Call for expanded response to coercive control

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Until recently, coercive control was not something often spoken about. February 19, 2020 was the turning point. That’s the day Hannah Clark and her three children were set on fire and died[1] at the hands of Hannah’s husband and the father of her children. It was a crime that shocked the nation and mobilised advocates for the victims of family and domestic violence.

Current definition not broad enough

Unfortunately, the debate and legislative inquiry into coercive control does not go far enough. That activity has been almost solely focused on intimate partner relationships, but coercion and control can happen in any kind of relationship with a power imbalance. It’s happening with alarming frequency to older people and those with disability.

Abusers can be both men and women. They may be intimate partners, but they can also be siblings, adult children, or even care workers. One of the difficulties of identifying coercive control is the behaviours are nuanced to every relationship. For example, someone with cognitive impairment may require a substitute decisionmaker, usually with an Enduring Power of Attorney, to make financial decisions in their best interests. In a different context, or with a different person, monetary limits may be used to control personal freedom.

Fear is the common denominator in coercive control

Commissioner for Victims of Crime, Western Australia Kati Kraszlan said the defining thing for all coercive control cases is the presence of fear. Victims of coercion and controlling behaviour are fearful; the relationship with their abuser is dominated by fear.

A 2021 survey by the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre[2] provides valuable insight into what victims and survivors of coercive control experience. Respondents reported multiple types of abuse, with the most prevalent being:

97% – Emotional/psychological abuse

86% – Verbal abuse

80% – Intimidation

79% – Humiliation and degradation

79% – Isolation from family and friends

64% – Limited access to money and finances, and other forms of economic abuse

64% – Infliction of rules on day-to-day living

54% – Sexual abuse

53% – Physical abuse

52% – Threats to harm if not complying with the abuser’s rules

The survey was for adult Australians who experienced coercive control in a domestic and family violence context. The study shows what Advocare already believes –­ psychological abuse underpins all other abuse. Older people experience the same kinds of abuse in coercive and controlling situations, but their natural vulnerabilities can make it even more terrifying.

More education is needed

Other vulnerable groups include people who speak English as a second language or have limited English language skills. Migrant and refugee families, especially family members who haven’t been granted an independent visa, can be susceptible to coercive control situations. The Monash survey reported 19% of respondents were living with a disability and 21% identified as LGBTQIA+.

Coercive control can be hard to spot. Nearly all victims (97%) experience psychological abuse, compared to slightly more than half (53%) who also experience physical abuse. Perhaps most alarming is the vast majority of victims don’t recognise coercive control when it’s happening to them. The Monash survey showed only 38% of respondents viewed the abuse as domestic and family violence when they were experiencing it.

National approach required

Each state is approaching the issue of coercive control differently. This state-by-state approach can be problematic for many issues – like guardianship and migration – but it also creates confusion in the wider community about who are victims.

Advocare is asking that all people be included in the current legislative inquiries. We need to expand our understanding of coercion and control at the national level to include anyone who is being victimised in a power imbalance. The defining feature of coercive control law should not be that it’s occurring in a family or intimate partner relationship, but that the relationship is dominated by fear.

Community awareness is key

We would like to see a future where the community understands the impact of coercive control and ensures it is not tolerated. We want to shine a light on abuse that too often happens behind closed doors. We want abusers to be held legally accountable.

One thing we learned from Hannah Clark is, when left unchecked, the consequences of coercive control are unimaginable. Let’s not limit the good work already in progress to domestic abuse and intimate partner violence only.

Advocare is asking the public, law enforcement, aged care, and disability professionals to garner support for an expanded definition of coercive control and a  national approach to legislation. Get in touch if you’d like to be involved.



[2] Reeves, E., Fitz-Gibbon, K., Walklate, S. and Meyer, S. (2021) Criminalising Coercive Control: An Australian survey – Data snapshot. Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Melbourne, Australia.