Building just system responses to intimate partner violence and coercive control: Four points to consider

Policy responses to domestic and family violence are shifting Australia wide, influenced by the latest National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2023. In Queensland, the recommendations from the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce has provided a springboard for discussions on how best to construct responses to coercive control that hold those using violence accountable, but do not have unintended impacts on victim-survivors. To achieve just outcomes for victim-survivors, just systems responses are needed.

Gaps in current systems responses in Queensland have contributed to high-profile domestic homicides. The coroners’ report into the death of Hannah Clarke and her three children, recognised a failure of all agencies to recognise the extreme risk of lethality, given that the offender had not been physically violent. Part of the reason for this is that physically violent acts can be recorded as incident by police and services, whereas coercive control is made up of series of controlling and manipulative behaviours that create fear.

Changes in policy responses provides an opportunity to rethink and redesign how systems respond to coercive control, with a focus on ensuring systems are just. Four points need to be considered in building just system responses to coercive control:

1) Identifying a pattern of behaviour

To build a systems based on just responses, agencies need to shift from focusing on incidents of violence, and instead focus on patterns of controlling behaviour. This shift is already occurring. For example, the Safe and Together training undertaken by Child Safety in Queensland encourages child protection practitioners to focus on ‘pivoting to the perpetrator’ by documenting the patterns of behaviour that fathers are using in the home, and the impacts these are having on women and children. Documenting the patterns of behaviours allows for more informed decision making by practitioners, and can better inform legal decision making. Information sharing between agencies is integral in documenting patterns of behaviour, and creating a holistic understanding of risk.

The shift towards a pattern based approach will take time because incident focussed responses still dominates the overall system. This is evident when engaging men in men’s behaviour change programs. During the first few weeks of programs, men consistently focus on ‘the incident’ which saw them charged, and ultimately mandated to a program. This narrative has been encouraged by justice system responses, which focus on specific incidents. The focus by men on ‘the incident’ encourages denial, minimisation and blame in the first few weeks of programs, as they try to justify and argue their behaviours in a specific moment in time. Focusing on a sustained pattern of behaviour, and its impacts, encourages accountability. In doing so it helps the men unravel ways of thinking and behaving that they have normalised in their relationships with women and children.

“The focus by men on ‘the incident’ encourages denial, minimisation and blame in the first few weeks of programs, … “
2) Intersecting vulnerabilities

Intersectionality is an important consideration in understanding variable vulnerabilities amongst women who have experienced DFV. This can include issues such as mental health, rurality, poverty, citizenship status, and cultural identity. Migrant and culturally and linguistically diverse women (CALD) are often identified as a group that is highly vulnerable to the perpetration of domestic and family violence, but also to systems abuse, therefore requiring responses that acknowledge these intersecting vulnerabilities. There are forms of abuse that are more prevalent or more effective in harming or controlling when perpetrated against CALD women. Some of this abuse includes not allowing the woman to participate in religious practices, sharing false or inappropriate information with community members to damage the woman’s reputation, refusing to let her socialise with people from her language group particularly when she does not speak English, and threats of deportation. CALD women often rely on technology to stay in contact with family overseas and are particularly harmed when unable to access technology. While many of these behaviours can be perceived as social control or psychological abuse, they are not clearly typified in law and the true impact of these abuses on women is not obvious to the mainstream. This is further complicated when referring to violence perverting specific cultural practices, such as dowry theft.

The need for a nuance understanding of domestic and family violence is also fundamental to allow police and legal systems to identify the correct perpetrator of violence and the impact of legal consequences. Women have often chosen to not report violence due to fear of the impact of reporting on their visas. Other common problem is women that do not speak English fluently being disadvantaged on their interactions with the police.

First Nation women have shared similar concerns when it comes to laws around domestic and family violence, with intersecting vulnerabilities not being acknowledged (involving also culture and language) and the difficulty to trust legal interventions considering the high incarceration rates for aboriginal people, with aboriginal women routinely perceived as the offender and not the primary victim by the police.

The introduction of the concept of coercive control into criminal law and the creation of a specific offense to account for this crime is an attempt to increase safety and have a legal response to the pattern of abuse that is less visible in domestic and family violence. It should create a system that is more sensitive to diverse survivors’ needs, and capable of responding earlier to abuse, preventing fatalities. Calibrating the system to this change is fundamental though to prevent further harm to the most vulnerable.

3) Why differential responses to justice are needed

Coercive control has been incorporated in Queensland and NSW, progressing a discussion on the best way to respond to this violence, including civil and criminal law responses. The discussion also includes extensive training for law enforcement to be able to understand the nuance in the concept and trial projects to enhance collaboration between specialist services and the police. This law can only work if systems responses change.

The concept of coercive control has to be incorporated to law to expand the definition of domestic violence and the options for responding to violence. A purely punitive response leading to imprisonment cannot attend to the need of diverse survivors and communities. At the same time perpetrators are not heterogeneous group and need a range of responses suitable for both accountability and enabling change. While restorative justice may not always be the answer in these cases either due to the difficulty to determine consent in a context of coercive control, victims need to feel empowered by the legal process in order to cooperate and they need the reassurance they will not face homelessness, deportation or loss of custody of their children if they report coercive control.

4) Community education

Encouraging community accountability is integral to creating just systems responses to coercive control. To encourage community members to report concerns to agencies, or to assist friends and family in seeking support, community members need to have a good understanding of coercive control. Community education is needed to combat commonly held misconceptions about coercive control. Trust in systems responses is integral to community engagement. Community education also needs to incorporate how communities can play a role in addressing coercive control, and what roles bystanders can play. If communities are more informed about coercive control, they will be better placed to make informed choices about when to act. Creating whole of community responses to coercive control is essential to prevention of domestic and family violence.


Amy Young, Ana Borges-Jelinic, Elena Marchetti and Patrick O’Leary,

Disrupting Violence Beacon, Griffith University