Written by Custody Peace with contribution and advisement from Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola, Doctor of Clinical Social Welfare, Coercive Control Educator/Researcher, and Dr. Emma Katz, Global Coercive Control Expert and Author of “Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives”.
For the first time in history, “coercive control” has been making headlines for the past year. — So, what exactly does coercive control mean?
Physical abuse is what most people think of when they hear “domestic violence,” however, there is something deeper at play here. Something that is the foundation of almost all forms of domestic violence: the need for a partner or ex-partner to dominate, assert power, and coercively control their victim. The need for them to “power over” them at all costs.
Coercive Control “includes psychological abuse such as manipulation, intimidation, gaslighting, and isolation — and perpetrators use these tactics continuously. Victims of coercive control are therefore being constantly abused, even if there has not been an incident of physical violence for months, or ever.” (Katz, 2022). Coercive control may include financial abuse and Legal Abuse/Vexatious Litigation which is when oftentimes the court system (and supporting systems) becomes an empowering arm of coercive control.
“Many abusers misuse the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners, a method sometimes called “vexatious” or “abusive” litigation, also known as “paper” or “separation” abuse, or “stalking by way of the courts.” Perpetrators file frivolous lawsuits to keep their victims coming back to court to face them.” How Domestic Abusers Weaponize the Courts, The Atlantic (Jessica Klein)
The lack of accountability by the courts can have an emboldening effect on Vexatious Litigants, which empowers perpetrators, resulting in an escalation of their abuse post-separation. If there is no accountability for their vexatious behavior, then it proves to the perpetrator their use of the system as a means of control works — and they keep coming back to the well to feed this need to power over their victim, and in most cases the courts allow them to drink freely at their leisure.
“As victims of domestic violence, we leave the relationship with a false sense of security and our Northstar is the hope that we can restore peace and tranquility in our lives, and in the lives of our children. We are dependent on these systems to rise above and act in the best interest of our children yet, that is not what happens. We are met with painful realizations that the abuse we suffer post-separation is often more difficult to navigate than the abuse we suffered in the relationship. The most vulnerable members of our society are being failed by the systems that are put in place to protect them.” — Tina Swithin, Founder of One Mom’s Battle & Family Court Awareness Month
As noted by Dr. Emma Katz in her new groundbreaking book, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, “conceptualizing domestic violence as physical violence, therefore, leads us to underestimate the risks and harms of coercive control. It also underestimates the true extent of the damage that perpetrators are inflicting, leading to dangerously ineffectual responses. A perpetrator may have brought about a situation where the victim is a shell of her former self, her psychological integrity in ruins, and her economic well-being drastically reduced.” (Moulding et al., 2021) “Because coercive control involves an ‘entrapment’ of persons into a power relation that restricts their freedom, it also warrants critical examination from a human rights perspective.” (Stark, 2019)
Perhaps the worst and more heartbreaking tactic of coercive control is the use of children as weapons in multiple ways, including attempts to harm the relationships between adult victims and child victims and using children as pawns in their elaborate and destructive schemes.
“Supporting the agency and best interests of children requires that institutions, front-line practitioners, and parents are able to recognize and address threats (both violent and non-violent) to children’s freedom and well-being and promote the recognition of children’s voices.” (Learning Network, March 2022)
As stated by Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola:
“Coercive controllers very often seek out weapons to retain or regain their control. A choice weapon is the very systems intended to protect victims and survivors, such as the criminal justice and judicial system. The coercive controller weaponizes these systems to further inflict harm on his target. All too often, the systems themselves are complicit in this abuse, simply due to the patriarchal ideology in place. Systemic coercive control can be the most traumatic experience for individuals who have experienced abuse. When abusers use the system, with false accusations or to further inflict financial or legal abuse, victims trapped in this cycle of abuse, have no escape. Child Protective Services (CPS) is one such system, intended to protect children from abuse and neglect, is weaponized to further traumatize victims. Very often, coercive controllers will manufacture false allegations against a protective parent/coercive control victim simply for revenge. Revenge. It becomes the final weapon used by all coercive controllers. — ‘If I cannot control you, then I will use the systems intended to protect you, to control you.’”
