Coercive control is hard to identify and hard to prove because unlike many other abusive crimes, it is not linked to a specific incident, is often not witnessed, and it does not always involve physical or sexual violence.
Coercive control describes a pattern of behaviour that aims to isolate the victim – nearly always a woman and/or her children – from family, friends and support networks.
Those who use coercive control may humiliate, manipulate and threaten their victims, and keep tabs on every aspect of their lives. The psychological and emotional control that result from fear are a key way in which domestic and family violence ‘works’: Keeping another person in a state of chronic fear does not require physical violence to be used all of the time, or at all.
Using and playing on fear is common by abusers, and is made possible because of their intimate knowledge of the person they are abusing. Abusers tell powerful stories about the abuse to the person they are abusing, often saying it is the fault of the person being abused. Many victim-survivors experience a state of ‘doublethink’ as a result.
A whole-of-government, whole of community response is needed to protect victim-survivors from coercive control and the homicides that can follow it. We want to identify people experiencing coercive control sooner rather than later, which means putting in place a comprehensive education system around coercive control, to ensure those working in justice, police and other frontline workers, the allied workforce and the community are as equipped as they can be to identify and help the victim-survivors of this destructive, and frightening abuse.
To build a system based on just responses, agencies need to shift from focusing on incidents of violence, and instead focus on patterns of controlling behaviours that perpetrators are using in the home, and the impacts these are having on women and children. Documenting the patterns of behaviours allows for more informed decision making by practitioners, and can better inform legal decision making. Information sharing between agencies is integral in documenting patterns of behaviour, and creating a holistic understanding of risk.
The shift towards a pattern based approach will take time because incident focussed responses still dominate the overall system. Focusing on a sustained pattern of behaviour, and its impacts, encourages accountability.
Creating whole of community responses to coercive control is essential to prevention of domestic and family violence. Community education needs to incorporate how communities can play a role in addressing coercive control, and what roles bystanders can play. If communities are more informed about coercive control, they will be better placed to make informed choices about when to act. Trust in systems responses is integral to community engagement.