Coercive behaviour is not always physical but pervades a victim’s daily life
Coercive behaviour is being reported on the news everywhere in Australia thought Sophie as she enjoyed a warm shower. I wonder what the change in terminology is about?
As soon as she returned to the kitchen, she Googled for the difference between ‘controlling’ and ‘coercive’ behaviours. It was a legal definition, and to her relief she found that she’d used the right definition to describe Opa’s behaviour that his sister’s letter had revealed to Bea and Alida’s son.
Bea returned from her daily walk down and up the stairwell to check for mail and the newspaper. ‘That top you’re wearing looks so fresh with all the colours of a spring garden. It makes me realise how often I wear plain coloured clothes.’
Sophie stroked her shoulder, ‘It’s my favourite. Can you believe I’ve had it since 1990 when I stopped in Thailand on the way to trek in Nepal?’
‘Yes! I have clothes from long before then. You buy quality, it lasts a lifetime.’ Bea folded her arms and jutted her jaw, then smiled as she walked to the table. ‘And what are you busy with on your computer now?’
‘I’m wondering what the difference is between ‘controlling’ and ‘coercive’ behaviour, because people helping those affected by domestic violence use the first word, but on the news they talk about the second.’
‘Strange.’ Bea pulled a chair to sit beside Sophie, ‘Oh! It’s legal definitions. They always have to make things complicated.’
‘Agreed. However, on the news they are talking about introducing a law about ‘coercive behaviour.’
‘What’s the difference?’ Bea peered intently at the tablet screen:
“Controlling behaviour is:’a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour’.
“Coercive behaviour is: ‘an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation, or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim’.”
There was a long list detailing coercive behaviour. Bea pointed at the lack of detail included for controlling behaviour. ‘I bet that’s because there still is no law making it a crime to do this in a domestic relationship.’
Sophie nodded while waiting until her aunt looked at her, then scanned down the article. ‘Wow! Good news for once: New domestic abuse legislation under the Serious Crime Act has been introduced on 29 December 2015.’
‘How is it that nobody knows about it now?’ Bea looked at the screen as Sophie pointed at the next paragraph.
“This means that from 29 December, victims who experience controlling or coercive behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice.”
‘Sounds impressive,’ Bea scoffed. ‘But how will a victim of extreme psychological abuse win in the law court when they have no access to the family money? And what is the punishment?’
Sophie scanned ahead and read, ‘The offence carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both’.
Bea thumped the table with her fist. ‘Typical! No compensation for the victim and a smack on the hand for the offender. Maximum five years might apply to assault or rape, if you’re lucky!’
‘Tokenism! That’s the legislative process. Legislation to say they’ve addressed the issue and in fact they’ve just hung a carrot of hope to the victim so lawyers can spend time on it.’ Tears welled in Sophie’s eyes. ‘You know, when you see all these things, you can’t help but naively try to get justice on every point. It’s just more emotional exploitation of the vulnerable!’
‘Yes, as you already learned when your ex dragged you through the court for your house. Meanwhile the lawyer’s invoices mount up.’ Bea walked over to the kettle, filled it and set it to boil.
‘The only winners are the lawyers and the government who collect the fines – probably to pay for the prison term.’ Sophie slumped back in her chair. ‘The victim is left with even less money. Huh! That’s if they can ever get the courage to challenge the perpetrator of extreme psychological abuse – especially if there’s been any threat of harm.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Bea poured water into her tea mug.
‘That would be nice, dank u wel.’ Sophie continued to scroll down the page. ‘Hah! Here’s the exceptions. At the end. Like afterthoughts. By now, most people will have stopped reading and taken action with hope in their hearts that at least the offender will be charged.’
“The offence will not apply retrospectively.”
“The behaviour must be such that the perpetrator knows, or ought to know, that it will have a serious effect on the victim.”
‘And how do you provide evidence?’
‘Exactly.’ Bea gave the teabag an abrupt squeeze.
