How to support clients exposed to technology-facilitated coercive control
7 December 2022, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)
Evita March, Niamh O’Connor, Kristen Poel, Jasmine B. MacDonald, Melissa Willoughby
If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described in this paper, please call:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Sexual assault and family violence service: 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
If you believe someone is in immediate danger call Police on 000.
About this webinar
This webinar was held on Wednesday 7 December 2022.
Coercive control is the overarching context that intimate partner violence occurs within. Coercive control involves ongoing, repetitive and cumulative tactics that impact the victim-survivor’s autonomy, liberty and equality.
In technology-facilitated coercive control, various forms of technology are used to extend the perpetrator’s ability to monitor and maintain surveillance of the victim-survivor. Technology also provides avenues to harass, threaten and shame victim-survivors, manipulate their social relationships and ensure compliance with demands.
Victim-survivors commonly experience a combination of technology-facilitated and face-to-face psychological, physical, sexual and/or financial abuse. An important consideration for practitioners is that victim-survivors may not know that what they are experiencing is abuse and may not have the ability to access support because they are being monitored.
Drawing on the latest research and practitioner insights this webinar:
- Describes what technology-facilitated coercive control looks like in practice.
- Provides examples of the different ways that victim-survivors might experience technology-facilitated coercive control.
- Suggests strategies for face-to-face and telehealth practice.
1 Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety. (2021). Defining and responding to coercive control: Policy brief (ANROWS Insights, 01/2021). ANROWS.
Audio transcript (edited)
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Welcome everybody to today’s webinar, How to Support Clients Exposed to Technology-Facilitated Coercive Control. I’m Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald. I’m a senior research officer in the Child and Family Evidence and Evaluation team here at AIFS, the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the Wurundjeri, Woi Wurrung and the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nations, who are the traditional owners of the lands in Melbourne, where I’m speaking to you from. Also, I’d like to pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging, and I’d like to extend that respect to Indigenous Australians joining us today.
So, today we are focussing on tech-facilitated coercive control, and this is the use of digital media technologies to coercively control a current or former intimate partner, or also children as well, and we’ll unpack the difference there in our webinar today.
In tech-facilitated coercive control, technology is a means to extend perpetrators ability to monitor and maintain surveillance, harass, threaten and shame victim-survivors, to manipulate their social relationships, and to ensure compliance with demands.
So, today we are going to discuss international research, literature on tech-facilitated coercive control, we’re going to draw on our own AIFS evidence synthesis in this space, as well as have original research exploration that’s been conducted by Dr Evita March. Evita is a senior lecturer of cyber psychology at Federation University. And one of her areas of expertise is online intimate partner violence, including cyberstalking, and cyber dating abuse, amongst other things. So, welcome Evita, thank you for joining us.
The first practice issue that we’re going to unpack today, is supporting young people experiencing tech-facilitated coercive control. Guiding us in that discussion, we have Niamh O’Connor. Niamh is a currently a counsellor with the Therapeutic Services Team at Relationships Australia, Canberra in region. Her previous role was group facilitator for the Got Your Back Program, which is a program for young people aged 12 to 25, who’ve been impacted by family and domestic violence. So, welcome Niamh.
Finally, we want to unpack this aspect of the requirement increasingly for services to provide some support in an online context, because this creates a kind of unique risk survivors of tech-facilitated coercive control. So, to unpack this issue, we’re joined by Kristen Poel, the Regional Services Manager at Better Place Australia. So, Kristen has managed the delivery of family and children counselling services, as well as family dispute resolution. She has a particular interest in the impact of tech in the context of family violence. So, welcome Kristen, thanks for joining us. It’s lovely to have the three of you here.
So, for those of you joining us for the webinar today, we’ve used the registration questions that you’ve sent through, to develop a focus of our discussion today. And broadly, there was a really nice overlap in the kinds of things that you’re interested, and wanted to know about, with what we were already planning to discuss. And we’ve made some tweaks along the way, to make sure that it reflects what you’re interested in. And we want to acknowledge as well, the particular appreciation that we have for the role of people with lived experience, and practitioners with lived experience, the role that you play in advocacy, and the development of practice approaches. So, thank you.
Okay, now what you want to hear, actually from our esteemed guests here today. If it’s okay Evita, I’d really like to start with you. So, I remember when we were first having discussions around this topic, you mentioned that the research space is muddy, and I thought that might be a really nice place for us to start – what do you mean by that, and what should people be thinking about?
EVITA MARCH: Thanks, Jas. So, technology-facilitated coercive control, wherein coercion and abuse are enacted by a new technology, such as social media and smartphones, it’s still an emerging field of research. And technology-facilitated coercive control often co-occurs and shares a reciprocal relationship with offline or face-to-face forms of coercive control.
Now, research has largely explored both online and offline coercive control simultaneously, and this is where it gets a bit muddy. By exploring these two forms simultaneously, it is somewhat difficult to then discuss the research on technology-facilitated coercive control, without referring to the broader coercive control literature. So, that technology-facilitated form, has largely been captured in the broader coercive control literature.
