50.50: Feature

Coercive control: why is it still missing from the social work curriculum?

Domestic abuse doesn’t have to be physical, but until social workers are taught properly about psychological abuse, victims remain at risk

Saskia Rowlands.jpg
Saskia Rowlands
22 February 2022, 12.00am
Illustration: Inge Snip. All rights reserved

At the height of lockdown in April 2020, social workers visited six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at his home in Solihull, near Birmingham, after concerns were raised about a bruise on his back.

But on the day of their visit, Arthur was given the “rare privilege” of playing outside in the garden, so appeared to be a “happy and content” little boy. His father, Thomas Hughes, and stepmother, Emma Tustin, convinced social workers that Arthur’s bruise was caused by “boisterous play”.

Two months later, he was brutally murdered by them both.

CCTV footage obtained from the family home reveals the “prolonged abuse” Arthur suffered in the months before he died: forced to stand to attention alone in the hallway for up to 14 hours a day, deprived of food, water and human interaction.

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Like many perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour, Tustin and Hughes used “any tool or tactic to keep [Arthur] under their control”, which included manipulating anyone who tried to help him.

How did social workers miss what was going on?

The 2015 Serious Crime Act criminalised coercive control and acknowledged the need to look at the pattern of a perpetrator’s behaviour. But social workers are still not adequately trained to identify the coercive and controlling tactics used by abusers, which is putting victims like Arthur at risk.

Abuse doesn’t have to be physical

Coercive control “is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self,” as coined by US sociologist and forensic social worker Evan Stark. In his acclaimed book ‘Coercive Control’, Stark breaks the misconception that abuse always involves “physical violence”. He has revealed that up to 80% of domestic abuse cases present no physical signs at all.

But despite these findings, domestic abuse experts told openDemocracy that misconceptions still remain about what abuse entails.

Sue Penna, co-founder and CEO of UK company Rock Pool, which provides specialist training to NGOs and local authorities supporting victims of domestic abuse, is worried that social work training is still based on the “myth that abuse needs to be physical”.

In some of the most horrific cases Penna has dealt with,“there hasn’t been any physical violence.” It’s alarming, she said, that some social workers seem to be unaware that “you don’t have to touch somebody to terrify them.”

You don’t have to touch somebody to terrify them

Errica Smith* has experienced this lack of awareness first-hand. Last year, she entered a psychologically abusive relationship with a man who used “mind games” to control and intimidate, and who later began secretly recording her.

But when Wigan social services became involved, they sided with her abuser and “fought” to get Errica’s son placed on the child protection register. Errica provided the council with evidence to prove “what he was doing to [her]”, but, she said, they “refused to look at any of it”.

“I was judged and penalised by all these professional social workers that have been in the job for a long time,” […] “they made me feel like I was the perpetrator,” she told openDemocracy.

To help others in similar situations, Smith enrolled on a social work degree at the University of Salford, but “received only half a day of domestic abuse training” during her three-year course. “There’s too much emphasis on being stuck in a lecture hall, writing assignments that aren’t relevant, and not enough hands-on training,” she said.

Smith made contact with the course leader on multiple occasions to voice her concerns and to suggest that coercive control be added to the social work curriculum, but “never heard anything back”.

Coercive control not taught

Smith is one of many social work students from across the UK who shared their concerns about the lack of coercive control training with openDemocracy.

Tracey*, a second-year social work master’s student at Durham University, said that she hadn’t received any training in coercive control apart from being shown a documentary on the subject. “You don’t get any training at all in coercive control and how to help people in a domestic violence setting,” she said.

Cases like Errica and Tracey’s are all too familiar to Clare Walker, a domestic abuse consultant and expert witness. For the past 16 years, Walker has trained social work students in coercive control as part of their BA and MA degrees – but only, she said, “where a course leader sees the massive deficit in their programme and gets [me] in as an added option […] it is never part of the core curriculum.”

On the rare occasion that universities do invite her to teach, it is often in the last six months of a student’s degree – which is too late to make an impressionable difference. “Students get quite frustrated after my sessions – they wonder why my training wasn’t offered from the beginning of their courses,” she told openDemocracy.

‘Fringe issue’

Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that in England and Wales 33,954 offences of coercive control were recorded by the police in the year ending March 2021, nearly 40% more than the figure for 2020, when 24,856 were recorded.

But despite this increase, experts openDemocracy spoke to agree that people still find the concept of psychological abuse “hard to measure”. As Walker put it: “Everybody assumes that someone [who is] abusive and a lying manipulator will declare this when they say hello.”

Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall and her husband Rod run a master’s degree in the psychology of coercive control at the University of Salford. They created the programme after identifying the need for a course that focused on the underlying psychological dynamics of coercive control across different contexts.

It’s important for students “to recognise the signs of coercive control wherever they might see it,” said Rod, because “perpetrators and abusers don’t recognise academic or practice boundaries, they will operate to abuse and coerce wherever they can.”

When asked why this training is absent in the social work curriculum, Linda explained that the key to understanding coercive behaviour is through self- exploration, which people are often reluctant to engage with.

“It helps to understand how we’ve been manipulated, when we’ve been conned, when we’ve done things that we didn’t really think were right under peer pressure,” she said, “but it can be painful, so people tend to avoid this kind of awareness.”

She added: “People think it won’t happen to them, that they won’t be manipulated in these ways.”

Rod believes this is why traditional courses and professional bodies find it difficult to recognise coercive control. “It’s often seen as being a fringe issue or as an issue for someone else to deal with,” he explained.“Actually, it’s mainstream […] and it’s happening everywhere.”

*Some names have been changed.

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