experiencing coercive control, it's clear that this is not an issue that will be resolved overnight. Like stalking before it, any change in the law will take time to embed. But combined with a package of awareness raising, training and the right leadership from police and other public agencies, the legislation looks to be a good foundation for better supporting victims.

By Tom.Ash

“We have to look beyond violence to the pattern of domination and control”

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

Physical abuse is rarely the full picture, says expert on coercive control, Professor Evan Stark. Speaking at a special event held by CAADA and Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Event (AAFDA) in October, Professor Stark reflected on the need to ‘reframe' domestic abuse to place greater emphasis on the dynamics of power and control present in the majority of abusive relationships. Coercive control was added to the cross-government definition of domestic abuse earlier this year.

Discussing his research on the issue, Professor Stark – an author, academic and forensic social worker – explained: “We were coming to understand what women have been telling us for years: namely that the violence wasn't the worst part… What was significant about the violence women were experiencing was not its severity, but its frequency and its duration, and the cumulative effect that frequent violence extended over a significant period of time had on its victims.”


Lasting damage

High risk domestic abuse is often underpinned by coercive control: in CAADA's 2012 report, A place of greater safety, 79% of victims experienced jealous and controlling behaviour, with three quarters experiencing multiple types of abuse. Jo Morrish, CAADA's Learning and Quality Service Manager, says: “While immediate physical risk must always be prioritised, it's clear that extreme levels of coercion and control are also directly associated with the risk of homicide or serious harm. Indeed, a number of homicide cases have been characterised mainly by the extent of coercion, rather than previous physical violence.

"We believe that emotional abuse is what causes lasting psychological damage for victims of domestic abuse. The impact on their self-esteem and self-worth also makes them vulnerable to entering into other abusive relationships in future. We have always argued that practitioners should recognise the significance of coercion and control and welcomed the change in the definition of domestic abuse to include this.”




By Tom.Ash

80% of victims experience coercive and controlling behaviours

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. 

Around 80% of IDVA clients experience coercive and controlling behaviour*, new research from CAADA's Insights service has shown. The research also confirmed that the severity of coercive control correlated with the severity of risk: some 66% of high risk cases analysed were found to be experiencing severe levels of controlling behaviours, compared with 21% or lower for non-high risk cases.

Victims experiencing coercive control** in isolation from other types of abuse were also shown to be more likely to under-report to police. Of 3,000 cases suffering exclusively from coercive control, only 17% made a report to the police - less than half the level of those also experiencing physical abuse.

Diana Barran, CAADA's Chief Executive, says: "Our data underlines two crucial points. Firstly, IDVAs are rightly recognising the risk associated with coercion and control, and not just focusing on physical violence when assessing risk. Secondly, it shows that victims typically only call the police in a crisis.

"While we don't anticipate that changing the law will alter this significantly, we do hope that the focus on patterns of behaviour rather than just single incidents will encourage the police to identify these - both in relation to physical violence and coercive control - when victims do come forward. Sadly, criminalising coercive control will not make a difference to the impact on children who again are the hidden victims of this behaviour. But we do hope it will also raise awareness of the issue, giving more victims the courage to come forward and access specialist support - for themselves and their family."

* Jealous and controlling behaviour, as defined as ‘high' on the Severity of Abuse Grid. 
** Cases where no physical abuse was reported.

By Tom.Ash

New research highlights the range of complex needs faced by young people experiencing relationship abuse

Many of the young people who experience relationship abuse have complex needs, often do not live in a safe environment and are from troubled families, early findings from the Young People's Programme show. Anna Williams, our Research Analyst for the programme, explains more:

Young People's Violence Advisors (YPVAs) and other practitioners have been collecting data for the last six months to learn more about the young people they work with and how their support has helped make them safer.

Who are YPVAs supporting?

Data collected on nearly 130 young people supported by YPVAs and other practitioners showed the young people ranged in age from 13 to 20 years old, with the largest proportion aged 17 (36%). Most were white British females and more than a third (39%) were not in education, employment or training. One in five (20%) had children of their own and 9% were pregnant.

For the majority (83%) of the young people, intimate partner violence in their own relationship was the primary reason for the referral to the YPVA or another support practitioner. Other reasons for referral were child sexual exploitation, young person who harms others, domestic abuse within the family home and ‘honour'-based violence.

What are they experiencing?

This early data shows these young people to be extremely vulnerable. Most of them have experienced multiple types of relationship abuse, both currently and in the past. More than half of young people were currently experiencing physical abuse, harassment and stalking, jealous and controlling behaviours or emotional abuse and one in five were current victims of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse was as prevalent as amongst adult IDVA clients.