So, the research is somewhat muddy and unclear, as definitions and measurement of coercive control vary considerably. And to give you an idea of just how much variation exists, one study identified 22 different measures of coercive control in the literature. That means, that in the research, coercive control is being defined and measured in many different ways – 22 different ways to be exact, and that’s just what we know of. And this is problematic for researchers, as such variability impacts the consistency and validity of findings.
So, there’s a range of limitations facing researchers of technology-facilitated coercive control. Ideally, identifying potential risk factors of this behaviour occurring in relationships, would assist tremendously in developing early intervention, and prevention programs. But this can be really challenging as we are assessing a covert behaviour, that people may not be particularly honest about either perpetrating or experiencing. So, this further compounds the fact that even some people might not even be aware that the behaviour they’re experiencing is coercive control.
So, the research, to summarise, is muddy, because of variabilities in definition, variability in measurement, but the variability and people even identifying their experience.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: It’s interesting and therefore kind of challenging for listeners then, especially those of us that might be new to this space, 22 different definitions. I want to come back to some of those challenges, but I want to throw to you then from a positive perspective, that means there’s a lot of opportunity, right? What do you see are some key areas for opportunity here?
EVITA MARCH: It does mean that there is a great amount of opportunity, and I think one of the best opportunities there is, is by subsuming technology-facilitated coercive control in the broader literature. Whilst that might be problematic and perhaps obscure and muddy, direct observation of technology-facilitated coercive control, that means that there’s a lot of research to be done. So, research is still compiling a comprehensive understanding of how abusers use technology to coerce and control their victim-survivors.
Now, some understanding has been built, for example the power and control wheel used by practitioners to understand and identify intimate partner violence, has been adopted for technology-facilitated intimate partner violence, including examples of online coercive control.
And Jas, I would just like to flag with the audience that an example, that wheel is supplied as one of the handouts, so the audience can refer to that.
Now, one opportunity for research, is to use this technology-facilitated power and control wheel, as a guide when exploring online forms of coercive control. And this could assist the development of a reliable and valid measure of coercive control, that’s adopted widely by researchers.
Other opportunities include further building the psychological profile of who is likely to perpetrate technology-facilitated coercive control, and who is likely to be at risk of experiencing such abuse. For example, in collaboration with a research student this year, we found that insecure forms of attachment styles, and dysregulation of emotions, were associated with greater perpetration of coercive control.
So, a good opportunity for future research, is to actually take findings regarding perpetration and experience of coercive control, and extrapolate that to the online environment, does it look the same. So, such findings could be reassessed in relation to technology.
Another direction for research in this area is DIAD reports. Typically, research exploring abuse in relationships, may focus on either the perpetrator or the victim-survivor’s experience. And DIAD reports from both parties, so both those who may perpetrate the technology-facilitated coercive control, but also the victim-survivors, would provide a more comprehensive picture of the experience.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: That’s really interesting, and I think we need to make sure that we are doing that in terms of responsibility, right? And we don’t want to just focus on victim-survivors – and that means that any implications drawn from this is just focussed on them, instead of placing responsibility on perpetrators. So, that’s a really interesting point.
What else do you think are the key things you’d point out for intrepid explorers in this space?
EVITA MARCH: Good question.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: A broad one, apologies.
EVITA MARCH: That’s all right! There are a few recommendations that I would say. So, firstly, I am also going to highlight for intrepid explorers that – and as you’ve just noted yourself, Jas, it is really important, actually, to not just focus on the experience of victim-survivors as well, but to get a more comprehensive understanding, both those experience it, but also those who may engage in the behaviour. And even for different age cohorts – may not be necessarily aware of what – the behaviour they are perpetrating. And I think Niamh will talk perhaps a bit more about different age cohorts.
So, some guides for intrepid explorers, perhaps challenges. Firstly, to ensure some level of consistency in approaches, I recommend awareness of the three facets of online and offline coercive control, as identified by research. So, the first facet of online and offline coercive control, is that the behaviour is intentional. And so, that intentionality that they are intending to engage in the behaviour, that is an important component. The second facet is that there is a negative perception of the behaviour by the victim-survivor. And thirdly, the abuse the abuser is able to obtain that control through deployment of a credible threat. So, the threats that they make, that coercion threat is credible.
It’s also really important to be aware, that coercive control may not present as a singular incident. Coercive control is, and technology-facilitated coercive control, is a pervasive pattern of behaviour. And so, only looking for singular incidents of abuse that occurs online, will narrow the scope of research, and the scope of the full experience.
Further, intrepid explorers should also be aware, that technology-facilitated coercive control, may differ across diverse groups, such as age, culturally and linguistically diverse groups, and gender identity diverse groups. So, for example, we cannot assume that the experience of technology-facilitated coercive control, is the same across age cohorts. It’s very likely, that adolescents and emerging adults, enact and experience different technology forms of coercive control, compared to their older adult counterparts.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: And these are really important points Evita, because these kind of diverse groups are yet to adequately be explored in research, like you’re saying. So, perhaps this is something that we’ll unpack a little bit, absolutely the experience for young people compared to adults. But it is yeah, an ongoing discussion – I think we need to learn from practice wisdom, and start exploring that more in research.
Okay, amazing. Thank you for getting us started. Already a lot that quite meaty there. So, I want to take this chance to throw to our two practitioners, Niamh and Kristen, and just get you to reflect in terms of that set-up that Evita’s done for us with research. Maybe starting with you first, Niamh? How does that kind of sit with your experience in practice of what tech-facilitated coercive control looks like, or some of the key issues?
