Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid, focuses on controlling and coercive behaviour, what social workers need to know and how coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse.
It's one thing to make it a crime to inflict coercive control on your partner or another family member. It's quite another thing for all professionals with safeguarding responsibilities to be able to recognise when this behaviour is present, and know what to do about it.
Progress is being made - though gradually - in helping police officers understand the nature and impact of coercive control, gather evidence to support successful prosecutions, and understand what victims of this crime need. The training of social workers, however, is arguably just as important and is certainly further back in the queue for resources.
Where social workers do have an advantage is in the Making Safeguarding Personal guidance published by the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. At Women's Aid we would argue strongly that the principles of a person-centred and empowering approach at the heart of Making Safeguarding Personal should be the starting point, and in fact are a welcome counterpoint to the tendency of the criminal justice system to view victims of domestic abuse through the narrow prism of risk assessment and risk management.
In our view, since safety is a fundamental human need, if you set out to understand and meet an individual's needs, you will manage risk. But you can certainly manage risk without meeting needs. In fact, far too often, that's exactly what agencies are doing. The result is a deficit model which discourages disclosure of abuse and, for those who do disclose, fails to promote long term independence and recovery.
So the framework is already available to help social workers and other social care professionals start with the abuse survivor's individual strengths, resources and needs in mind. They still need support to distinguish confidently between domestic abuse and safeguarding concerns that arise for other reasons. An understanding of coercive control is fundamental to this. Coercive control is not one type of domestic abuse, it is the heart of domestic abuse, at the centre of both the perpetrator's behaviour and the victim's experience in the vast majority of domestic abuse cases. It is deliberate and repeated, the very opposite of someone ‘snapping’ in a momentary loss of control. It can masquerade as care, vigilance, even romance. Perpetrators will use whatever vulnerability the victim already has, to create fear and use that fear to increase control, and that means women with disabilities, learning difficulties or mental health needs may particularly need support to exercise the right all women should have, to be free from abuse.
At Women's Aid we are in the early preparatory stages of a piece of work to train and support social care professionals to identify women who are experiencing domestic abuse among those they work with, support them to be safe, and work alongside them to understand what their recovery and independence will look like, and to get there. For more information about this ‘Trusted Professional’ role watch this space.
Social care professionals are already supporting women experiencing domestic abuse, whether they formally identify it or not. The coercive control legislation presents a real opportunity to increase awareness and understanding. In order to make the most of that opportunity the two worlds called ‘safeguarding’ and ‘domestic abuse’ need to come together. Social care professionals and their agencies will be at the forefront of making that happen.