Since Theresa May’s announcement that men who shout at their wives could face up to 14 years in prison, the issue of coercive control has been in the media.  Launched by a plethora of largely meaningless headlines, the idea that coercive control is a new offence which tightens the net around nasty men, protecting feeble victim women has been on our front pages recently.

Interpreted by women’s groups as being behaviour designed to control women’s freedoms, actually coercive control is defined as follows

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

Which pretty much makes this a gender neutral piece of legislation, meaning that it covers the behaviours of both men AND women.  The problem of course is, that any piece of gender neutral legislation, when enacted in a gender biased field, ends up re-inforcing gender biased outcomes.  Which means that this legislation ends up without a doubt, being about nasty men and defenceless women who are being bullied and nothing else.

What it is most definitely not interpreted as is ‘contact denial’ that pattern of behaviour which is both coercive and controlling in that it involves the systematic interference of a child’s relationship with a parent on a deliberate basis designed to cause harm and abuse.

So it is with sinking heart that I hear stories of FNF’ers attempts to have contact denial or parental alienation – a label it is often interwoven with, labelled domestic violence (because it is coercive control). Sinking heart not because denying a child a relationship with a parent to cause hurt and abuse to both child and parent IS NOT controlling and not coercive, but sinking heart because in the field we are working in, the lack of sophistication in the father’s movement, in raising awareness of critical issues, always leaves me either cringing or despairing.  This latest effort is again doomed to fail in my view, not because it doesn’t have truth in it but because it simply starts from a hopeless place.  Like squaring the circle, as a policy initiative, contact denial as domestic violence is a non starter unless the underlying conditions that allow breaking of relationships between parents and children are changed.  Asking policy makers who are steeped in stereotypes of bad dads and Madonna mothers to accept that said Madonnas are capable of dishing out a dose or two of coercive control by withholding their starving wains from their brutish fathers, (and calling that domestic violence) is akin to telling them that Cinderella was a right old witch who deserved what she got.  It isn’t going to work, it simply won’t wash, it will, like so many of the attempts made to change things, die a lonely death like an old man shouting into the wind.

But that said, there is truth in the statement that denial of a relationship between parent and child on a deliberate and conscious basis, IS a pattern of coercive control.  There is no doubt for example, in the work that we do at the Family Separation Clinic, that alienation in a child often continues a pattern of behaviour which was present between parents before the separation.  Fathers AND mothers are alienated in this way and it is a dynamic which is very clear and persistent in certain groups of alienating parents. It is also well recognised in the international research*.  In order for us to recognise this as mental health professionals however, we have to first of all remove the ‘lens’ through which we understand domestic abuse or as we call it at the Family Separation Clinic, family violence.

It is this lens which causes the father’s movement to fail in trying to establish policy initiatives that highlight the issue of denial of a relationship between parents and child.  This lens is the feminist analysis of family and the violence that takes place in the family.  This feminist approach,  which is unashamedly political in nature, has been popularised over the years to mean that all men’s violence stems from their inherent privilege and all women’s violence is either non existent or, where it is provable, it arises either from mental health problems (caused by men) or self defence.  To speak against this analysis is to be decried as either a victim blamer or violence denier, both of which are designed to silence critics.  This version of domestic violence is accepted almost wholesale amongst social workers and family court professionals, even though it is, without a doubt both political in nature AND based upon faulty statistical evidence.  That this approach to understanding family violence is both accepted AND unchallenged on a policy level by FNF’ers has never ceased to amaze me. Indeed there is even an FNF’er who appears to be publicly supporting feminist analysis of DV as a policy initiative in a convoluted and entirely incomprehensible strategy to improve outcomes for fathers (see comments below).  Little wonder squaring the policy circle and raising the issue of denial of contact as domestic violence looks like an eccentricity instead of the serious policy proposal it could and should be.

In order to achieve the goal of raising the issue of relationship interference and coercive control, one must first tackle  the use of feminist analysis of domestic violence as the dominant approach to understanding violence in the family.  Family violence is a serious and long standing issue which has not, in all of the forty years or more been either stopped or ameliorated by the use of feminist analysis and feminist ‘treatment’ of the problem.  That is because the feminist analysis is based upon a political construct, that of men’s inherent privilege and women’s inherent disadvantage.  The correction of this being the reversal of the power hierarchy and the deliberate punishment of men by women in order to change who holds power and control.  In the family sphere this most often hands control to women after separation and allows them to both dominate and drive the post separation relationship. In this arena, deliberate, conscious, moderate or even mild interference in relationships between children and the parent they do not live with is remarkably easy to achieve. This handing of power from men to women was a deliberate act by feminist policy makers. It was successful to the degree that it gave women control over men after separation, but it failed in its entirety to arrest patterns of coercive control in relationships between men and women.  That is because it is based on the concept of power over, not power between. In the feminist analysis, men’s power over women must be corrected by giving women power over men.  In a non feminist analysis, power over is neutralised to become power that is held between, which leads to very different outcomes that include the whole family, something that is specially important for children and especially for the parents they need all through their lives.