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Thanks, Jas. And thanks Evita for that really good set-up, and kind of graininess in the research.
Yeah, I think that the practice experience that I have of seeing technology-facilitated coercive control play out, is very much in line with what Evita was talking about in terms of the co-occurrence of technology-facilitated coercive control, and a broader pattern of coercive control, and other domestic and family violence kind of tactics used by a perpetrator.
So, when we’re thinking about technology-facilitated coercive control and what you’ll see in practice, you won’t just see behaviour limited to the online environment, you will see that behaviour extend into face-to-face interactions as well. But knowing that, I guess technology, seeing technology as a vehicle for coercive control is important. So, it allows that coercive control and that kind of influence of the perpetrator, to become significantly more pervasive, and difficult to escape for the victim-survivor. So, being online allows such greater access to victim-survivors – makes it very difficult for victim-survivors to kind of, escape that pattern of control.
So, I think in terms of practice, it’s really important that we’re putting that lens of the online world onto all of our practice and work in the domestic and family violence space. So, being mindful, that in all of the presentations that we’re seeing, there may be an online aspect to this, and asking the right questions to explore that a little more.
And then I guess in particular around young people’s experiences, which I’ll kind of speak to a little bit later, there definitely is that sense of the blurriness of what is normal teenage behaviour with their peers, and in intimate partner relationships – but also parents, in terms of their parents’ interactions with them around technology. So, what kind of goes from normal teenage behaviour, into what we may be concerned about in terms of coercive control.
So, it definitely speaks back to that point from Evita around the intentionality of the behaviour, around the negative perception by the victim-survivor, and around the credible threat. So, really understanding where behaviour shifts from normal into concern for your young person being at risk of abuse, is really around those three things: how they’re perceiving it, whether it’s a credible threat or not, and the intention of the perpetrator.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Thanks, Niamh. The complexity of experience for the victim-survivor, then obviously translates to complexity for practice. So yeah, thank you for that. Kristen did you have anything you wanted to add there?
KRISTEN POEL: Thanks, Jas. And thanks to Evita and Niamh for leading us in. I guess I’m imaging most of us are here today, and who are engaging in this webinar, are not specialist family violence services. So, for most, some of our clients engaging in our organisations, this maybe the first time they’ve used a service that would ask them about violence, or forms of abuse. So, they would never have had a conversation about the behaviours of a perpetrator towards them, or the actual behaviours of the perpetrator’s behaviours towards a victim-survivor.
So, what could be considered healthy and unhealthy behaviours in a relationship, and what could be considered normative. So, looking at strong assessment and understanding of risk indicators, are really important factors for organisations.
Also looking at, victim-survivors may only just be considering that how impacted they have been by coercive control behaviours by a perpetrator, and understanding and developing as organisation supports for those people, and what they need to consider in their digital footprint in our current world and what they may mean.
And just to reiterate what Evita and Niamh have talked about as well, coercive controlling behaviours are unlikely to have only just been used in the technology space. And talking with clients, there are generally indicators for coercive control behaviours that are outside technology, in the real face-to-face human as such world.
But my experience in the area with practitioners, is that kind of picking up on risk indicators through engagement in clients, important to be able to name behaviours that are concerning with clients. And some of the behaviours that we could be talking about, could be using technology to track whereabouts, using tracking devices to monitor locations, sending excessive amounts of voice calls or texts or snaps, or whatever that particular platform people are using. Even denying access to being able to use technology, as a means of isolating, as well as sharing intimate and private pictures of a person via online. And this is in no way an extensive list, but just a touch on some indicators of concerns that we would be addressing.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Absolutely. It’s really useful for those as you say, non-specialists in the room, to start thinking about what some of these behaviours might look like, absolutely. Thank you, Kristen.
All right, I’d like us to shift our discussion to our first practice issue, and lean more heavily in this part on you, Niamh. Your work has been with young people, and the literature on tech-facilitated coercive control really tends to focus on adults, and it really tends to focus on the context of intimate partner violence, what’s happening in a romantic or an intimate relationship.
But through our work together, the things you’ve pointed out around the difference of experience of a young person, perhaps within that context of intimate partner violence, but also that they often may be experiencing tech-facilitated coercive control, or coercive control more broadly from the parent relationship, and how that impacts them.
So, let’s tease those out. Let’s start first with your experience around young people and tech-facilitated coercive control in a relationship context.
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Thank you, Jas. I just want to kind of say, before I start into this, that I guess what we’ll talk about is applicable to clients of all ages. So, this might be things that you see in older clients as well. So, for those of you that don’t work with young people, don’t switch off, this is all transferable knowledge and information. But yeah, I will kind of talk about it from a young person’s perspective specifically.
And yeah, I think just as I said, technology allows the perpetrator of coercive control, to create an environment where they’re ever-present with the victim-survivor. So, I guess how that might look for a young person, maybe I’ll give you an example of a young woman that I’ve worked with, that might come help to visualise what this might look like.
