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Coercive Control And The Family Court Trap

Rachel Watson is an author and an activist who strives to help victims of domestic abuse navigate the treacherous waters of the family justice system. The family courts can be shocking and harsh, particularly for those dealing with post-separation abuse.

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Leaving a coercively controlling relationship is one of the most harrowing experiences in life. If there is a child involved, dealing with the aftermath is worse. When the victim finds safety, stability and emotional freedom, it is quickly swiped from under them by the family courts. The victim and child are returned to a situation of vulnerability and become engulfed with worry and fear. They can get left in that precarious situation until the child becomes an adult. Separating from a partner is already stressful; separating from a coercively controlling partner who refuses to relinquish their need for power and control is torturous. The victim's traumatic experiences go unrecognised in the family courts and therefore, do not get responded to appropriately, the system re-traumatises the vulnerable. The victim suffers from deteriorating mental and physical health as the pressure of their circumstances takes its toll; coping with it all becomes intolerable.

Courts don't tend to consider if contact should go ahead with a controlling parent; they decide how it will go ahead. Narcissistic abusers can be charming in court; supervised contact quickly becomes unsupervised contact, weekend visits soon turn into shared parenting arrangements as the controlling parent's demands continue to get met. Managing post-separation contact and custody arrangements with a controlling ex is excruciatingly difficult. They cannot reason or compromise, and they take advantage of any opportunity to cause their victim distress – they routinely threaten their victim with 'court' and threaten them with the removal of the child. The family court forces the victim to disregard the professional advice of cutting all contact and instructs the victim to co-operate with their abuser and be sympathetic to the person creating their living hell; an impossible challenge. During these years, recovery becomes a luxury that will have to wait until court is over. Parenting with a coercively controlling ex and simultaneously getting re-traumatised by the courts psychologically tortures and emotionally drains the victim. The coercively controlling parent also emotionally abuses their child while presenting to the world as an admirable parent. In public, the child may appear to be happy, healthy and confident; their inner turmoil is only visible to a few. The victim finds themselves exercising damage limitation every time their confused or upset child returns from parenting time with the coercively controlling parent who continues to model harmful behaviour and put their needs before the child's needs. The child's mental health deteriorates, and their schoolwork and relationships suffer as they spiral into a dark and scary world. The victim gets rendered helpless as they are put in a catch 22 situation by the courts; report the harmful behaviour and the coercively controlling parent quickly switches back to victim mode and jumps to their go-to defence; parental alienation. The real victim soon realises their situation is helpless; they get left with feelings of anguish, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts. The worry and stress cause the victim to suffer night terrors and lack of sleep. They have to get out of bed and deal with daily strife, and still, parent, hold down a job, keep a roof over their head, attend school events and appear strong, healthy and stable at court hearings, or risk getting labelled an unsafe, unfit or alienating parent.

Maintaining the physical energy and the strength of mind to do this, while simultaneously and covertly being abused, tests their character to the limit. The victim gets completely trapped by the family court's expectations and court orders, and there is often no end in sight. The situation eventually emotionally overwhelms the victim and the child. It devastates other family members too; siblings, new partners, grandparents and friends. They all suffer as the result of the self-righteous, selfish and destructive behaviour of one person who chooses to abuse them. The effect of childhood trauma is well researched; the world has become familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experiences movement. Research is available on the effects of coercive control on children (Dr Emma Katz), and the family courts failure to understand coercive control, and its effects too. (Dr Adrienne Barnett). Trapping the vulnerable in lengthy, harmful, and constraining situations is resulting in very poor outcomes for victims of coercive control and their children and this must get addressed.

This turmoil in the lives of so many is preventable; the family justice systems must catch up with the criminal justice systems and develop a good understanding of coercive control. The family courts must progress and use trauma-informed approaches. The laws could get applied in a manner which would prevent further suffering. Current legislation could go further to protect the vulnerable, and proposed reforms could get implemented swiftly. The time to end suffering is here; human rights must be respected if confidence is to be restored in family justice systems worldwide.

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