“Fleeing a coercive controlling relationship is one of the most difficult things a woman will do — until you confront the family law and its supporting systems. It’s like escaping the beast, only to find his master waiting for you.” — Renée Izambard, Founder of Movement of Mothers
As Dr. Emma Katz outlines in her new book, it is still overwhelmingly true across the world that, as Evan Stark observed, there is no mechanism for criminal justice systems to recognize the enormous harm that has been caused by perpetrators of coercive control and states, “this legal vacuum leaves them free to continue their abuse,” and the taxpayers in each community continue to fund the abuse of women and children.
The words of Angelina Jolie during the Violence Against Women Act press conference on February 9, 2022, summed up the helplessness that so many women throughout the world feel when they are failed by the systems that claim to protect them.
“Standing here, at the center of our nation’s power, I can think only of everyone who’s been made to feel powerless by their abusers, by a system that fails to protect them,” Jolie began. “Parents whose children have been murdered by an abusive partner, women who suffer domestic violence yet are not believed, children who have suffered life-altering trauma and post-traumatic stress at the hands of people closest to them. Anyone who’s been in those situations will tell you just how far they feel from the power concentrated here in this building — the power to pass laws that might have prevented their pain the first place.”
“As survivors of abuse know all too well, victims of our failed systems are not allowed to be angry,” Jolie went on. “You’re supposed to be calm, patient, and ask nicely. —But you try staying calm when it’s as if someone is holding your head underwater and you’re drowning. Try to stay calm when you’re witnessing someone you love being harmed.”
The most disturbing part of coercive control, as Emma Katz describes in her new book, is that “most anything the perpetrator does to the adult victim-survivor will be directly harming the child victims-survivors too, and the perpetrator is the one responsible for those harms to the children.”
The good news: there is hope.
There is a huge movement of folks across the globe that are collectively working together to raise awareness around this insidious form of abuse.
There are researchers, doctors, and experts that are dedicating their lives to ensure that the world understands that these catastrophic impacts not only destroy women’s lives but are determined to elevate the new research that shows that children are not just passive observers, they are also direct victims.
Thanks to the work of Dr. Williams and her colleagues, last year the NSW government committed to outlawing coercive control, the historically overlooked form of intimate abuse, as part of its response to a parliamentary inquiry. Just this week on July 20, 2022, a draft of the landmark bill has been released by the state’s attorney general Mark Speakman for public comment, ahead of its introduction to parliament. This bill is proposing people who repeatedly subject their partner to physical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse could face seven years’ jail under proposed New South Wales coercive control laws.
Several countries, including Scotland, France, England, Wales, & Ireland, have adopted coercive control laws over the last decade. In response, 4 states — first Hawaii (inspired by Scotland), then California (Sept 2020), Connecticut (Jennifer’s Law- 2021), and Washington (2022) — have recently taken the groundbreaking step of passing the nation’s first laws against coercive control. In Canada, the Divorce Act was changed in 2021 to recognize coercive control as a form of family violence, and attempts have been made to incorporate it into the Criminal Code (Bill C-247, no longer active). These legislative efforts reflect the growing awareness and motivation across the country to address the multi-dimensionality of violence, particularly in contexts involving intimate partners and family members.
This is promising, but reports show that because of the lack of judicial training in these areas, perpetrators are not being held accountable, which can result in escalations in abusive behavior in and out of the courts.
The National Safe Parents Organization is working with thousands of advocates across the country to ensure that The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act (AKA Kayden’s Law in the Violence Against Women’s Act 2022) is enacted in all 50-states. This policy provides financial incentives to states for providing ongoing Domestic Violence Training for judges and key legal professionals.
This training includes evidence-based ongoing training to judges and key court personnel on family violence subject matter, including coercive control, trauma, child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, implicit and explicit bias, long and short-term impacts of domestic violence, and child abuse on children, victim and perpetrator behaviors, including the go-to textbook tactics of coercive controllers: DARVO and Counterclaims of alienation (Meier) / Alienation Distraction Tactics.
Counterclaims of alienation (Meier) are a commonplace defensive strategy for coercive control perpetrators against their victims. Abusers often lodge “parental alienation” or “alienation” claims against a safe parent as a legal strategy to cast doubt on their credibility and valid claims of abuse are labeled as “alienation” by the abusive parent as a defensive tactic.