So, this young woman was in a relationship with her ex-partner, and the ways that he was using technology to create that everlasting presence with her, was around monitoring her location at all times. So, young people particularly do this a lot through Snapmaps, a feature of Snapchat where they can see each other’s location. He would regularly Facetime with her, and ask her to show him, span her camera across the room, so he could see where she was and who she was with. So, that kind of escalation of that behaviour of jealousy and controlling, “Who are you with? Well, I’m going to Facetime you so you can show me exactly who’s in the room.”
And this was a feature in her relationship, and a feature I’ve seen in other relationships, where sharing passwords becomes kind of almost a next step in the relationship, an indicator of our seriousness, we now share passwords with each other as a sign of trust. But obviously in this relationship, that left her very vulnerable to his monitoring her messaging and activity on her social media, and in her emails.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Kind of puts the onus on her, right. Like, “If you have nothing to hide, then why would you not share with me?” Yeah, that’s pretty problematic.
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Yeah, absolutely. And then I guess in terms of when she did decide to leave this relationship, and did have the conversation with him about breaking-up, we saw an escalation of that controlling behaviour. So, that’s again something really common that people familiar working with domestic violence will know, that leaving the relationship time is often time of highest risk, and the time where there’s an escalation. And it’s the same kind of pattern in technology-facilitated coercive control.
So, the kind of tech side, the online side ramped-up then at that stage, the kind of monitoring of her. She would block him on one channel, and he would create a new account to get back in touch with her via that new account. He would use a different platform, she would stop communicating on Snapchat, so he would start to communicate on Instagram. So, there was all the different kind of use of different accounts and different platforms, and fake accounts to kind of monitor her without her knowledge, that this was actually him behind the account.
So, lots of different ways that technology can come into play. And particularly as I said for young people, because it’s so intertwined with their life and how they interact with each other, it really is something that they are quite vulnerable to.
So, I guess it might be helpful at this stage to extrapolate from that, examples to think about broader tips for people online today about what they might look for, or how they might work with a client, particularly a young person, or any client around this.
So, I think it’s really important to say that nowadays, asking a young person to not use technology, or at any days, asking a young person not to engage in intimate relationships, is kind of asking a fish to breathe out of water – this is not really going to happen. So, it’s important to be realistic about what young people need in their lives, and how they need to interact with their peers. So, technology isn’t all bad for young people, but it’s really important that we are trying to prevent this by educating young people on the warning signs, and on safe technology use. So, around what is a healthy relationship, and how do I keep myself safe online, and how they interact with each other.
So, the eSafety Commissioner’s website has some really brilliant resources around guides for parents, guides for young people about safe online behaviours. For anyone getting kind of lost in the world of all the new apps and social medias, they have a brilliant list of apps that explains what they’re used for, and how maybe people might be vulnerable to abuse on those apps, which is really helpful.
I guess if you are concerned about this behaviour for a young person that you are working with, I encourage you to raise the conversation with gentle curiosity. So, you could even say, “I attended a webinar and heard some interesting things, and I’m wondering if that might be what’s happening for you.”
And like with all victim-survivors, it’s very important to be led by them – they are the experts in their own safety. So, it might not be as simple as turning off your location. I know for the young woman I worked with, when she would turn off her location on Snapmaps, there would be this escalation in contact, phone blowing up, “Where are you, why have you turned off your location, what’s wrong?” And then possibly a shift into kind of an online risk, so he would come around to the house to check, “Where are you, why have you turned off your location?”
So, understanding it’s not that simple to kind of just switch off from these technologies, and being guided by them around what they know or feel will keep them safe, and supporting them to navigate this in a really sensitive way. And then if they do decide to leave, supporting them to take steps to change passwords, and block accounts, all that sort of stuff. So, it’s an ongoing conversation about your safety online, and your safety in your relationship.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Some really good points, Niamh. I’m wondering now, can we compare that kind of practice context to what changes, or what do you see different when the tech-facilitated coercive control is coming from parents?
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Yeah. Well, again, this is a space where understanding the context, and how power is being used, and what the intention is, is important. So, it’s very normal and appropriate for parents to have limits around their children and young people’s use of technology. Most parents do, and as they should. But I guess the line where the purpose is to control, dominate, threaten, humiliate, intimidate, that’s a line that we need to pay attention to, when we are thinking about young people and children as direct victims of tech-facilitated coercive control. As well as obviously the pattern of behaviour that this fits into, so remembering that tech-facilitated coercive control doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
So, again I’ll talk you through an example of what that might look like, and then build on some points that people might find helpful as tips. So, I’ll give you the example of a mother that I worked with through the Got Your Back Program, who had separated from her partner, because of longstanding domestic and family violence issues. They shared custody of their children through orders of the Family Court. So, the children went between her home and her ex-partner’s home.
She had set-up her older child’s phone, but the children’s’ father had bought a phone for their younger child and had set that up. And a few months after that, she started to get a bit concerned – she began to notice that her partner was, knew details about what was happening in her home, or where she and the children had been, and she couldn’t understand why, or how he got that information. So, we discussed the concerns, and we supported her to engage with a group called The Protective Group, and they are a group that have expertise around online safety, and they supported her to conduct some safety screenings around the children’s phones. They were very delicate and domestic violence informed in how they did that, and made sure that that was done without alerting the children’s father to what was being done.
