I was deeply saddened, if not horrified, to read the unsound advice given by esteemed journalist, Mariella Frostrup, to a victim of coercive control in the Observer (6 September 2020).
The victim had written to the publication about her desperate circumstances. She had split with her husband when their son was just three. Despite years of trying to co-parent amicably, her ex continued to exert his dominance through their informal child arrangements.
This included threatening to kill himself because she had met a new partner (suicide threats being a hallmark of a high-risk domestic abuser). Like all abusers, the father clearly felt that once the mother was ‘his’, she was always ‘his’ – even if he did not want to invest in any stable family relationship.
He kept her in a classic ‘rubber-banding’ situation – where he would lure her in, give her false hope of family life, and then cruelly push her away. This process is known to ‘trauma-bond’ victims to their abuser, making it harder for them to break free. Clearly, he had no concern for her feelings or the impact on their child. This pattern will be familiar to anyone who has experienced ‘narcissistic’ abuse from a partner or ex-partner and forms part of the well-known cycle of violence.
Rape and coercion
This intolerable situation grew worse when the ex-husband started using the co-parenting arrangements to rape his victim. If she ever refused to sleep with him, he would threaten to take her son away. Sadly, the mother’s fears of losing her son to the abuser were more than justified.
The combined impact of the vociferous Father’s Rights movement, and the 2014 introduction of a legal presumption that contact with both parents will further a child’s best interest, has meant that family courts increasingly award abusive fathers with unsupervised contact – sometimes full ‘custody’.
The chances of the father gaining custody rise if the mother alleges that she or her child are the victim of his abuse. Typically, the father will often claim he is the victim of ‘parental alienation’ which dramatically increases his chances of ‘winning’ in court.
That family courts systemically overlook and minimize abuse, re-victimize survivors, and reward perpetrators has been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice’s report on ‘Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases’ (June 2020). This mother’s fear of losing her child to a perpetrator was founded.
Thousands of women are being abused and coercively controlled by their current or former partner, using the threat of family court/child removal as leverage. Not only are the father’s actions likely to constitute an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is also a crime under s.76 Serious Crime Act 2015 (the law covering the crime of coercive control in England and Wales).
Victim blaming and minimization
Given that this woman was the victim of serious crime, it is truly disheartening to read the advice doled out to her by Frostrup. In short, the woman is chastised for being a doormat who has failed to be the mistress of her own fortune:
“It sounds simplistic, but where many of us go wrong is in refusing to take agency of our own lives – instead allowing others to make subservient our personal desires. It’s very hard, stuck in one form of reality, to conceive and create another, but it’s important that you dream up a vision for the future that’s realistic and achievable.”
Coercive control is never simplistic. It’s never a question of simply lacking agency. Coercive control is about consequences. What keeps a woman in a horrifically abusive situation is the threat that things will be a lot worse if she leaves. The threat of homicide, the threat of violence, the threat that loved ones and family pets will be harmed, the threat of not being able to protect your own child because family court will give the aggressor excessive unsupervised contact.
Real fears that should never be underestimated.
Despite this, Mariella advises:
“And I can reassure you that no court is going to significantly alter custody arrangements just because you put your foot down about your ex-husband’s overnight stays. Any fears over the custody of your son can be addressed through family mediation (try the Family Mediation Council or National Family Mediation).”
“Up until now he seems very much to have had his cake and eaten it with little opposition from you. He can’t take your boy away – that is an empty threat – and, very shortly, your son will be able to make his own choice.”
Abusers do not ‘mediate’
While it is true that the reader’s child is mid-teens, increasingly, family courts will make Child Arrangements Orders until a child is 16. In any event, the notion that a court will not award an abuser with more contact is palpably wrong. Undermining the mother’s genuine fears (fears that led to her being raped) helps no one.
To add insult to injury, Mariella then advises the woman to attend mediation with her abuser. Mediation is completely unsuitable. In fact, domestic abuse survivors are exempt from the mandatory Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) that parties to child ‘custody’ disputes must normally attend before court. It takes little imagination to see the potential for the abuser to overpower and intimidate his victim during mediation.
We need people like Mariella, who are in privileged positions, to take the side of victims and their children (also victims). We need them to put the blame squarely on the perpetrator – which is the only place it should ever fall.
We ask Mariella to please consider revising her advice and giving a response that will sit better with victims, while reflecting the current state of affairs in family court.