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Coercive control: 'If I didn’t do what he wanted me to, myself and the kids would suffer'

The government must include the offence of coercive control in the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill, writes Sharon O’Halloran.

Sharon O'Halloran CEO, SAFE Ireland

LAST WEEK, THE Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 was signed into law. For victims of domestic violence, it is a milestone piece of legislation that will help make their passage through our courts and justice system easier.

But the Act will be a completely missed opportunity to fully acknowledge the pernicious and controlling nature of domestic violence as a dangerous and always life threatening crime if the government doesn’t follow it with the inclusion of the offence of coercive control in the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill.

Sarah Hines and Alicia Brough

It’s not a coincidence that we are making this call today. 15 November marks the anniversary of the murder of four innocent victims, Sarah Hines and her friend Alicia Brough, and Sarah’s two children Reece (3) and Amy (5 months).

On 15 November 2010, they were stabbed by John Geary, Sarah’s former partner. We have worked closely with Alicia’s mother Maria Dempsey over many years and we know from her that John Geary’s behaviour that day was not spontaneous. He had a history of controlling, intimidating behaviour. That was why her daughter Alicia was living with her best friend, to help her and to support her against his threats and abuse.

Maria always contends that if John Geary’s pattern of controlling and obsessive behaviour had not been confined to a domestic setting, it may not have resulted in the murder of four people.

And Maria is right. Because in intimate partner relationships, we know that murder can be the final fatal act of an abuser’s controlling tyranny.

Years of insidious control

Domestic homicide reviews in the UK have shown that in a staggering 92% of the reviewed cases of women who were murdered, there was evidence of years and often decades of insidious control, obsession, threats, isolation and intimidation. If we had similar research here, we would probably find the same correlation. Anecdotally we already know the answer.

Coercive control describes this pattern of sustained emotional and psychological abuse of an intimate partner. It can include threats, intimidation, control and restrictions of liberty. It can also include physical and sexual violence, which are often used as tools by abusers to exert further control and fear.

As one women who worked with us for our groundbreaking Lawlessness of the Home research told us about the sexual violence she had endured for years:

If I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, myself and the kids would suffer the consequences. He’d get into really bad form and start fighting and hitting us, so I sort of went that way, just to keep me and my kids safe.

Coercive control knows no bounds

Coercive control knows no bounds. Abusers tightly control house finances, allowing women to shop with the bankcard but then taking it back, checking the restricted family groceries and punishing if there’s a penny missing.

They restrict the petrol in the car so that women can’t drive beyond a set, isolating radius. They check phone logs, text messages, insert tracking and microphone devices into mobiles.

They rule the house as tyrannies of order and routine – what time the dinner is served at, how the cutlery is set, what time the children go to bed, switching on the heat or spontaneously inviting a child’s friend to the house after school – are time-bombs for the threat of violent explosion.

And yet, coercive control is regarded as the “soft” form of domestic abuse. It doesn’t always leave bruises. It doesn’t always result in broken bones. It’s not a proper offence.

But the women we work with tell us everyday that the emotional and psychological abuse they have endured is actually the greatest threat to their physical and mental health, and their safety.

A glaring gap

So, while the enactment of the Victims of Crime Act last week is hugely welcome, we feel that there will be a glaring gap in the recognition of the most dangerous threat of domestic violence if the government continues to prevaricate on including coercive control as a specific offence in the long awaited domestic violence legislation.

If the DV Bill 2017 continues to ignore coercive control, it will completely disconnect the hanging damocles of murder for women and children from the pernicious risk factor that exists for that fatal end.

In Ireland, we have a moment in time opportunity to do the right thing – to put in place strong domestic violence legislation that really works for women and children, that responds to their lived terror, that provides them with a way to be believed, that joins the dots at last between insidious control and fatal violence.

We have started that with a strong Victims of Crime Act. But, the next step now is to ensure is that our Domestic Violence legislation is fit for purpose.

Sharon O’Halloran is CEO of SAFE Ireland, the national social change agency working to make Ireland the safest country in the world for women and children.

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About the author:

Sharon O'Halloran  / CEO, SAFE Ireland

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