But in the screening of their phones, they did find that because their children’s father had set up the phone under his own Apple ID, he had access to the location of the phone, he had access to the information about the apps that were being used, the time that was spent on the apps, and had the ability to monitor a lot of activity on that phone. So, that was then putting the mother and the children, while they were with their mother, at risk of harm.
So, this is quite a common scenario – we’ll often see the children be used as vehicles for surveillance and stalking behaviour, and it’s obviously quite concerning, because it leaves the children in a really difficult position.
So, again, tips for people who are dealing with situations like this. Again, be guided by the victim-survivor, they know how to keep themselves safe, and they are the experts in their situation. So, understanding that in this case, when The Protective Group did the screen, they didn’t change anything on the phone, they just gave her that information. because changing anything on the phone would have alerted dad and caused an escalation of violence. So, she was given a report that was written that she will take to the police when she decides it’s safe to do so. But she’s mindful that her children spend half their time with this person, so she doesn’t want to escalate the violence so that her children are at risk when she’s not around. So, she’s able to make those decisions very safely, and supporting her to do that is really our role.
Engaging with specialist services like The Protective Group is really helpful, so being able to do screens on technology, to do screens of vehicles for trackers, to do screens of homes for cameras or surveillance devices is very helpful.
And then obviously educating clients on warning signs. So, again, the eSafety Commissioner’s website has a good list of warning signs, information that they should know, things that they should look out for, and help supporting clients to be aware of that, and recognising maybe if they’re starting to say, “Oh, my partner has information, and I’m not sure how they go it.” Or “I’ve clicked into my phone and something strange is happening, suddenly my passwords aren’t working.” Listening for things like that, and picking up that maybe that might be a sign.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah, thank you for highlighting those points, Niamh. And the program that practitioners can access services like Protection Group, is Safer in the Home, is that right?
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Yes. So, Protective Group work independently, but they also work with the Salvation Army on a program called Safer in the Home. And that’s a free program accessible across all states and territories. So again, yeah, they’ll do different levels of tech screening and tech assessments, depending on what is going on for the victim-survivor. And they’ll also support the victim-survivors to stay safe in the home, by doing things like paying for changes of locks, paying for security cameras to be installed around the home, sensor lights, anything that could help victim-survivors and their children to stay safe, without fear of any physical violence or threats, or stalking around their home.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: All right, thank you. So, we’ve set our research context, and now we’ve laid over that, that there can be differences in the experience of tech-facilitated coercive control, or coercive control more broadly, in terms of the experience from within the family more broadly when it’s parents, or when it’s in an intimate partner context. And we want to shift now a little bit, you can see we’re kind of picking at multiple threads, because this is a complex space. But wanting to provide a broader view of the kinds of things that you might be considering, or coming across in your practice.
So, I kind of want to now lean more on you Kristen in this discussion, around the different contexts in which practitioners are working with clients. So, it would be nice if we could talk a little bit about your experience – you could kind of set that context up for us, of the context that you are working within. And maybe starting with some insights you have of face-to-face work, and then maybe we could shift to thinking about, what are some of the unique risks with tele-practice as well?
KRISTEN POEL: Absolutely, thanks Jas. Technology is moving so quickly, that our ability to understand its impact, the new forms of surveillance, new apps that can be hidden, are developed every day. That means practitioners have no way of being able to keep up with what are all the possible means of abuse, that could occur, and could be occurring in the future.
And in saying that, perpetrators of this do not need a degree in IT to be able to access means of technology-facilitated coercive control. So, we now live in a world where, that lends itself to a majority of the population having access to a smartphone, which is essentially a handheld computer. And the general population, I guess has had a pretty big crash course in digital literacy over the past three years, with COVID, and our move to different forms of engaging with our family, with services, with other people. Which has really shown some nuances around security of engagement in the digital world.
So, the fallout from that in the sense of COVID, is that the use of technology with our clients, but also the abuse of technology by perpetrators in this space. So, as an organisation of Better Place Australia, we were able to move to, and I don’t like to say pivot, because that’s been overly used in the last couple of years, but we’ve essentially moved really quickly to delivering online services, immediately after we were needing to move to work from home when restrictions were put in place at the start of COVID. We had systems in place that we – well, we didn’t really have the understanding or the guidelines on how to immediately deliver a service that was safe to clients.
So, the particular work we do at our organisation is varied, but the space that I work in, it is family dispute resolution. So, we work with both parents, we work with the carers of children, we work with victim-survivors, and we work with perpetrators, in accessing our service.
We look at mediation in this space, and so we are needing two parties generally to engage in this process. So, the particular work we do in family dispute resolution, does lend itself to working with both sides of that coin, of perpetrator and victim-survivor. So, we really needed some stringent, an understanding of what that would mean.
So, the role of a mediator in that space is to assess the suitability for the mediation process, and whether both parties are going to engage in that, facilitate – and we facilitate the safe conversation between parties. We also, a large part of our role is identifying risk factors, and how that conversation if it can occur, or what format that’s going to occur in. So, is that a shuttle format.
So, I guess what else we know, is that family violence research indicates that it’s a high-risk time for people, at the time of separation. So, we need to consider how we can engage with both parties in a safe way, and COVID has given us some opportunities to increase the safety of parties engaging in different modes of Telehealth.
