Think Coercive Control and wherever you are in the feminist driven arena of family services you will see and hear only one response, that of men’s control over women. Look at the evidence however and you will begin to understand why the Family Separation Clinic does not approach the issue of family violence in the same way. There is very clear and unequivocal evidence drawn from major studies across the world, that family violence is not a gendered issue. Whilst saying that in earshot of any of the government’s family services such as CAFCASS causes some staff to believe that one is making vitriolic anti mother statements, it is the truth and it is essential that when working with separated families one uses the truth and nothing but the truth. Let me explain.
There is a very serious issue that arises during family separation which is often completely ignored by evaluators, mediators and others who work with the separated family. This is that coercive control patterns which were present before the separation happened, can be played out after separation using the children of the family as conduits for that control. The incidence of false allegations made by a child against a parent is one such pattern and as such it is deeply damaging to both children and parent as it involves the child in a pattern of intimate partner violence. In the field of family separation in the UK at least, the deeply held beliefs about separating families which have been forced upon our society by the women’s rights lobby groups over the years, have created a stereotyped picture that looks like bad fathers hurting good mothers and their children. So deep is this belief that children who are caught in the coercive controlling grip of a parent after separation and forced into making false allegations to uphold the power that this parent has over the other, are often simply invisible to practitioners. Couple that with the focus on children’s wishes and feelings and add in a dash of child abuse hysteria which is currently running up and down our land again and you have the perfect ingredients for the controlling parent to use the child to make the allegations that will prevent the other parent from seeing the child again. Or at least for long enough to ensure that the child can be completely alienated from the other parent’s life by deepening inculcated fears and phobias of that parent.
The problem with the way that we support separated families in this country is that for too long we have been driven to believe that this is only about dads who leave families and mothers and children who are abandoned. We have also been encouraged to believe that the only thing wrong with family separation is that said abandoned mothers are struggling to put food on the table and shoes on their children’s feet. This is untrue. It is a stereotype that serves to support the women’s rights groups who have dominated the social policy space around family separation for too long. It is dangerous and it is corrosive, especially to children who are least well served by its ongoing promotion.
Working close to the coal face of family separation, stereotypes are not useful in helping to understand what is really going on in a family. Use of punitive beliefs to drive practice does not serve children who are vulnerable to becoming caught up in parental battles. Looking beyond stereotypes, it is easy to see that the way that a family separates is very similar to the way that the family operated when it was together. Lines of power and control are utilised in just the same way. People do not change during separation, they simply sharpen and harden their inherent traits and they often fall back onto negative behaviours which are used to the full to power their way through to victory.
Because family separation is not about bad dads abandoning angelic mothers and their starving children. Much as we might like to think it is (because that makes it easy to deal with in policy and practice terms), it is not. And saying it is not is not anti mother and it is not pro father, it is simply raising the reality that family separation is about mothers and fathers, some of whom behave well and some of whom do not. When one reaches that place in practice with families, it is easier to see what is really going on and when you see what is really going on it is possible to assist the family. Properly assist I mean, not shove them into a state run service or the family courts where they are run through the mill of other people’s stereotyped beliefs again until they conform, walk away or die. And I mean die. Too many men die after family separation, not because they are not able to talk about their feelings but because of the relentless barriers placed in the way of their relationships with their children, all put there by the stereotyped beliefs which prevail in the world around them. Yes, women die too, I am not denying that. But we hear about the women, we never hear about the men. Speaking about both is important in this field.
Working with that which we do not hear about is the focus of our research work at the Family Separation Clinic where we are examining Intimate Partner Violence in family separation and the way in which children are used in this through the use of false allegations of sexual abuse. False allegations are differentiated by Bernet et al into two categories, false and fabricated. False allegations are those which originate as rumors and which spiral out of control and fabricated allegations are those which are deliberately and maliciously generated either by a parent or by a parent using the child to report them. Whichever category the allegation is in, the outcome in the UK is the same. When allegations of sexual abuse are made, contact between the child and the parent they are made against stops and family proceedings must then await the outcome of any criminal proceedings which arise. Working as we do at the Clinic with high conflict families, false allegations are part of the landscape and they affect mothers as much as they affect fathers. And as deeper examination of the family dynamic shows, allegations of this nature are most often part of an ongoing pattern of ongoing intimate partner violence which has been present in the relationship prior to separation and which continues afterwards through coercive control of the child.
