Use the law to address coercive control involving interference in the mother-child relationship

I have had a number of emails in the last week from women whose ex-partners are turning their children against them. These emails are in response to a presentation that I gave at the WMSDAC conference in Birmingham last week on coercive control through the use of children and the ways that abusive men target the mother-child relationship.

What I recommend to anyone in this situation is to understand how strategies involving children, directly or indirectly, particularly those that target women as mothers, and interfere or seek to destroy the mother-child relationship are part of a pattern of coercive control. We now have a law in the UK to address coercive control and I urge anyone experiencing this range of tactics to pursue their abuser using this law.

Understand what coercive control is. There is much information on the internet, e.g. Rights Of Women have a good info page:

Rights of Women

It is vital that you visit your local DVA services asap to explain that you are experiencing post-separation abuse and that your ex-partner is continuing to control, abuse, threaten, intimidate, frighten and punish you through your children. Women’s Aid have a wealth of information about where to find help and support.

Women’s Aid

If your abuser is one who threatened you with loss of contact with your children (as is very common), explain that your children don’t want to see you because he has carried out this threat, and this is the consequence of the coercive control that you experienced during your relationship. It is important that you engage with your local DVA services to build a paper trail of how you have reported the abuse over a period of time. You will be asked to keep a detailed diary of all the ways in which your partner is coercively controlling you. I advise that you record in as much detail as possible how this started before your children were turned against you or stopped seeing you, describing the grooming and alienating strategies that led to your separation from each other. This paper trail is important in order for you to apply for legal aid. You might be able to get legal aid if you have evidence that you or your children have been victims of domestic abuse or violence and you can’t afford to pay legal costs.

Legal aid

Many abusive men have engineered a situation through the family courts where women have lost contact with their children when the abuser has used the concept of parental alienation syndrome to claim that reports of DVA and CSA are fabricated and are really attempts by ‘malicious mothers’ to prevent contact between loving fathers and their children. This is often a very successful strategy of abusive men who use the family courts to continue abuse and control because this narrative has become embedded in the national psyche through decades of promulgation by fathers’ rights activists. It is virtually an article of faith now in the family courts that reports of DVA and CSA are likely to be false allegations. So much so that women who make such reports at the time of divorce and separation are often advised by their solicitors to keep quiet about these because they are likely to be disbelieved and their abusers even more likely to be awarded greater contact.

In contrast, family courts rarely recognise the abuse that women  and children experience when abusive men use alienating strategies themselves; when they target the mother-child relationship. This is because these tactics form part of a continuum of violence against women that are denied, minimised or ignored by courts – largely because of the parental alienation syndrome concept. This concept, therefore, has become a powerful tool for abusive men to simultaneously deny their abuse and commit further abuse through using alienating strategies, refuting alienating strategies and accusing women of alienating strategies. All of which are more likely to be believed by professionals in family courts then women’s own accounts of abuse perpetrated towards them and their children.

It is important to understand how abusive men co-opt professionals into abusive strategies using children by overwhelming services with their versions of events, claiming that they are the real victims. They use the same tactics with professionals as they do with their victims – either to charm or elicit sympathy, or to threaten and intimidate. They manipulate workers and exploit systems, by capitalising on victim/mother-blaming discourses that are embedded in patriarchal institutions. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ mothers, mothers who ‘fail to protect’, the ‘unfit’ mother are all examples of such myths that perpetrators use to their advantage. Many women who are victims and survivors of abuse find that when they seek help through the normal channels the gaze of services focuses on them as mothers, scrutinises their behaviour and blames them. Simultaneously, men’s abuse becomes invisible when the abuse is denied and reframed as lies by ‘implacably hostile’ mothers. These same men are then viewed as ‘good fathers’ and ‘caring dads’ when they ‘symbolise family values’ within the paradigm of ‘shared parenting’.

Seek out professionals who understand coercive control and ask them to help you challenge it. Find support from other women in similar situations so that you don’t feel so alone in what you are going through. MATCH mothers is such an organisation. Many of their members are unfortunately very attached to the concept of parental alienation syndrome and spend time promoting it through awareness-raising and activism and this is unhelpful. That aside, most members understand the pain and suffering of being separated from their children by their abuser and can help with that feeling of universality – that you are not the only woman in the world to experience the anguish, isolation, humiliation, blame and self-blame of being a mother apart from her children.

Good luck and stay strong.

 

About Laura Monk

I am a researcher and counselling tutor based at University of Nottingham. My doctoral research investigated how to improve responses to mothers who become separated from their children. I developed a training workshop for the professionals who mothers come into contact with - largely at the intersection of health and social care, the family courts and domestic abuse services. Laura is also a counsellor and psychotherapists who works with survivors of domestic abuse and is a Women's Aid domestic violence prevention advocate.
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12 Responses to Use the law to address coercive control involving interference in the mother-child relationship

  1. laurammonk says:

    As always, this post does not suggest that all men are abusive or that all men seeking contact are abusers. I am not biased against men or fathers. I do not claim that all domestic abuse is perpetrated by men. I work with and support many men on a daily basis in therapy and education, and in my personal life. The focus of my research is on mothers – how they become separated from their children in a context of domestic abuse and coercive control. Because I focus on mothers I am not saying this doesn’t happen to fathers, but my area of research is looking at this phenomenon in a context of mother-blaming and motherhood ideology . I have the right to disseminate my research, to support mothers, and to educate professionals. I would kindly ask members of fathers’ rights groups and men’s rights activists not to attack me further for my views, or tweet that I am bigoted, or make personal attacks when you don’t know me or what I’ve been through, or to make assumptions about my sexuality and write about this publicly just because I am interested in feminisms. I have fought hard to find my voice and you will not silence me. 