So, however, just back to what you were asking Jas, around in relation to when we are delivering face-to-face appointments, and how we’ve been able to increase the understanding of how we can provide a safe environment for clients. Previously, if we had to conduct a mediation where there are indicators of risk, we would look at parties attending the site at different times, so someone would come early, someone would come a bit later. They’d come in separate rooms, and they would come in and out separate entrances. So, while there was an aspect of a barrier between the perpetrator and victim of family violence, there is still a level of risk, that they are in the same place at the same time.
So, what we knew we could do, so I’ll go back – we knew that at times, perpetrators could turn up early, they could try and circumvent the system and be in a carpark where they thought the other person may be. But also, their behaviour could escalate and put our clients at risk, and our staff at risk as well. So therefore, instead of continuing developing this model of separate entrances, separate times, we really moved to engaging in Telehealth, to be able to implement a level of safety for those participating in the process, and lessening the anxiety for those participating in the process, knowing that the other person isn’t in the building at that time.
However, when we’re engaging with a client in face-to-face, and the client is attending even an individual appointment, there were some considerations we needed to make about, discuss with them about their own digital safety, and what that has meant.
So, we would talk to clients about, and particularly given that often this is a recent separation. So, some people may have been separated for a period of time, this may be a very recent separation for some. So, who has access to devices or emails. So, organisations, and many of us do this, would send our appointment confirmations or reminder letters via emails or via texts. So, were the clients confident that they were the only ones that had access to this information? So, if they weren’t confident, what referrals did we need to work with them on, but also as an organisation, we would need to consider how we would – do we need to turn off our system for that client so they didn’t get reminder texts of an appointment? Or did we need to look at other options in communicating with them, that wasn’t via that particular platform?
I guess other things we could consider and have discussions with our clients is around passwords. Because when we’re in relationships as couples, passwords are shared, and that is very often the case. And after separation, and particularly when there are risk factors, discussions with clients about passwords being changed, is a very important time to consider, and across a variety of platforms. And because as humans, we have got a tendency to use very similar passwords across a multitude of platforms, and we might mix up a number at the end, or a letter at the start, or a capital here and there. So, they can, if you’ve engaged that, and the other party may know, or the perpetrator may know what that password is, that you need to really think about changing passwords to something that is remarkably different to what you’ve had before.
I guess an example of this is case practice for us as an organisation, is that we had a father engaging in the assessment process of family dispute resolution. And we had identified there was some concerns about perpetrating family violence, and some coercive control behaviours. But this became very clear during that session, when he attempted to engage with the practitioner, in showing intimate photos of his ex-partner that he had accessed via a photo account that he was able to ascertain the password for. And in this engagement of his behaviour, it was really clear that this was an attempt to shame the other party, and really discredit the other party to the professional, as a mother and as a human in this space.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: We see this pop-up especially in the US literature Evita, right, the use of non-consensual sharing of explicit images like that.
EVITA MARCH: Absolutely. And I think that’s a really important point to make as well, in that another way the research waters are muddied, is the interchangeable use of terminology to refer to what may have a very consistent cause. So, for example, image-based sexual abuse, can often have a coercive control component, threatening to disseminate somebody’s sexual images online, in an attempt to discredit them or whatever, is a form of coercion. But these different terms and terminology can muddy the waters, in understanding what’s actually occurring.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Absolutely, yeah. Okay Kristen, so what about in terms of your service and experience with working in tele-practice – I remember when we’ve had a conversation before, there were real pros and cons, of the strengths of being able to engage more people, but then there’s the struggles that come along with unique risks for people.
KRISTEN POEL: Absolutely, thanks Jas. The increased use of Telehealth has been a real game changer in engaging with clients. So, it’s not about just increasing the safety of our clients when being able to use modality of Telehealth, but we’re also able to increase access, we’re able to engage with clients in rural and remote locations, we’re able to engage with clients who have experienced challenges in accessing services face-to-face.
But what we have, has had some lessons on how to increase protective measures for those clients. So, there’s been some conversations we’ve had to have. So, if we’re engaging a client in a mediation session, then it may have been deemed appropriate that they would be able to do that via Telehealth, and they may be able to see each other via that Telehealth, as we can see each other in this modality. But we want to talk to them about, they would be in separate locations, so we’re not talking about people who are sitting together, that’s not a mediation process, that’s with people who may be in their own homes, or may be sitting with a support service or another family member. But there are some discussions we have to have with clients about some protective measures in this space.
So, ensuring that whichever platform you are particularly using, so whether it’s a Zoom or a Teams, they often default to the name at the bottom of the screen as your email address. So, if the other party doesn’t know your email address, you’ve actually then just presented right in front of them, an opportunity for them to be able to access that. So, just ensuring that you’ve been able to have a look at what your screen may look like, and change any identifying details in that space. So, changing it to a simple first name, I would recommend for people in those situations.
Also considering the environment that you are sitting when you’re engaging in a Telehealth appointment. So, is there a window behind you, is there identifying street names or landmarks. If you’re concerned, if a victim-survivor is concerned about the perpetrator knowing where they are, then just considering the references to geographical locations as well. So, really simply, as if we’re talking about engaging with that person and talking about a supermarket on a particular road, well they may know that’s where you shop.
