Should coercive control and parental alienation in family matters be a criminal offence?

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What is coercive control?

According to a paper released by White Ribbon in 2011, “coercive control usefully describes a whole pattern of strategies employed by a man against a woman. Such strategies occur in an ongoing, even relentless pattern including isolation, intimidation, belittling, humiliation, threats, withholding of necessary resources such as money or transportation, and abuse of the children, other relatives, or even pets.”

Read: From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women

The White Ribbon paper deals specifically with abuse against women by men and while there's plenty of that about, the reverse is also happening on a widespread basis.

If you are a woman who is in or has survived an abusive relationship, you have my respect and empathy. This discussion does not seek to negate your circumstances, nor to encourage you to be more accommodating of your former partner. 


What about coercive control by women over men?

Despite a popular perception that coercive control is something only done by men to women, it could and should also apply to the behaviour of some mothers with resident care of children, towards the non-resident fathers.

Making life difficult for non-resident parents is a form of coercive control I see happening far too often and usually by mothers. I will make myself unpopular I am sure when I say that most often I notice this in women who have previously been stay-at-home mothers and the primary caregiver in their former relationship. Please don't read that as a dig at stay-at-home mothers. I was one and it worked well in our circumstances. However, when those circumstances change for many families, there is often an unwillingness for mothers to accept that fathers are also capable of caring for their children. I can say this with authority having been through it myself. While I made every effort to step back and allow my children's father to parent in his own right, it was a difficult, emotional and trying transition. 


Difficulty for Dads

Still, there are mothers who do not even try and repeatedly breach parenting orders. Quite frankly, very often, there is little the father can do about it without incurring significant costs for court appearances, legal representation and the involvement of family report writers, psychologists or independent children’s lawyers. In addition to the costs, the delays in getting a resolution through the courts mean that by the time the issue in question is addressed, the children have moved into a different phase of life. The court can amend orders but in reality, that is just a new set of orders to be breached.

The types of behaviour that could be considered coercive control include:

  • Repeatedly making last-minute, disruptive changes to previously agreed to contact arrangements

  • Constantly being late at drop off time thereby reducing the time the resident parent spends with the child and sabotaging the plans they had made for the child

  • Refusing to communicate except via solicitors – or refusing to communicate at all

  • Failing to consult the non-resident parent about holiday plans/medical matters/schooling and behavioural issues

  • Criticising or undermining the other parent to the children

  • Demanding that the children have no contact with a new partner

  • Obstructing contact arrangements by speaking on behalf of the child without asking about their wishes

  • Assuming the other parent is incapable of caring for a child who is not feeling well or is upset

  • Making unfounded allegations to people in the children’s lives, such as teachers, about the non-resident parent’s mental state or their lack of concern or parenting capabilities such that he is undermined and under pressure to prove his worth as a parent.

And perhaps in the most serious form:

  • Making false and unsubstantiated claims of mental, sexual or physical abuse towards either the mother or the child.


Parental alienation

Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of the psychological manipulation of a child. It leads to them showing unwarranted fear, disrespect and disdain or hostility towards the victimised parent or other family members. In my view, it's a form of child abuse and extreme psychological abuse of the alienated family member. Coercive control often develops into full-blown parental alienation and it would seem there is very little that the authorities can do about it. Reporting it to the police is a dead end and the family courts are so overburdened there is no joy there either. The courts can issue orders which would allow the police to intervene and enforce orders but at what cost, both financially to the non-resident parent and psychologically to the child?

Many fathers end up stepping back in the hope that their child will eventually see the truth of the situation.  While most do, looking back with adult eyes at their mother with a degree of resentment and disrespect for that part of her behaviour, many don’t. In the interim, too many fathers suffer heartache and anguish which all too frequently ends in a catastrophic loss of life. Around 2,000 Australians take their own lives every year, with males accounting for 78 percent of these deaths. Many of the male deaths are attributed to relationship breakdowns, specifically parental alienation.


Scotland moves to make coercive control a criminal offence

Scotland has recently introduced a draft Bill before parliament which aims to introduce a new domestic abuse criminal offence of 'coercive control'.  The draft Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill introduces a new offence of abusive behaviour towards a person’s partner or ex-partner covering both physical violence and non-physical abuse.

National Manager in Scotland of the Families Need Fathers (FNF) organisation, Ian Maxwell, commented on the current situation in Scotland saying, "At present non-resident parents experiencing coercive control feel unprotected by the law. If they report it to police they are told 'There's nothing we can do. It's a civil matter'. Or if there is a court order in place the only option is the slow, unpredictable and expensive route of raising a contempt of court action.

The situation is the same in Australia except the affected parent makes an application for enforcement or they can start contravention proceedings.

In terms of punishments that could be handed down for coercive control cases, the organisation in Scotland says there should be flexibility in the sentencing including community service as alternatives to imprisonment and/or fines.

In these types of parenting cases, it is not in anyone’s best interests for the parent who's been offended against to get the blame in the eyes of the children for sending the other parent to jail.

“The aim of sentencing should reflect the seriousness with which the court sees the offence but without inflicting further damage on the victim,” said Mr Maxwell.


Should Australia follow Scotland's lead?

I am in support of Australia introducing similar laws to curb the flagrant disregard some parents have for court orders in family matters.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section or on our facebook page.

If this article has raised issues for you and you need some emotional support, please visit our Crisis Support Page to find assistance near you.

Christine Weston Divorce Resource Split Kit
Christine Weston
Divorce Resource

This article contains general information only. For advice regarding your own personal circumstances, always seek individual advice from a qualified professional. Read the full Divorce Disclaimer here

More reading:

Why Some Children Confess to Abuse that Never Happened

Do Family Lawyers deserve their fees?

The good the bad and the ugly of my day in Family Court

Help! My ex won’t let me see my children, what can I do?

Helping your business survive through death and divorce

Life of an alienated parent: Coping with the trauma of parental alienation






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This paper outlines why domestic violence (or more specifically, coercive control) should be crucial to child custody proceedings.

In order to convince others that the child is speaking their own mind an alienating parent will use distraction and manipulation of other

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Contents I. Introduction II. Child Alienation and Estrangement A. Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome B. Kelly and Johnston's Reformulation C. Other ...
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