Coercive control: the driving force behind domestic abuse

14 February 2017

Image: Polly NeatePolly Neate

From my experience of working with social workers, which goes back more than 25 years, I know that they can be relied upon to make every effort to put those they support at the heart of their practice. That’s why the Chief Social Worker Lyn Romeo decided this issue was important enough to work with Women’s Aid and Research in Practice for Adults to develop a set of tools to help social workers support vulnerable adults who are experiencing controlling and coercive behaviour.

A proper understanding of controlling or coercive behaviour can’t be optional for social workers. In our experience at Women’s Aid, most of the problems domestic abuse survivors experience at the hands of professionals stem from a lack of understanding, yet it’s a real struggle to get any professionals to admit they need help in developing the right awareness and skills to work with situations of coercive control.

It’s not a simple matter either; using controlling or coercive behaviour is a deliberate act which reduces an individual’s space for action, self-worth and self-determination. It creates an environment in which further abuse can be perpetrated. It is not a momentary loss of temper or an inability to control anger or frustration. In fact, most perpetrators control themselves all too well. These individuals can be highly manipulative. I have seen many different professionals taken in by controlling perpetrators, often to the extent of blaming the victim. That is why identifying coercion and control and knowing what to do require real understanding and skill.

Acquiring the knowledge and skills to do this empowers social workers to respond more effectively and in confidence that they are promoting – not jeopardising – the service user’s safety.

The Making Safeguarding Personal guidance is a great place to start. Its approach is closely aligned to the principles developed by Women’s Aid in our Change that Lasts model.

We have developed this new suite of materials with RiPfA to support good practice with people who are acutely at risk of abuse: for instance, evidence shows that disabled women are more than twice as likely as non-disabled women to experience domestic abuse. We are also working with ADASS to roll out training to back up the materials, and to equip practitioners to support their colleagues and improve practice across their agencies.

The Femicide Census, compiled by Women’s Aid and Karen Ingala Smith, shows that older women are particularly vulnerable too: they are over-represented among the women killed by a current or former intimate partner, yet they are under-represented among women who seek support for domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is always severely damaging, frequently extremely dangerous and too often fatal. Controlling or coercive behaviour is the driving force behind domestic abuse. But the criminalisation of coercive control, which Women’s Aid campaigned for, and the increase in public awareness that has accompanied it, partly generated by our work with Radio 4’s The Archers, present a significant opportunity.

This project is one important way of making sure we grasp that opportunity.

About the author

Polly Neate is the CEO of Women’s Aid, a national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. 

Related resources

Coercive control: resources for health and social care professionals

Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship: Statutory Guidance Framework 2015

Guidance on safeguarding and domestic abuse from LGA and ADASS: Adult safeguarding and domestic abuse: a guide to support practitioners and managers (2015)

Coercive control - at the heart of domestic abuse: Blog

Control is everything: Blog

Supporting best social work practice in safeguarding: Blog

If you are experiencing domestic abuse you can ring these national helplines:

For women: 24 hour helpline run by Women’s Aid and Refuge 0808 2000 247 

For men: Men’s advice line 0808 801 0327

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