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    • Jane says:

      Hi
      I have been victimised by my now ex partner for the last ten years he has destroyed my self esteem taking me from a strong positive person to a fragile looser.
      He has taken my ten year old son away from me and as of today I have not seen him since April despite the UK courts discussion etc.
      My ex partner resides in Greece (he is British)
      I am fighting this through the UK court but I cannot afford the bills
      Can anyone help me ?

      Jane

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      • Laura Monk says:

        Dear Jane
        I’m sorry to hear about your situation – it sounds very distressing and I can hear how vulnerable you are feeling.
        The family courts are not only very costly but they can exacerbate this type of situation also.
        I offer consultancy (advice, guidance and support), in addition to counselling and psychotherapy – both in Nottingham and London.
        Please see the page ‘My Practice’ on this blog for more information and please get in touch if you think I might be able to help you. I have a space available this Friday (20th October) in London at 11.15 – if you would like me to reserve it for you let me know asap.
        Best wishes, Laura

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  2. Bhavini Shrivastava says:

    Hello Laura

    Your research sounds very important and exciting for us non resident mum’s. I was struck by your statement that non resident parents get too preoccupied with parental alienation, awareness raising and activism and was wondering if you could explain more about this. Thank you Bhavini

    Liked by 1 person

    • laurammonk says:

      Hi Bhavini, thank you for your interest in my work. I’d be happy to explain more about the problems with parental alienation for abused mums so I am planning a blog post on this subject very soon. Watch this space. Many thanks, Laura

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  3. Pramila says:

    Hi Laura,
    I have been victim of domestic abuse and currently fighting for kids custody. My Ex uses the kids to control me and making them say that they do not wish to see me. They have been the prime direct witnesses of abuse. I feel that I am not properly represented by my Barrister in the court. The social worker is saying that the kids are comfortable with the dad and the step-mother and hence should be left alone with the dad. I did not had any contact with them for the last two years despite me paying the child maintenance. The police are refusing to interfere or take action against him as it was reported late. (ideally should be reported within 6 months). I wish to bring the kids out of the negative hostile environment. Please could you suggest me good law firm/barrister who could help me out of this.

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    • laurammonk says:

      Hi Pramila, i’m sorry to hear about your situation. I don’t know that it is of any comfort to you but lots of women who have experienced domestic violence are in your situation with professionals who don’t know how to help them or who are not inclined to think it’s a problem that children do not want to see their mothers following an abusive relationship. I wish I knew of a solicitor to recommend and I am currently seeking one as I get lots of enquiries for mothers in similar situations to you who are desperately looking for good representation. Do have a look at the rights of women website as there is lots of good advice on there. Also have a look at the match mothers website as they can offer nonjudgemental emotional support to mothers separated from their children. Sorry not to be of more help and I wish you all the best, Laura

      If you are a barrister reading this, and think you can help, please get in touch.

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  4. Pramila says:

    Thanks Laura.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erica Ocasio says:

    Hi Laura,

    Sadly your article hit the nail on the head for me. My daughter is now six and her whole life her father has been abusive to use both and despite leaving him four years ago this has not stopped. He’s even remarried to a woman that Participates and promotes his continued attempts to control and dominate us both. In fact he flat out told me our daughter and I would always be his property and his to control. He’s now threatening to take her away because I had to move twice to get on my feet and he’s saying that it makes me unstable since I’m trying to move again to start a family with a wonderful man who loves us both and further my career. Im moving to California soon and was hopin you knew of a California or US law similar to the uk law you mentioned. I’m so tired of my daughter crying and not being heard by him or the court. It’s breaking my soul apart and as her advocate this needs to be dealt with. Any advice you can give please do I don’t know where to go or what to do anymore…. I tried for years to get help from domestic violence aids and free legal help and the judge looked at it as a trick of a manipulative woman and when my daughter had ptsd from I was still living with her father the judge ruled kids can’t have that. If my soul dies so be it but I can’t let hers be condemned. At six she says she wishes she wasn’t born because her father ruins her life and she wishes he was dead. It’s just horrible all around. I appreciate any guidance you may have for a struggling mom across the pond

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    • laurammonk says:

      I’m sorry to hear of your plight Erica, which is all too familiar to me. I hope that you can continue to maintain contact with your daughter despite the significant changes in your life, which your ex could use against you. I know that academics in the field of DVA in the US -such as Professor Evan Stark – are working hard to address coercive control but there is no US law yet. Read his book and understand what you are up against. When you go to court, recommend your solicitor draws upon academic papers by him to understand the nature of coercive control. Abusive men who use the family courts as platforms to continue their abuse, control, harassment and intimidation know that the mother-blaming underpinnings of patriarchal institutions can be exploited to their gain. Judges and family court personnel are influenced by media stories and myths about ‘malicious moms’. Fight this ignorance and bias with academic articles and a record of what your ex does. Keep meticulous records and maintain contact with DV services where you share what’s going on to create a paper trail. Fight attitudes, perceptions and beliefs with the facts. Good luck, Laura

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  6. Susan says:

    Your statements sound very biased against men (I’m a woman). If you didn’t want to sound biased you could have spoken about coercive control by both men and women. Courts almost always favor mothers over fathers. I’m an educator and have seen so many cases where woman who are clearly mentally unstable are awarded custody. When the father tries to point this out, he is accused of trying to alienate the mother.
    Articles such as this do harm in continuing the misperceptions/misconceptions that women are better able to parent than men. Call it even; talk about coercive control, but don’t pin that title exclusively on men.

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    • laurammonk says:

      Hi Susan, thank you for your comments and interest in my article.
      I think we are all biased to one extent or another depending on our experiences. I have clearly had very different experiences to you. As a researcher, I am always aware of my biases and avoid claims of generalisablity. My work is with mothers who become separated from their children in a context of DVA. I make no claims that the areas of my research are a problem exclusive to women.
      However, there is solid evidence that shows that DVA is a gendered crime. It is predominantly men who are the offenders and women who suffer the most severe forms of violence and most persistent abuse (Walby and Allen (2004). Of course, there are male victims of DVA. As a psychotherapist and university teacher teacher in counselling, I have met a number of male victims of family violence of all types perpetrated by both men and women. But more widely, violence is gendered behaviour that relates to the power and domination of men over women. A more contemporary understanding of DVA is that it is less about incidences (more often reported by men) and more about a pattern of coercive control (more often reported by women).
      I am a DVA educator, and I think it’s very important not to apply a gender-neutral approach to coercive control because this is to misunderstand the dynamics of the problem. If you read Professor Evan Stark’s book on coercive control you it is clear that it is gendered because it relies on women’s vulnerability as women due to sexual inequality. He says that coercive control is:
      “Deployed almost exclusively by men to dominate individual women …[in order to] secure privileges that involve the [women’s] use of time, control over material resources, access to sex, and personal service… [through] the micro-regulation of everyday behaviours associated with stereotypic female roles, such as how women dress, cook, clean, socialise, care for their children, or perform sexually… which is achieved by exploiting the benefits women derive from their newfound equality… and the disadvantages they suffer because of persistent sexual discrimination in the market and their consignment to default domestic roles ” (Stark 2007:5).
      I am diametrically opposed to your beliefs about what happens in the family courts. I assert that my article goes some way to address the myths such as courts favouring mothers over fathers. This is simply not true as quality studies such as Maebh Harding’s study showed (2015). These myths have been promulgated by FRGs for years and are easy for people to accept unthinkingly because mothers are most often awarded greater responsibility for children. This has nothing to do with favouring mothers, however, but because it is mostly mothers that undertook the care for the children before the application to court and mostly mothers that are seeking to continue that care. It is a fact that the greater responsibility for children’s care is shouldered by women (and many men want it that way) so, of course, that usually continues after separation.
      I’m not sure what you mean by women who are “clearly mentally unstable” being awarded custody. But I do know that the psychological effects of DVA that can be interpreted as mental and personality disorder often improve post-separation – as does the mental health of the child.
      There is a large body of research that shows it is a common tactic for abusive men to falsely accuse their children’s mothers of a slew of mental health and immoral behaviours in an effort to defame her and undermine her mothering role. What might look like a mental health problem is often distress at the experience of trying to protect one’s child when this is threatened and the prospect of losing care of a child to an abuser.
      Parental alienation syndrome is a highly gendered concept that its originator (Gardner) claimed was initiated by women in 90% of cases. This is why it is now such a problem for women today in the family courts. As my article pointed out, it has become such a problem for women who report DVA and child sexual abuse to be accused of parental alienation that lawyers advise them to keep quiet about it (see Lapierre and Cote 2016).
      When women have been required to produce and care for children for millennia, it is an interesting notion that we should do something to halt “the misperceptions/misconceptions that women are better able to parent than men” don’t you think? Perhaps we will be better able to think of men and women being equally able to parent when there is equality of parenting. I know of many amazing fathers and I think it is true that they can be equally capable parents – and sometimes better parents than mothers in my experience.
      But I don’t come across so many men of this type in my research as my studies are with mothers who are at risk of becoming, or already have become, separated from their children in a context of DVA. Therefore, the men I refer to are abusive men. I do try and point this out when writing my articles to avoid misunderstanding that I am biased again men as I am often accused of being. I am not in the least and I don’t know if you saw my comment in the first comment box? That’s why I make my position clear. Perhaps it would be better at the start of articles?
      Best wishes, Laura

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