In a non feminist analysis of family violence used at the Family Separation Clinic, we look at patterns of transgenerational behaviours in both men AND women and we examine the ways in which power over and power between parents influences the way that they make post separation arrangements.  When we look at violent behaviours we look at the roots of this, at rage behaviours and the lack of brain development, of learned behaviours and learned helplessness and we assist families to put in place not blame and an exchange of power dynamics but learning and healing and behavioural change.  When we analyse parental alienation using a non feminist DV model, the route to repair for the  whole family becomes possible. Compare this to the routine parentectomy which is prescribed and carried out by those who use feminist approaches and which is accompanied by the easy dismissal of the needs of children for two parents working together.

That is not to say that we do not safeguard our families, we do.  That is not to say that we do not boundary individuals in families, we do.  But we also treat them and help them instead of condemning them. And for me, it is this that is the new policy initiative, not efforts to shoehorn ‘contact denial’ into a paradigm that created the very word ‘contact’ to cause fathering after separation to sound and feel to a child like something scary or not worth the effort.

To persuade people that ‘contact denial’ is an act of coercive control and therefore domestic violence also requires that the current court processes, which allow for the effective ending of a relationship between a parent and child based on allegations proven or otherwise of domestic violence are stopped.  The willingness to end a child’s relationship with a parent based upon the current system of no contact until investigation cannot be acceptable unless it is being carried out in the shadow of a feminist analysis of domestic violence. This analysis, which persuades us to accept that men are inherently dangerous, also captures mothers in its net by teaching us to assume that all allegations are true until proven otherwise. This is contrary to the justice system which teaches us that we are innocent until proven guilty but is based upon the feminist argument that all men are inherently dangerous (and in this paradigm, so are women who are evicted from their children’s lives by the controlling father who persuades the child to make allegations against her mother). All of these scenarios are happening every day in our family courts and all of them stem from the use of feminist analysis of family separation which is political in its construction and designed to drive power into the hands of women.

Family violence, however it is carried out, whether it is a one off event, situational, coercive or otherwise is a criminal act and should be heard in a criminal court without delay.  Whilst awaiting judgement, children and the parent who has been alleged to have been violent should remain in close relationship supervised, supported and faciitated.  When the allegations have been heard, then decisions can and should be made about the nature of the ongoing relationship between the parent and child, with support given where necessary and help and assistance to bring about behavioural change put in place. Should allegations be found to be malicious or unproved, these should be regarded as co-ercive controlling behaviour.  Coercive controlling behaviour in all its forms may require some intensive correction and safeguarding may well be necessary for a time. Those who control through fear and harm, whether they be mothers OR fathers should face punishment. Triaging those relationships where there is immediate danger, using a differentiation route, allows for the immediate safeguarding of those most at risk. It also prevents the routine use of false allegations and it helps those families where the roundabout of repeat violence, separation and reconciliation cycles are present.  These are the things that must change if coercive control patterns that prevent a relationship with a child after separation are to be recognised as domestic violence.

Finally, to convince the electorate that coercive control is more than bad men and oppressed women we have to raise the worth of fathers in their children’s lives, a worth which has to be upheld as distinctly different to that which is attributed to mothers. This in itself is an uphill battle and will become even more  of a problem now that the Jennifer Mcintosh circus in the form of the Mindful Policy Group has rolled into town.  If ever there was a target for those interested in modern family policy, this backward step heralded by Penelope Leach’es poisonous invective about children’s overnight stays with their father is it.. Having recently been made aware that the MPG are about to start training mediators, lawyers et al in the neuroscience of separated parenting, to my mind this is where all of the efforts of those of use committed to whole family post separation support should be focused. Remember, laws can be gender neutral but become gender biased in the enactment of them. MPG could so very easily turn the clock back forty years on services surrounding our separated families (more on that in days to come).

Can the fathers movement strategise to prevent the UK heading down the alleyways of the past or will we, even before we got to say the word modernise, find ourselves stuck in a place where contact denial is a justifiable act. Because in the world of the UK DV lobby, anyone who does not see their children must have done something to cause it and all women must be believed without question. The reality that allegations are often made by people who have psychological problems or people who are in high levels of emotional crisis is not tolerated in this world. Thus the reality of denial of the relationship between child and the parent they no longer live with as a pattern of coercive control which is designed to cause harm is both hidden and denied.

I no longer work in the charitable sector and I no longer work with government, I chose instead, with Nick, to walk away and work directly again with the families that need our help. In our world, where family violence is wrong and must be stopped, healing and teaching and changing behaviours is what helps families to end the transgenerational patterns of coercive control and non feminist/non political analysis is what makes the difference in our work. Ironically it was exactly this understanding of the field that I work in that caused a lawyer this week to accuse me of ‘spouting off’ with ‘clear political bias.’  In a field which is riddled with political bias, in which forty years of women’s political activism has effectively silenced, strangled and shunted fathers (and some mothers who are regarded simply as the unintended consequences of feminist policy) to the margins of their children’s lives, I consider it to be one of my greatest achievements to be able to speak the truth of what I see as well as continue to help families change and grow and heal.

