Coercive Control: Management and Safety Planning Guidance for Social Workers
For those families living in a home where coercive controlling behaviours are being used, it is important that a safety plan is in place that will specifically address this type of abuse. This post is designed to provide social workers with guidance for completing risk management and safety planning with families where coercive controlling behaviours are a feature.
Coercive control, is a criminal offence in the UK and describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. Studies have found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control and women are far more likely than men to be victims of abuse that involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats. For further information on coercive controlling behaviour please visit out posts - coercive control and the pandemic and how to recognise coercive control.
Early research into the effects of the pandemic on domestic abuse are showing that restrictions used to minimise the spread of the virus have reinforced environments that aid the behaviours used by perpetrators to exert power and psychological harm against a partner. We are seeing this emerging from research, as well as evidence in our own case referrals, that abusers are using the lockdown to increase their control over victims, escalate abuse and use the pandemic as a tool for continuing abuse within the family.
An online survey in Spain in 2020* found a significant increase in the level of psychological types of abuse. Further, the findings indicated that the increased risk of abuse when families were locked down together was higher among couples with children and when both partners were suffering from economic stress particularly when the relative position of the male partner worsened. The Women's Aid's survivor surveys (2020)**, gave us information directly from victims about the abuse they are suffering with 72% of respondents saying their abuser had more control over their life since the pandemic, 67% said that their abuser was using the pandemic to further their abuse with 10% saying the household was being forced to live under unnecessarily strict measures.
Safety planning and risk management
It is important that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse which should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern (research into the effects of coercive control on children are given below). Where social workers are already working with a family that are remaining together, both the victim and the perpetrator should be included in the planning.
The following is a guide to completing safety planning or risk management work with a family when domestic abuse and coercive controlling behaviour is a concern:
1. Determine whether coercive control is being used - Ensure the family can speak freely without the perpetrator present when investigating and ask the following questions:
Are there restrictions placed on their movements or activities (such as extra-curricular school activities)?
Are there things they do or do not do for fear of their partner's reaction?
Is their partner jealous of their contact with members of the opposite sex?
Is their partner sexually abusive? Does the partner infer that they having an affair if they refuse sex?
Does their partner twist their words, deny they have said things or imply they are crazy?
Are they able to engage freely with family and friends?
Are they worried about speaking to professionals about their partner?
(To children specifically) Do they feel scared to ask for things? Have they been told not to speak to their friends? Are they told to ‘report’ on the other parent?
Caution should be taken when considering what is being said by perpetrators who exhibit controlling behaviours as they often create a plausible charming persona particularly if their partners have other difficulties such as substance misuse or mental health issues. Common responses by abusers include:
Total denial – stating their partners are lying, intoxicated, abusive or mentally unwell (with multiple examples);
Stating that he contributes much more to the family than she does;
Alleging that she has an ‘interfering family’ who disapprove of him and are ‘getting into her head’;
Claiming that is merely being careful about the pandemic but that she wants to ‘take risks’;
Giving a lengthy list of the things she does wrong whilst portraying himself as the reasonable, sensible partner.
2. Identify the risk concerns - The risk concerns need to be clearly identified and prioritised so that there is no confusion with the parents about what the issues are and which are the most important. It may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will set out the risks and make recommendations as how to manage those risks which can be incorporated into the plan. Specialist assessments can be completed where any kind of abuse is a concern.
3. Meet the victim and children regularly - establish a routine of regular meetings where the victim is seen on her own. If completing visits remotely due to Coronavirus restrictions avoid any video conferencing work in her home, we have found that meetings taking place in the maternal family home often have the joint benefit of having someone to care for the children while the session takes place. If this is not possible it may be necessary to meet in social work offices. Regular visits are highly protective and must be a part of any working agreement.
4. Have a shared understanding amongst professionals - It is vital that all key professionals involved in the case understand how to identify coercive control, the risk concerns and support any safety plans or agreements. This will ensure that there are no mixed messages given to the parents about the risks and the importance of the safety plan.
