Conference held in Bury St Edmunds shines a light on hidden torture of coercive control
PUBLISHED: 14:38 09 February 2016 | UPDATED: 14:38 09 February 2016
Why doesn’t she just leave? If you understand coercive control, that is a question you wouldn’t have to ask.
This was the overriding message of a domestic violence conference held in Bury St Edmunds to highlight the hidden ways abuse can exist in intimate relationships.
At the end of last year, a new law was brought into force in England and Wales targeting abusers who use controlling behaviour on their victims.
The offence introduces a maximum five-year prison term for perpetrators who subject spouses, partners and other family members to serious psychological and emotional torment but stop short of violence.
The Conference on Coercive Control was launched by Min Grob in a bid to raise awareness and open the dialogue on this type of ‘difficult-to-detect violence’.
Thursday’s conference was the second Ms Grob has held at the Theatre Royal, and speakers included Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid; family law barrister, Charlotte Proudman; and chief crown prosecutor, Jenny Hopkins.
The opening speech came from Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore, who said he was naive to this form of harm before being elected as PCC three years ago.
“There’s still a long way to go, and if we are going to deal with the issue then we have to make sure it is reported.
“One of the things that has got to happen is victims to come forward and have the confidence to come forward.
“We all have a moral responsibility to look after and help support people who are the victims of domestic abuse.”
Mr Passmore said he had this year committed tens of thousands of pounds to improving Suffolk’s care for domestic abuse survivors.
Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a lecturer and expert in homicide and criminal investigation, said perpetrators needed to exercise control over their victims because, in simple terms, they do not want them to leave.
“Controllers are abusive because they become obsessed with their victims,” Dr Monckton-Smith added.
“These are weak individuals who are so scared of rejection that they cannot think of anything else.”
People who are subjected to domestic abuse should not be viewed as helpless victims, Dr Monckton-Smith said, because they have each learnt how to become skilled managers of very dangerous people in order to stay safe.
Jenny Hopkins, chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the East of England, said law professionals were also susceptible to manipulation by clever coercive controllers.
Ms Hopkins explained how the new coercive control law – section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 – works and how an offender can be prosecuted.
“What’s going to be really important is the questions we ask in order to illicit the answers we need,” Ms Hopkins added.
“For this sort of offending many victims won’t realise they are necessarily a victim. If you have been in a relationship for a long time you have probably been isolated from friends and family and you don’t realise the way you are living your life amounts to a criminal offence.”
In order for an offender to be charged, it has to be proven that their behaviour has had an adverse effect on the victim’s life.
This could mean taking away control of the victim’s bank account, preventing them from talking to friends and family, controlling what they eat and when they eat, taking away their access to transport or stopping them from going to college or university.
Ms Hopkins said social media and mobile phones were invaluable sources of evidence when prosecuting under section 67.
She added: “More and more of it [abuse] is becoming cyber-enabled.
“Now that most people have a smart phone abuse can carry on in places that historically would have been safe havens.”
Ms Hopkins said there needed to be a change in the way victims were treated during the prosecution process.
“For too long we put focus on victims and victim behaviour and ask, ‘why did you put up with that?’
“We need to understand the impact of recalling domestic evidence.
“There are still lots of myths and stereotypes in society. Someone might not outwardly appear distressed but that doesn’t mean they are not a victim. We have got a responsibility to make the experience for our victims as comfortable as it can be and I think we have got a long way to go to achieve that.”
Charlotte Proudman was catapulted into the spotlight in September last year when she publicised a message that was sent to her from a man on the professional networking site, LinkedIn, commenting on her appearance.
She was speaking on Thursday about the gender inequalities that exist within the law industry, and the poor treatment of victims throughout family court proceedings.
“Law is white, upper class and it’s privileged,” Ms Proudman said. “The law itself applies to women on a daily basis yet women were not involved in writing or enforcing the law. We are still in a position in 2016 where gender equality is yet to arise.”
Victims of domestic violence are eligible to receive legal aid, as long as there is evidence – for example if a woman has spent time in a refuge.
However, Ms Proudman said when a person is the victim of coercive control it is sometimes difficult to evidence and therefore it is harder for them to get financial support in court.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, a federation that supports women and children who have been subjected to domestic abuse.
She said: “Coercive control is not just a type of domestic abuse, it is at the centre of domestic abuse.
“It’s really important not to pigeonhole coercive control, and there’s a risk of the new offence doing that.
“A lack of understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour is at the root of our problems when survivors go through the system.”
Ms Neate said 95% of the women who seek help from local Women’s Aid services have experienced coercive control along with other forms of domestic violence.
She said more training was urgently needed for the statutory agencies that work closely with survivors of domestic abuse, and people needed to continue to push the Government to introduce compulsory relationship and sex education in schools in order to create a “cultural change” in public perceptions.
“We have to be loud as a movement,” Ms Neate said. “It’s really important to keep this on the agenda, it’s the only way we will continue to get the change.”
Conference founder, Min Grob, said she was thrilled with how the conference went.
“Delegates came from as far afield as Dorset and South Wales confirming yet again the need for more information and further education to help services in how to understand, identify and evidence this insidious abuse,” she added.
“As far as the future is concerned, I am already working on the next two conferences which will be looking deeper into this subject, details of which will be released soon, as well as carrying on with studying law.”