DARVO, a term coined by Dr. Jennifer Freyd of the Center for Institutional Courage, stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” This occurs, for instance, when a guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” attacks the accuser’s credibility, and blames the accuser for being the perpetrator of a false accusation.
DARVO “turns the true victim into an alleged offender.” — in this case, an “alienator.” The goal of DARVO is to deflect the accusations and create uncertainty about the facts.
Speaking of facts, here are the Findings by U.S. Congress via “The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act” also known as “Kayden’s Law” in the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA):
“Many experts who testify against abuse allegations lack expertise in the relevant type of alleged abuse, relying instead on unsound and unproven theories.”
“Scientifically unsound theories that treat abuse allegations of mothers as likely false attempts to undermine fathers are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny reports of abuse of parents and children.”
“Approximately 1 ⁄3 of parents alleged to have committed child abuse took primary custody from the protective parent reporting the abuse, placing children at ongoing risk.”
“With respect to cases in which an allegedly abusive parent claimed the mother ‘‘alienated’’ the child, courts believed only 1 in 51.”
“Judges presiding over custody cases involving allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse, & domestic violence are rarely required to receive training on these subjects, and most States have not established standards for such training.”
“The experts further discouraged the abuse of the “parental alienation” and of similar concepts and terms invoked to deny child custody to the mother and grant it to a father accused of domestic violence in a manner that totally disregards the possible risks for the child.” — UN Human Rights Experts, May 31, 2019, www.ohchr.org
“We are deeply concerned that this is not an isolated problem, as we continue to receive information on cases of mothers losing custody, and sometimes even facing prison, for attempting to protect their children from abusive fathers.” — UN Human Rights Experts, February 28, 2022, www.ohchr.org
… and also this:
The good news is that according to Dr. Jennifer Freyd, as highlighted in a recent NBC News segment, the antidote to DARVO is awareness (the more people know about DARVO, the less effective it becomes) and Institutional Courage “which is a commitment to seek the truth & engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk & short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.” Imagine that.
“Findings show that women are more likely to be the victims of DARVO & third parties that are not educated in DARVO tend to find it effective. — The good news is that if we teach people about the concept of DARVO and the behavior they are much better able to identify it & be less swayed by it.” — Dr. Jennifer Freyd
Let’s talk about the potential of legislation and accountability (and yes, this includes a healthy dose of institutional courage).
In February 2021, an inquiry began to explore the introduction of new coercive control legislation in New South Wales, Australia. Below is an excerpt from the powerful statement from Dr. Karen Williams NSW Select Committee on Coercive Control, February 2021.
Watch her testimony:
Part One: The seriousness of coercive control. [WATCH]
“The process of coercive control is an active one. It is well planned and sustained. In fact, it continues all of the time, even when there is physical distance between them. It is this behavior that needs to be made illegal. I argue that the injuries of coercive control are much more dangerous long-standing and life-threatening than most of the physical injuries that we see in domestic violence. These injuries can last a lifetime and have a huge economic cost well after the relationship has ended. Unfortunately, our legal system as it stands today is something that perpetuates the fear and exacerbates the state of utter helplessness that coercive control induces. It is a system that repeatedly fails to keep women safe, despite the fact that there can be a clearly defined and known perpetrator. The fact that we do not have any deterrent for coercive controlling behavior is what allows it to spiral out of control. It starts slow and gets persistently worse. The more control they get, the worse it becomes. The more they get away with, the more obsessed with the control they get. Legislation will act to deter this. To leave the system as it is now (globally) — to leave women with no legal pathway to escape this behavior —is not only negligent, but it is an act of complicity in the ongoing abuse of women and children.” — Dr. Karen Williams (NSW Select Committee into Coercive Control, February 2021)
On July 20, 2022, one year and five months after her testimony, legislation was introduced to criminalize coercive control with a punishment of up seven years in jail.
As you can see, change is possible, but obviously, when you stand up to power it’s not an easy road. Those with power don’t say, “oh, my bad, here is the power I took from you back”, and what’s crazy is that our systems are easily weaponized because at the core, they are mechanistic, and in most, if not all cases, are designed to maintain power and control over the masses, so it’s easy for an abuser to tap into one of these existing systems (legal, social services, and even workplaces) and use them as weapons because they are not designed to recognize, let alone mitigate these abusive behaviors.