I should be clear that in our work we also differentiate between child sexual abuse which is real and that which is alleged as part of a campaign of control. Differentiating between real and false child sexual abuse allegations requires careful work and demands that the allegations are set within the family dynamic both in the present moment and historically. Achieving clear vision in this area requires us to work outside the feminist paradigm. This is because the feminist belief system which dominates family services, teaches that all women and children must be believed without question and questioning this belief means that one is biased against mothers. This double bind which is imposed upon practitioners, is dangerous to both women AND children because it a) captures mothers in the net of fixed beliefs that all women are good women and b) causes practitioners to overlook the damage that mothers can do to their children. To understand what I mean here let me unpick this just a little bit.
Intimate Partner Violence is not a gendered issue. It just isn’t. Look at the facts in the link above. Men AND women are violent and men AND women are harmed by intimate partner violence. To believe otherwise is to simply ignore the facts and impose your own (untrue) belief system upon families and force them to conform to this. This is not equalities practice, this is discrimination in action. And when one works from a discriminatory perspective, one captures not only the people who fit your stereotyped beliefs, but those who don’t too. This is called ‘unintended consequences’ in feminist speak.
It works like this. If you believe that only men are capable of intimate partner violence and only women can be victims, when you come to look at the separated family where a child is making allegations of child sexual abuse, who do you assume is the abuser?
If you believe that coercive control is something that a man uses against a woman, when a child makes an allegation of child sexual abuse against a father, what is your first reaction?
What do you do then when the child makes an allegation of sexual abuse against her mother?
And what do you do when the allegation of child sexual abuse against his father is clearly shown to be untrue but the child and his mother continue to hold fast to the statement that it happened?
Who do you believe and why do you believe it? Is your belief evidence based or is it based upon your own gendered assumptions about violence in the home? When you face those realities which do not fit your belief system, how do you go on to assist families? Or do you continue to try and make them fit your belief system instead of their reality?
Services delivered within a feminist paradigm, which teaches that men are violent and women are not, create significant problems for parents who face false allegations as part of a pattern of intimate partner violence after family separation. For men who face such allegations the prevailing belief is that they are guilty until they are able to prove their innocence and for women so accused, the belief is that they must be really really bad people because women do not sexually abuse children and therefore if a child is saying that it happened they are courageously speaking the unspeakable. All of which provides the coercively controlling parent with the perfect conditions for continuing their abuse, using not only the child but the practitioners who work with the family, the police and even Judges themselves who are not all free of their own deeply held beliefs about what men and women do.
Working outside of the feminist paradigm, with the facts and not the fantasy, it becomes possible to see the family and its patterns of power and control more clearly. This brings potential for understanding false allegations within a new power and control paradigm, one which uses not a constructed idea of patriarchy as its framework but horizontal and vertical lines of assessment which examine past behaviours, historical context and trans-generational family patterns. Locating the separating family within this context allows one to examine allegations within a framework of understanding what brought the family to this place – why this, why now? Using tools such as SET (sequence, escalation, timing) factors developed by Bush and Ross in 1987, allegations are examined within the current dynamic between parents and particular examination is made of the power and control element of the allegations. As Campbell (2014) states, ‘Were the allegations timed in such a way that one parent garnered greater control, has the family system divided itself into two hostile coalitions? Who did the child disclose the allegations to, was it the mother or someone in her coalition or was it outside of a coalition, a teacher perhaps or some other impartial person?’ All of these elements allow the person who is evaluating the allegations to get closer to the reality of what is really going on. All of these elements are worked with outside of the feminist belief system and all are based upon an understanding that coercive control patters and allegations of child sexual abuse can be closely linked in cases of family separation.
Child sexual abuse allegations are damaging in the extreme in a landscape which is already littered with suffering. Look closely at this landscape however and you will see that this is not a war between two people but a war waged by one person against the other with the heavy weaponry being the children involved. When the lines of power and control are made visible through the application of non gendered practice, it is possible to see which parent is the war monger and which one is not. And the one who is not is the healthy parent who is the person most capable of keeping the child safe. Too many practitioners who come to these scenes of devastation and destruction assume that they know what is really going on and treat the problem as a he said/she said situation. Too many bring their own belief systems to the war zone and spend their time trying to make parents fit their paradigm, causing more pain, more suffering and abandoning children to their fate as the conduits of hatred and harm.
When we step out of the need to believe that challenging feminist belief systems automatically make us anti mother or pro father our ability to serve the families who need us improves ten fold. Go on, read the statistical evidence in the link in the first paragraph and open your mind to reality. Intimate partner violence and coercive control is happening all around you, perpetrated by women as well as men and capturing children and rendering them victim to not only the abusing parent but your practice too. If you want to be part of the solution, stop being part of the problem and wake up to the reality of what really goes on in separated families. The children whose best interests you are charged with serving, depend upon you to do so.