The analysis also showed that many of the young people do not live in a safe environment and are from troubled families. Of the 54% who lived with parents or step-parents, the majority were also exposed to additional risks through their parents, including domestic abuse, mental ill health or substance misuse, and anti-social behaviour.

What support are they receiving?

The most common areas of support provided by practitioners related to wellbeing, safety planning, criminal and civil justice, and health. The 62 cases from the sample which reached case closure in this period showed considerable reductions in risk and abuse, along with improvements in safety and wellbeing. The majority of these young people reported that they were not experiencing any abuse at the point of case closure and caseworkers recorded that there was a reduction in risk for 89% of the young people supported.

Sally Steadman-South, Young People's Programme Manager, comments: “It is really encouraging to see that YPVAs are reaching the most vulnerable young people who are experiencing interpersonal abuse and by doing so, they are making an impact on improving the young people's safety, health and wellbeing. We are still looking for YPVAs and other practitioners to join this national evaluation programme in the hope that we can continue to shine a light on the abuse that young people are experiencing. This will help us demonstrate how vital it is to commission good quality local services to support young people.”

** Data presented above provides an early look at the outcomes that can be achieved for young people experiencing domestic abuse following support from Young People's Violence Advisors and other practitioners. These conclusions are based on early data from 127 Case Engagement Forms and 62 Case Closure Forms submitted for young people supported in the six months to 1st July 2014.**


By Tom.Ash

Health, domestic abuse and Marac

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between June and July 2014 and reflected our views at the time.

Since taking on the role of Marac representative 18 months ago, hospital and community-based mental health practitioner Gwen Clyde-Evans has helped to oversee a transformation in the way domestic abuse is identified and referred in her local area of Calderdale.

“The work began after the publication of a domestic homicide review in which it was shown that the victim had accessed both Calderdale and Huddersfield's A&E departments,” she explains. “It was highlighted that staff missed opportunities to find out more about what was going on. The team realised how important it was to act on the report's recommendations and decided to take steps to prevent this from happening again.”

Gwen's hard work was recognised earlier this year when she was given the individual award for safeguarding and innovation and the overall champion safeguarding award by Calderdale's adults' and children's safeguarding boards. Here, she shares some advice for other professionals.

Gwen Clyde-Evans, Marac representative, offers tips for health professionals on tackling domestic abuse

1. Establish a simple pathway

To help staff know what to do when a disclosure is made, or if they suspect that a patient is being abused, Gwen worked with colleagues in emergency care and community nursing to establish a domestic abuse pathway. “It's presented as a flowchart to make things as simple as possible, and it also tackles the issue of consent,” she explains.

With patient confidentiality and information sharing a common concern for health professionals working with victims, the team were keen to address this head on: “As well as written guidance, we include examples of situations in which information can be shared without consent. It empowers staff to feel confident about raising their concerns and seeking advice.”

An alert and identification system is also in place across the local NHS, including A&E and GP surgeries. This helps alert all practitioners, regardless of whether they are hospital or community-based, to know of any risks - both past and present.

2. Be flexible

Since implementing the pathway, more work has been done to streamline the process. “Speaking with staff, we found a lot of them were feeling a bit intimidated by doing the full Marac referral form on top of SafeLives' Dash risk checklist, the consent form and the patient notes.”

To help with this, Gwen and Marac coordinator Jill Pilling have taken on the administration associated with referrals, including the referral form itself. “Now all staff need to do is just print out the notes – because all the information we need is usually there anyway – and then do the SafeLives Dash risk checklist, where they can.”

3. Build relationships

For Gwen, it's vital to build relationships so staff know where to go if they have concerns. She adds that having Jill on-side as a Marac coordinator has also been invaluable: “Jill's always there and she'll always get back to people. It's not just about having someone who's able to do the job - it's about having somebody who's really committed to making things work.”

Both Gwen and Jill regularly drop into A&E to collect referrals and speak to staff. The pair have trained health professionals from across the area on Marac and domestic abuse awareness, as well as the local gateway to care team – Calderdale's first point of contact for adult social care enquiries and referrals. They often link up with the local WomenCentre to hold the sessions.

“I think some people are still stuck in the view that domestic abuse only affects certain types of people,” Gwen reflects. “Resources like the Gwent Police film The Devil's Vice are very good at challenging some people's views that, actually, it can happen to anybody and people need support.”

4. Know your hospital

Gwen is a firm believer that the best people to attend the Marac are those who know what services are available on a day-to-day basis, what the criteria is to access them and who to speak to. “The value of Marac is massive – there's so much benefit to it,” she says. “To make the process work, it's all about knowing your hospital and knowing what's worked before and applying this to any system you develop. I think that, together with having a great Marac coordinator, is the key.”