Our hope is that lawmakers and advocates and concerned citizens who are funding this insidious abuse with their tax dollars will continue to work to ensure that the systems meant to protect women and children, the ones paid for by the people, are no longer weaponized against them.
Instead, with a proper trauma-informed redesign, advocate-advised, intersectional legislation, and accountability, our systems will become the caring pathway for victim/survivors of coercive control to gain the support they need to find the freedom, physical/financial health, autonomy, and “ability to live their purpose in the world” (Stark) that was stolen from them with the help of the systems meant to protect them.
Call-to-Action: When employers, co-workers, business partners, neighbors, friends, family, teachers, lawyers, therapists, lawmakers, judges, medical professionals, media professionals, community members, and our systems at large support and protect victims-survivors of coercive control — (even when that means the abuser may go after them too in their attempts to scare away any support system) — they empower victims-survivors, support their healing, the healing of children and the healing of our communities in every way imaginable.
The solution is simple: Believe, support, and most importantly protect victims-survivors of coercive control by designing systems that put the well-being of children first and cultivate health and healing in our communities.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7: Text “START” to 88788 | 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)
If you are an attorney, legal professional, educator, health professional, lawmaker, therapist, social worker, or concerned citizen interested in training on Coercive Control and the textbook tactics of perpetrators that extract vital resources from our communities (including from children) for their own personal power, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References and resources:
- How Domestic Abusers Weaponize the Courts, The Atlantic, Jessica Klein (July 18, 2019)
- Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, Emma Katz
- Confronting the Challenge of the High-Conflict Personality in Family Court, ESTHER ROSENFELD* & MICHELLE OBERMAN** WITH JORDAN BERNARD*** & ERIKA LEE**** (Family Law Quarterly, Volume 53, Number 2, Summer 2019)
- Vexatious Litigation in Family Law and Coercive Control: Ways to Improve Legal Remedies and Better Protect the Victims, Emma Fitch, Australian National University & Patricia L. Easteal University of Canberra, August 2017, Family Law Review 7:103–115
- I’ll See You in Court…Again: Psychopathology and Hyperlitigious Litigants, C. Adam Coffey, Stanley L. Brodsky and David M. Sams, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online March 2017, 45 (1) 62–71;
- Coercive Control in the Courtroom: the Legal Abuse Scale (LAS) (May 2022), Ellen R. Gutowski & Lisa A. Goodman
- 7 Common Post-Separation Abuse Tactics, Psychology Today, Lisa Aronson Fontes Ph.D. (August 6, 2022)
- Domestic Violence In The Courtroom: The Legal System As A Weapon In Domestic Violence Cases, Forbes (September 1, 2022)
- Post-Separation Abuse Harms Children, Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD and Christine Cocchiola, LCSW (January 31, 2022)
- What is Post Separation Abuse? (One Mom’s Battle)
- What is Coercive Control? (Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola)
- Przekop, Mary (2011) “One More Battleground: Domestic Violence, Child Custody, and the Batterers’ Relentless Pursuit of their Victims Through the Courts,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice: Vol. 9: Iss. 2, Article 14.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/sjsj/vol9/iss2/14
- De-Weaponizing the Courts: Attorney’s Fees may Help Deter Litigation Abuse against Domestic Violence Survivors, American Bar Association, Maleaha Brown (October 29, 2019)
- Dealing with narcissists in the family law courtroom, Ester Rosenfeld (September 1, 2020)
- The Narcissistic Abuser’s Top 3 Family Court Weapons, Rachel Watson (September 28, 2020)
- The Domestic Abuse Victim’s Nightmare Continues In The Perilous Family Courts, Rachel Watson (September 20, 2020)
- Family courts carry out ‘state sanctioned abuse’ of domestic abuse survivors by letting perpetrators see children, commissioner warns, Maya Oppenheim, Independent (July 22, 2020)
- The manipulative tactics psychological abusers use in court to keep control over their victims (Lindsay Dodgson July 29, 2018)