Coercive control, regularly at the heart of family violence, is now listed in the Divorce Act as a factor in the best interest determinations for children.
The Divorce Act, as amended in March 2021, lists coercive controlling behaviours as a factor in best interest determinations for children. This amendment rightfully recognizes the potential harm of coercive control when determining the best interests of children.
What is Coercive Control?
Coercive control is an ongoing pattern of the use of threat, force, emotional abuse, and other means to dominate a person and get them to submit and comply. Coercive control is regularly at the heart of family violence. Research characterizes control as the golden thread running through all abuse. Coercive control tends to be more dangerous than other forms of abuse and is more likely to affect parenting.
What Does it Look Like?
Coercive control does not “look” a certain way. In family law, it often includes behaviours that create a relationship where the perpetrator micromanages the victim’s parenting and everyday life. The victim’s freedom to make their own decisions is also limited, often to a draconian extent. The perpetrator may accomplish this via physical violence, sexual violence, social control, control of the children, micromanagement of a victim’s parenting, intimidation, surveillance, stalking, financial control, and psychological control. All these areas of control can be divided further into specific tactics. Psychological control or “non-violent control” is common but generally the most difficult to discern. This method of control is essential to understand, especially gaslighting – a method of undermining the abused person’s sense of sanity. The deceptive nature of coercive control is captured by phrases such as “walking on eggshells” and “death by 1,000 cuts.”
Proving Coercive Control
Victims often have a difficult time proving their claims in court proceedings for various reasons. They may also present poorly in legal proceedings because of trauma, limited or no witnesses, limited resources, and other factors. This creates a perfect storm, when considered alongside the fact that perpetrators are skilled at manipulation and are generally able to perform on-demand for professionals and wider communities (such as school staff, other parents, and parenting assessors).
Perpetrators of coercive controlling behaviours are skilled at creating perceptions of their competence and expertise as a parent, partner, and provider. Such behaviour tends to leave the false impression that the perpetrator is a concerned, caring, and indulgent parent, often while emphasizing the deficiencies and inadequacies of the victim. Perpetrators of coercive control can be very adept at manipulating professionals, agencies, and systems, and may use a range of tactics to achieve this objective. An oath to tell the truth in affidavits and court proceedings cannot be relied on when dealing with these cases.
How Coercive Control Impacts Children
Coercive control harms children whether it is directed toward them or their victim parent. This harm falls under the umbrella of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is a good resource to learn more about the emotionally painful and distressing effect of ACE’s and how they negatively impact child development. Where there is a history of coercive control, there is abuse. The best interests of the children are not well served in such a climate.
Why is Coercive Control so Hard to Identify?
Coercive control has been called “invisible chains”. To see it clearly requires a nuanced understanding of behaviours and their outcomes. Coercive control involves a complex and often subtle set of perfectly legal and socially acceptable behaviours and patterns. Complicating this is practitioners (such as family law professionals and mental health practitioners) widely relying on their subjective views or instincts to determine whether domestic violence has occurred. These untested assumptions, “gut feelings”, and character assessments – along with assumptions about the degree of “recovery” by the perpetrator – are particularly unreliable. One cannot determine whether someone is a controlling abuser based on their demeanour, appearance, education, professional status, or public persona. Abusive behaviours can hide behind high social status, a respectable presentation, or an apparently caring, mutually supportive relationship. Abusive behaviours create dysfunction in co-parenting that is unlikely to resolve itself even with professional help. And in some cases, professional interventions themselves present an opportunity to continue coercive control.
Coercive Control Requires Intentional and Informed Analysis
Coercive control can fly under the radar in family law matters. The “high conflict” lens offers little help. In fact, the lens can hinder the necessary analysis of “who is doing what, to whom, and to what effect”. Expert assessments have been criticized regarding assessors’ knowledge and examination of coercive control. For an enlightening read on this serious problem, see the lawyer’s toolkit from the Rise Women’s Legal Center in B.C. I cannot overstate how important it is to find an assessor with an extensive background and training in domestic violence when it comes to identifying this type of abuse. The research suggests judges give significant weight to the content and recommendations of a parenting expert and have high levels of confidence in these often-unreliable opinions.
Screening for Coercive Control
Systematic screening for family violence in the early stages of family law files is important if not required and may help to identify and address the risk to children of this often hidden abuse. The Canadian Bar Association has published several resources for family lawyers on screening. The CBA also advises that such screening allows lawyers to better consider the impact of domestic violence on the family and any children.
What Does the Research Tell Us About False Allegations?
Legal professionals must be somewhat skeptical when hearing abuse allegations. But research shows:
There is a widespread misperception that there is a high incidence of intentionally false allegations of child abuse made by mothers in the context of parental separation and divorce in order to gain a tactical advantage or seek revenge from their estranged partners.Trocmé & Bala, 2005, p. 1333
Research also shows allegations of domestic violence are more likely to be proven against fathers than against mothers. Be alert for cross allegations of parental alienation when raising issues of domestic violence, in particular coercive control.
Coercive Control and Coparenting
The Department of Justice Canada recognizes that a controlling partner often tries to use the children to control their former spouse. Effective parallel, or even “good enough”, coparenting is unlikely to co-exist with past or ongoing coercive control. The Department of Justice has stated that coercive interactions before, during, or after separation will not support coparenting.
The amended Divorce Act recognizes the potential harm of coercive control when determining the best interests of children. Coercive control is subtle, concealed, deceptive, and outside of the assumptions family law professionals often make about people and parents. The challenge to mental health and family law professionals alike is identifying coercive control. Systemic screening, the use of domestic violence experts, and an intentional, informed analysis is often required to uncover coercive control and its impact on the best interest of the child.
AUTHORS’ NOTE | See a recently published article about coercive control: “Identifying Coercive Control in Canadian Family Law: A Required Analysis in Determining the Best Interests of the Child. Family Court Review”
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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