So, in the context of the work we do which is quite interesting as well, it’s important to discuss these considerations with a client, so separated parents, if they have children who are engaging with the other parent via platforms such as Facetime, which many, many do, and children can be the unintended source of information for the perpetrator. So, ensuring that you’ve once again, looked at the scene behind where the child may be sitting, and what’s identifiable, what’s in front of them – school documents, school uniforms, those sorts of things are really important to consider as well.
Another factor that’s come up recently that we talk to our clients about, is that an increasing issue, or increasing access for people using home security cameras. So, they’re very DIY, they’re easy install, they are Wi-Fi, you can pick them up and take them from one house to the next. So, if someone has moved homes, you really need to consider who has had access to that app of that security camera previously, because there are administration rights that sit under those, and unless you’ve changed those, doesn’t matter where you set-up the cameras, people could be accessing that information.
So, these are just a few, and certainly not all considerations that we would be making, in considering the impact of coercive control in using technology in our sector.
But I also need to reiterate the real importance of referrals to specialised family violence services, because as service providers, we can’t be, and we shouldn’t be, all things to all people. We have particular services that we are specialised in, or that we provide. And so, really engaging in specialist services to refer clients, and direct to those, and direct support to those, I think is extremely important.
So, just to finish off this little area here is, as an organisation, we recognise the need for continual improvement on our knowledge and understanding of coercive control, and what the technology means in coercive control. So, for our organisation in some ways that might be, what we have done is committing to ongoing engagement in evidence-based training for our staff, ongoing clinical supervision that addresses these types of issues, and really bolstering our service delivery guidelines to address the nuances coercive control brings to the impact of our clients.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Absolutely. And it’s actually quite beautiful to see the questions coming through, and the responses, and the things that the panel is describing, kind of ticking off the questions as they come through. that’s a nice indicator of maybe a bit of symmetry between what was expected today, and the knowledge that you have, so that makes me happy.
Yeah, I think in summary, wrapping-up what you are saying there Kristen, kind of reflecting across the whole group. One thing that stood out to me in individual conversations with each of you, reading the literature, and then the group discussions we’ve had, is for practitioners and friends and family to have an appreciation of that higher level of demand that’s on a victim-survivor to have to be really conscious of all these things all the time. Their safety, their children’s safety, that we might not always be mindful of that if we haven’t had this lived experience ourselves, of just how hypervigilant – we might see it as hypervigilance, but it’s actually, it’s really adaptive to be consciously aware of these things all the time. So, really important I think, Niamh like you said early on, to take that lens to all the work that you do.
I’m not sure if we can really answer this question. Something that’s come through from the audience – I’m just mindful that what we’ve focussed on is victim-survivor experiences, but I know that some of the work that we’ve talked about here today is also with potential perpetrators as well. And the audience are kind of interested in what about when we’re working with someone who might potentially perpetrate tech-facilitated coercive control, but they’re not insightful about that’s what they’re doing? Because we’ve kind of talked about it from the perspective of maybe a victim-survivor doesn’t see, or is insightful or aware that something is happening that is problematic. Can we respond to that, or do we think we might need to point to other resources?
EVITA MARCH: I’ll just actually pick up, I think, one thing that’s quite important then perhaps. And I totally know that for some people – actually, I’m going to say two things here then. Firstly, I think the age cohort is quite important there, because I think that younger adults, emerging adults, adolescents, younger ages may perhaps be less aware, because some of it could be modelling, could be peer influence, could be perhaps less aware of the impact. And that’s why education, as Niamh talked about in that younger cohort, is quite important.
But what’s a really important component though of the definition is, when you do look at those three facets of coercive control, intentionality is the first facet. Now, it’s difficult to extract that, because the research has tended to lump all of ages together, and also tended to focus at adult cohorts. That’s why younger adults are probably needed as their own research. And I come from the research, the science behind it, but if we were measuring technology-facilitated coercive control, and we were measured in adults, we would say that there was intention behind it, it was deliberate, in an attempt to coerce and to create that credible threat. But that’s the research perspective.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Absolutely. Niamh and Kristen, do you have anything you wanted to add?
NIAMH O'CONNOR: Yeah, I think echoing Evita in terms of age of the person perpetrating this behaviour, definitely a lot of the young men that I have worked with, would have been at-risk of using this behaviour intentionally, and going down a dangerous path with the way that they viewed what is a healthy relationship, and what is appropriate for me to ask of my partner. So, a lot of that was that kind of psychoeducation.
But really for me it’s more about what is a healthy relationship, than how to operate safely online, because when you’re understanding what is a healthy relationship that kind of flows in, just like we talked about – this is online and face-to-face.
A really lovely opportunity to talk to young men about that. I guess if we have an older man whose perhaps got a pattern of perpetration of domestic and family violence, I think engaging more specialised services like Kristen was speaking about, men’s behaviour-change services, and services that are trained to work with male perpetrators of domestic and family violence is really important, because this work is very specialised and nuanced. And I guess really, the primary aim is do no harm, so making sure that if it’s not an area where we are comfortable with, we’ll refer them out for specialist support.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah, absolutely. Anything you wanted to add, Kristen?