Squaring the circle is not impossible but it requires a strategy in which the voices that speak are brave enough to face the truth of the multi-factored barriers that must change if coercive control is to include denial of a relationship with a child. Anything less is appeasement and whining into the wind and the families we work with deserve so much better than that.

* For the largest piece of research on statistical evidence around Domestic Violence worldwide please go to http://domesticviolenceresearch.org/pages/12_page_findings.htm

In this unprecedented undertaking, a total of 42 scholars and 70 research assistants at 20 universities and research institutions spent two years or more researching their topics and writing the results. Approximately 12,000 studies were considered and approximately 2,000 were summarized and organized into tables. The 17 manuscripts, which provide a review of findings on each of the topics, for a total of 2,300+ pages, appear in 5 consecutive special issues of Partner Abuse published between April, 2012 and April, 2013. All conclusions, including the extent to which the research evidence supports or undermines current theories, are based strictly on the data collected.

Facts and Statistics on Prevalence of Partner Abuse

Victimization

Overall, 24% of individuals assaulted by a partner at least once in their lifetime (23% for females and 19.3% for males)
Higher overall rates among dating students
Higher victimization for male than female high school students
Lifetime rates higher among women than men
Past year rates somewhat higher among men
Higher rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) among younger, dating populations “highlights the need for school-based IPV prevention and intervention efforts”
Perpetration

Overall, 25.3% of individuals have perpetrated IPV
Rates of female-perpetrated violence higher than male-perpetrated (28.3% vs. 21.6%)
Wide range in perpetration rates: 1.0% to 61.6% for males; 2.4% to 68.9% for women,
Range of findings due to variety of samples and operational definitions of PV
Emotional Abuse and Control

80% of individuals have perpetrated emotional abuse
Emotional abuse categorized as either expressive (in response to a provocation) or coercive (intended to monitor, control and/or threaten)
Across studies, 40% of women and 32% of men reported expressive abuse; 41% of women and 43% of men reported coercive abuse
According to national samples, 0.2% of men and 4.5% of women have been forced to have sexual intercourse by a partner
4.1% to 8% of women and 0.5% to 2% of men report at least one incident of stalking during their lifetime
Intimate stalkers comprise somewhere between one-third and one half of all stalkers.
Within studies of stalking and obsessive behaviors, gender differences are much less when all types of obsessive pursuit behaviors are considered, but more skewed toward female victims when the focus is on physical stalking
Facts and Statistics on Context

Bi-directional vs. Uni-directional

Among large population samples, 57.9% of IPV reported was bi-directional, 42% unidirectional; 13.8% of the unidirectional violence was male to female (MFPV), 28.3% was female to male (FMPV)
Among school and college samples, percentage of bidirectional violence was 51.9%; 16.2% was MFPV and 31.9% was FMPV
Among respondents reporting IPV in legal or female-oriented clinical/treatment seeking samples not associated with the military, 72.3% was bi-directional; 13.3% was MFPV, 14.4% was FMPV
Within military and male treatment samples, only 39% of IPV was bi-directional; 43.4% was MFPV and 17.3% FMPV
Unweighted rates: bidirectional rates ranged from 49.2% (legal/female treatment) to 69.7% (legal/male treatment)
Extent of bi-directionality in IPV comparable between heterosexual and LGBT populations
50.9% of IPV among Whites bilateral; 49% among Latinos; 61.8% among African-Americans
Motivation

Male and female IPV perpetrated from similar motives – primarily to get back at a partner for emotionally hurting them, because of stress or jealousy, to express anger and other feelings that they could not put into words or communicate, and to get their partner’s attention.
Eight studies directly compared men and women in the power/control motive and subjected their findings to statistical analyses. Three reported no significant gender differences and one had mixed findings. One paper found that women were more motivated to perpetrate violence as a result of power/control than were men, and three found that men were more motivated; however, gender differences were weak
Of the ten papers containing gender-specific statistical analyses, five indicated that women were significantly more likely to report self-defense as a motive for perpetration than men. Four papers did not find statistically significant gender differences, and one paper reported that men were more likely to report this motive than women. Authors point out that it might be particularly difficult for highly masculine males to admit to perpetrating violence in self-defense, as this admission implies vulnerability.
Self-defense was endorsed in most samples by only a minority of respondents, male and female. For non-perpetrator samples, the rates of self-defense reported by men ranged from 0% to 21%, and for women the range was 5% to 35%. The highest rates of reported self-defense motives (50% for men, 65.4% for women) came from samples of perpetrators, who may have reasons to overestimate this motive.
None of the studies reported that anger/retaliation was significantly more of a motive for men than women’s violence; instead, two papers indicated that anger was more likely to be a motive for women’s violence as compared to men.
Jealousy/partner cheating seems to be a motive to perpetrate violence for both men and women.