Sophie returned to the list on her Google search and saw:
“Controlling and Coercive Behaviour | Ringrose Law
‘Oh dear, that was an article from the UK – I just clicked the big link and didn’t notice the small “uk”.’ She clicked again. ‘Yes, written by Emma McGrath.’ Sophie saved the page and copied the link and closed the article.
‘Let’s look at Australia.’ She adjusted her search and clicked. ‘Huh! The title of the third article says it all! It’s a great website called “The Conversation.com”, and the article is called “Australia is not ready to criminalise coercive control, here’s why!”’
Bea was already hurrying over with cups refilled to sit beside her niece. ‘Sounds like Australia is even worse. No wonder you had such a difficult time in the courts.’
‘It starts by stating that the Labor opposition in New South Wales proposed a bill to criminalise coercive control, with a ten year maximum penalty after a couple of terrible murders of women and children by the violent men who they were trying to escape.’ Sophie looked at her aunt who’d leaned toward the tablet.
Bea summarised what she was reading, ‘They highlight how important it is to recognise the serious impact of non-physical forms of domestic violence.’
Sophie moved the screen. ‘Oh look! In the next stand-alone sentence, it states:
“But this does not mean Australia is ready for a stand-alone offence of coercive control. In fact, it would be risky to introduce one at this stage.”
Both women turned to each other; eyebrows raised, eyes wide, lips pursed. ‘They certainly know how to entice us to keep reading.’ Bea sipped her tea while Sophie scrolled further.
‘They have a much better definition of the term, “coercive control”.’ Sophie read snippets.
“… used to capture the ongoing nature of domestic violence, where the abuse is not always physical but pervades a victim’s daily life.
It refers to a wide variety of abusive behaviours including social, financial, psychological and technology-facilitated abuse.
It can include isolating a partner from their friends and family, restricting their movements, using tracking devices on their phone and controlling their appearance and access to money.”
Bea pointed to the heading, ‘So I am very curious to know what is stopping them from making it a criminal offence.’
Sophie scrolled down. ‘They restate the importance of doing so here…
“It has a devastating impact on victims’ independence, well-being and safety. It is the most common risk factor leading up to an intimate partner homicide.”
Bea waved at the screen, trying to hurry the movement to the answer to her question.
Sophie paused and read:
“Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction that has introduced specific criminal offences covering elements of coercive control.”
Bea drummed her fingers on the table. ‘Incredible! Why doesn’t the rest of Australia get on with it then?’ They both read the next paragraph in silence, mouths gaping,
‘Mmm… Very large states, and Victoria is very influential…’ Sophie looked at Bea, then scanned ahead, reading aloud small extracts.
“… successful law reform would rely on victims’ willingness and ability to involve police …many reasons why victims are hesitant to report abuse.”
“…includes fears they will not be believed, the abuse will escalate if police intervene, or they will be blamed for the abuse committed against them.”
‘Only because nothing will happen when the police intervene!’ Sophie yelled at the screen. ‘there’s still a culture of “the victim is to blame”.’ She pointed at the next paragraph.
“Police officers also need to know what to look for — they need to be able to identify the coercive and controlling behaviours and get the right information from the victim.”
‘They were still being angry with me in 2012, without asking me what my fears were about.’ Sophie poked her finger at the screen.
Bea gasped. ‘And when was this article published?’
‘October 2020!’ Sophie was shaking. ‘In 2002, when I was on a Perth committee for domestic violence policy and advocacy, there were only a few specialist women police officers dealing with domestic violence calls for help. Their representative informed us that they were trying to train the rest of the police force between call outs. Bit of an uphill battle, she said.’
Bea sat back with a thud. ‘And these unresolved problems would account for how Alida wouldn’t have had any chance of seeking justice for the way Opa treated her eighty years ago.’
Sophie looked glum, ‘Let alone challenge Opa’s ability to put her in a mental institution and leave her there!’