Coercive control has been in the spotlight recently, both because of the critical link between this type of abuse and physical violence, as well as the growing push to criminalise the behaviours that constitute this type of abuse.
The campaign for coercive control criminislisation is an attempt to stop the insidious, but currently legal, tactics used by abusive perpetrators to control their spouse – tactics which, in many cases, culminate in violence, and even death.
But it seems there’s no end to the lengths domestic abusers will go to, in order to terrorise, manipulate, and control partners and former partners.
In researching a broader article on coercive control, I recently came across the term ‘paper abuse’.
Coined by University of Delaware academics Susan Miller and Nicole Smolter, paper abuse refers to the use of legal proceedings to force contact with victims, financially burdening them through litigation over care and contact with children, as well as threatening them with exposure and public attacks through the court system.
While this type of abuse has been occurring unquestioned for years, it’s only recently that this form of coercive control has been explored by researchers.
Frighteningly, according to Domestic and Family Violence Counsellor, Dr Jillian Stansfield, it’s on the rise.
“It’s occurring more, as abusive parents realise family courts are a legitimate way to control their former partners,” Dr Stansfield says.
“Family court is not a place that protects mothers and children who are victims of abuse, but a gold mine for lawyers and a place of injustice.”
Abuse in plain sight
The horror of paper abuse is that it takes place legally and in plain sight, often targeting a mother’s biggest weakness – her children.
“Threats of sole custody are often given through letters, court applications, and verbally by the abusive partner.”
One of the scariest tactics used by paper abusers is the use of their former partner’s personal information, gained throughout their trusted relationship, and used manipulatively to suggest mental ill health.
“Confidential medical details such as doctor visits, diagnosis, even their inner most thoughts, are shared and subpoenaed in court – easily,” says Dr Stansfield.
“There is no confidentiality of medical records when it comes to family court. It doesn’t matter if they were over ten years ago, the lawyers will take the information and twist to suit their story.”
In many cases mothers, particularly those with young children, are in a compromised financial position, often due to being a primary carer.
As a result, subpoenas and mental health assessments, paid for by the father, are easily obtainable, causing further distress and humiliation.
“Trauma from domestic abuse and postnatal depression are used against the mother to state they are not fit mothers,” says Dr Stanfield.
“The constant denigration, intimidation and threats towards the mother add to the fear, anxiety and vulnerability, which may have already been inflicted through domestic violence during the relationship.”
Dr Stanfield sites a particularly disturbing case, where custody orders require the father to be notified if the mother seeks mental health assistance.
“Many male psychiatrists have previously misdiagnosed women, particularly those who have experience domestic violence, are traumatized, and blame themselves.
“Domestic violence perpetrators often convince their partner that they are the crazy ones through gaslighting. It can then be used as a threat if she wants to leave.
“If a woman truly does have a mental health condition, it shouldn’t be used against them. Support should be provided rather than used to humiliate them.”
According to Dr Stanfield, some perpetrators will go as far as making fake reports of child abuse to doctors, often taken at face value, without investigation, which can later be used in court.
Finance and fear
Further adding to the trauma of paper abuse, is the considerable financial burden due to unregulated legal fees.
While Legal Aid may be available in some cases, this may put victims at a disadvantage when dealing with complicated custody hearings.
“Many abusers don’t have much to do with children until after the mother leaves. Then they quickly find a girlfriend and want access to their child. This is a common story in my practice.”
Unfortunately, due to the genuine, and often justified, fear of being dragged through court, combined with the financial consequences of such, many women will give in to the demands of ex-partners, particularly in relation to financial settlements.
“Often a mother feels coerced into signing an agreement to avoid further legal costs, harassment letters from lawyers, court appearances and the threat of losing their children.
“This is to the detriment of her own well-being, as well as her children’s.
“The long-term effects of the trauma cannot be fully understood unless a person has experienced or walked alongside someone who has been inflicted with the wounds from family and DV court.
“As a mental health therapist who specialises in this area, I have found there is a growing need to assist those further traumatized by paper abuse.”
Time for change
Dr Stanfield believes there is simply not enough awareness around coercive control generally, let alone paper abuse.
“Paper abuse is a vehicle to inflict coercive control for ongoing power and control over a victim through ongoing intimidation, threats, humiliation and denigration.
“(Victims) need professionals in the field to be their voice in law, policy, and advocacy to make change, to emphasise how coercive control is being used against women, not only in everyday life but also in the family law courts.”
While the criminisalisation of coercive control is an important step towards a solution, Dr Stanfield says without properly educating legal personnel, paper abuse will continue to thrive.
“Family law courts should not be inciting further conflict between parents, and therefore greater accountability of legal personnel is needed,” she says.
“Greater education and training of legal professionals – particularly judges and court report writers on coercive control, penalties for perjury, regulated and lower legal fees, and further assessments when DV is involved is required.
“Women shouldn’t have to take preventative measures in a marriage or relationship.
“No woman goes into a relationship thinking that the person they love would want to harm them, particularly using their children.
“However, once abusive behaviour is identified – there is help available.
“A plan A, B, and C will be needed, and although it is a long and painful journey, recovery is possible in time.”