5. Encourage outside interests - In cases where women are at risk of controlling behaviour by their intimate partners one of the most effective methods to ameliorate this is to ensure that they pursue interests outside the home. Securing employment is the most valuable of these in that it also provides a sense of autonomy and financial independence. Contact with other adults also provides her with an opportunity to ‘reality check’ her own circumstances against those of other women.
6. Arrange outside contact for the children - It is highly protective for children to have contact with other children and adults outside the family home, if the child is very young this could include securing a nursey place. The contact does not need to be a professional but could be any trusted adult.
7. Involve suitable others to provide support - It is important to involve others (usually family members, particularly from the maternal sides) who can give practical and moral support to the family as well as monitor safety. The supporters should be risk aware and concerned for the best interests of the children. The supporters should be invited to attend certain sessions and be made aware of the nature of controlling behaviour, including any ‘red flag’ indicators and what their involvement in the safety plan will be. The provision of an easily accessible safe space for the children should be a priority.
The following are 'red flag' indicators and would necessitate further action/consideration:
A change in the balance of power within the household. For example, current research into the effects of the pandemic on behaviour indicates that a significant proportion of men become more controlling when their partner becomes the primary breadwinner;
the family experiencing financial hardship or other stresses;
evidence that the perpetrator is restricting access to the victim or children by screening calls, cancelling appointments, or speaking on their behalf;
concerns that the victim or children appear to be fearful or anxious or a change in behaviour is noted;
failure to engage with social workers or medical professionals;
the family going missing;
police/ambulance notifications of domestic incidents or disturbances.
The effects of coercive control on children
When studying the effects of coercive control on children, it is increasingly acknowledged that children are often trapped in the perpetrators' regimes of coercive control. The same attitudes of self-centeredness and entitlement that relates to the perpetrators' abuse of their partners can also drive the way they parent their children, with perpetrators likely to parent in ways that are authoritarian, neglectful or overly permissive.
Children living in this environment can find that they are prevented from living a full and happy life as they are restricted from spending time with their mothers, wider family members and other children. They may also be stopped from engaging in extra‐curricular activities or attending medical facilities. Living in this way can cause children to become isolated, disempowered, hamper their development and contribute to emotional and behavioural problems.
It is important to note that in studies of children's experiences of coercive control it has been found that in families where physical violence was not a regular form of abuse, children exhibited the same negative outcomes as those who had lived with more frequent physical abuse.
Like adult victims/survivors, many of the children and young people were living under conditions of constraint and entrapment, and coercive control could severely harm their emotional/psychological, social and physical wellbeing and their educational achievement. - Katz et al. (2020) ***
How DV-ACT can help
DV-ACT experts are able to complete assessments and treatment programmes with victims and/or perpetrators for cases that are purely concerned with coercive control regardless of the status of the case. Assessments will examine the use of control used in the relationship and the impact of this on the children and victim, with a risk management plan for each member of the family. DV-ACT can also deliver focused and specialised treatment programmes for both victims and perpetrators. Contact us for further information
Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our post How to complete safety planning with families. The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; what can be done to help families living in isolation with an abuser and completing emergency safety planning with perpetrators. This section also gives up to date information on how DV-ACT assessments are used to safeguard children in care proceedings.
References and resources
*Arenas-Arroyo, E., Fernandez-Kranz, D., Nollenberger, N. (2021). Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,
**Womens Aid COVID-19 survey - The impact of Covid-19 on survivors: findings from Women’s Aid’s initial Survivor Survey and A Perfect Storm – The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and the services supporting them.
*** Katz, E., Nikupeteri, A., and Laitinen, M. (2020) When Coercive Control Continues to Harm Children: Post‐Separation Fathering, Stalking and Domestic Violence - https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1002%2Fcar.2611
Katz, E. (2016). Beyond the physical incident model: How children living with domestic violence are harmed by and resist regimes of coercive control. Child abuse review, 25(1), 46-59. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/car.2422
Helplines and resources
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form firstname.lastname@example.org
Online community support - With Abuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?