The Relationship Between Interpersonal and Institutional Abuse: How service providers must do better

When we say “gender-based violence is a cause and a consequence of gender inequality”, do we understand what we are saying?

14 Sep 2021

By Aoife Delaney, Women’s Development and Advocacy Support Worker at the Traveller Movement

Domestic abuse is about power and control. Perpetrators of abuse use a variety of tactics to maintain control over their partner, ex-partner or other family member. They limit the victim-survivor’s options, dismiss their experience and silence their voice. Many survivors reveal that they begin to lose their self-confidence and doubt their ability to ever leave. Whether the abuse is financial, emotional, spiritual, technological, sexual or physical, the aim is to limit the victim-survivor’s “space for action”.

I recently attended Coercive Control training led by Davina James-Hanman. While Evan Stark has a longer definition here, we can understand ‘coercive control’ to be a pattern of actions that (literally or metaphorically) make the victim’s world smaller. Perpetrators will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to limit the victim-survivor’s space for action. This understanding can better explain the dynamics of domestic abuse – physical violence may never be used, but coercive control will be present.

Domestic abuse and institutional abuse hold disturbing parallels. Both dismiss survivor’s experiences. Both silence survivor’s voices. Both limit survivor’s space for action. When we consider Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors, the rate of institutional abuse is all the more likely due to the double-discrimination they experience on the basis of their ethnicity and gender and/or sexuality. Coercive control by services may look like:

  1. Mother-blaming:
    The GRT community face unsubstantiated stereotypes of criminality, domestic abuse, substance misuse and poor parenting. Emma Katz speaks of ‘mother-blaming’, in which the perpetrator is absolved of responsibility and subconscious gender bias in services attributes blame to the mother. In situations of domestic abuse, service providers must acknowledge and challenge their bias and understand what ‘protective parenting’ looks like. Protective parenting understands that there is a non-abusive parent who is managing the situation of abuse in a way that keeps them and their children safest. Understanding what it means to be a protective parent means that service providers comprehend the gravity of immediately leaving an abusive relationship on the children. As abuser’s use all tactics to maintain power, using the children and child arrangements becomes a more useful tool in post-separation violence and control. dhhdhdhdhhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdhdh
  2. Safety being contingent on leaving the relationship or reporting to police:
    The GRT communities have been historically discriminated against by the service providers that are there to help them. This legitimate mistrust creates barriers for support. Certain refuges will not accept survivors who do not report their partner to the police. Legal Aid can be denied if victim-survivor’s have not reported their experience to the police. Considering the historical discrimination, the distrust and the tight-knit community pressures, the stigma victim-survivors may receive for calling the police or other services must be acknowledged. By calling the police GRT survivors may also fear their deportation or the deportation of their abusive partner who is the parent of their child. Children’s services can coerce victim-survivor’s to end abusive relationships for the child’s benefit. While the value of child safeguarding cannot be overstated, the unfortunate consequence is that agency is removed from the victim-survivor and the risks of escalation are increased. hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhkkkkkkkkkkklllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllkkk
  3. Making decisions for the survivor:
    In the way perpetrator’s make decisions for the victim-survivor, service providers can also fall into this role. While this may not appear harmful, replicating this pattern continues to disempower the victim-survivor rather than build confidence. It amounts to replacing the abuser’s voice with your own. Services must commit to empowering practice in order to acknowledge the impact of coercive control and build self-trust. When it comes to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors, the practice of empowerment enables trust and relationship building between service providers and victim-survivors. hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  4. Service Providers fail to see the costs of leaving the abuse may outweigh the benefits:
    We know that victim-survivors may not engage with professional services because they do not believe that these services will meet their needs. While service providers understandably struggle to see any benefit of remaining in a situation of domestic abuse, victim-survivors are weighing up the costs of leaving. The 5 areas of wellbeing service providers must consider for providing holistic support are: safety, stability, social connectedness, mastery and meaningful access to relevant resources. Although service providers may be aware of the safety risks after ending the relationship, they may not understand that there may be additional risks to community relationships, necessary resources and the ability to live free from fear and instability. GRT victim-survivors may have to leave everything and everyone they know in order to leave a situation of domestic abuse and what awaits them on the other side may not always be safe.

By increasing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors’ space for action, service providers consequentially limit the perpetrator’s space for action. In understanding the barriers to access support and acknowledging bad practice, we can become more reflective in our practice and improve the experience of GRT survivors. Ultimately, the interventions we make must make the survivor’s world bigger again.