KRISTEN POEL: Just to add to that, I think that’s a really important point is around identifying healthy relationships, and in the work we do, healthy co-parenting relations as well. So, we can demonstrate those through resources, through engagement of, in education and so forth. So, putting that visual out there for people to get an understanding of what that may look like.
JASMINE B. MACDONALD: It’s interesting to me, because we’re looping back now, my research brain of thinking about those levels of risk factors and outcomes. And we were saying early on, the research has tended to focus on those induvial things, and what’s a risk factor for a victim-survivor. But now what we’re talking about is education, meso family level systems, education systems, broader societal context. So, I love that we’ve looped around to that, that makes me quite happy.
I want to thank the three presenters that we’ve had today for coming and sharing your unique experience and expertise, how kind and generous you’ve been with your time. I have found this really insightful, and I hope that the audience have as well, and I’m sure they will have.
I want to thank everyone who has joined us today. This is a really important and emerging practice issue, so we’re really keen to hear your feedback, and we really hope that there were ideas and insights that you’ve picked up on. Maybe it’s not all new, maybe it’s confirmed some aspects of what you’ve already experienced in practice. And hopefully you’ve taken away some tips as well about what you can do when you start to become concerned that something is coming up around tech-facilitated coercive control.
I also want to do a shoutout to the people in the backend of these webinars, in particular the AIFS Communications team, and my broader team, the Child and Family Evidence and Evaluation team. Two people deserve a special shoutout, our communications specialist [Kyle] 00:55:49, and senior research officer, Melissa Willoughby. So, thank you to the two of you for helping us with this set-up and planning.
All right, so we’re looking forward to you joining us for our next webinar, which is December the 14th, Supporting the Developmental Needs of Children with Neurodiversity. And take care, we look forward to seeing you again soon.
Further reading and resources about technology-facilitated coercive control
- Technology-facilitated coercive control (TFCC): Evidence-based insights for practice:
This recording provides an overview of key trends in the research literature relating to technology-facilitated coercive control.
- Online safety checklist | eSafety Commissioner:
This checklist sets out the essential online safety steps for anyone in a domestic and family violence situation.
- Technology and safety | 1800RESPECT:
This site provides information about technology and safety, as well as broader safety planning and documenting abuse information.
- Documentation Tips - TechSafety:
This site provides tips about how to document technology-facilitated coercive control.
- Families navigating the online world: Opportunities and challenges - keynote address:
This video is the keynote address by e-safety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant on Day 2 of the AIFS 2022 Conference, 15-17 June 2022.
- Power & Control Wheel: On Technology & Abuse
This diagram by National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) illustrates some ways that abusers can misuse technology within the context of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking.
In 2020-2022, the Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) conducted a national project that examined the prevalence, victim-survivor and perpetrator experiences, and practitioner perceptions of technology-facilitated abuse. Technology-facilitated abuse was defined as “the use of mobile and digital technologies in interpersonal harms such as online sexual harassment, stalking and image-based abuse” in Australia. A webinar and three reports were developed:
- Technology-facilitated abuse: Extent, nature and responses in the Australian community
This webinar discusses Australian research which has shown that the use of technology to perpetrate violence against women is a rapidly growing and serious problem.
- Technology-facilitated abuse: A survey of support services stakeholders
This report presents findings from Stage 1 of a larger national project entitled “Technology-facilitated abuse: Extent, nature and responses in the Australian community”, examining the extent and nature of, and responses to, technology-facilitated abuse (TFA) within the Australian community.
- Technology-facilitated abuse: Interviews with victims and survivors and perpetrators
This report presents Stage II findings from a larger national study examining the extent and nature of, and responses to, TFA within the Australian community.
- Technology-facilitated abuse: National survey of Australian adults’ experiences
This is the third and final report from a larger national study examining the extent and nature of, and responses to, TFA within the Australian community.
The eSafety Commissioner provides professional development through online training:
- Technology-facilitated abuse in domestic and family violence situations
- Supporting children and young people – technology-facilitated abuse in domestic and family violence situations
They also provide broad range of technology-facilitated abuse resources that address the unique challenges experienced by:
- women with intellectual or cognitive disability
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
- people who identify as LGBTIQ+.
- Women who have an active online presence as part of their work
Further reading and resources about coercive control
- The power in understanding patterns of coercive control
This webinar explored ways that services can use the language of coercive control to support women to expose patterns of abusive behaviour.
- Sadie’s story: Helping women affected by domestic and family violence navigate a fragmented system
This webinar focused on one woman’s story of domestic and family violence. Sadie (not her real name) is an Aboriginal woman and mother of two. Her story sheds light on how fragmented service systems can often fail to meet women's needs and may even exacerbate the challenges they experience at the intersection of gender and racial inequality.
- Intersecting systems and the needs of families: Family law, child protection and domestic violence
This webinar reunited the panellists from AIFS Conference 2022 event ‘Intersecting systems and the needs of families: Family law, child protection and domestic violence’. The panellists discussed this topic with a focus on implications for practitioners working in areas related to family and domestic violence, family law and child protection.
Dr Evita March, Senior Lecturer, Cyberpsychology, Federation University
Dr March’s research interests include interpersonal relationships, cyberpsychology and personality. In particular, Dr March is interested in how people behave online, and she has explored a range of online behaviours including cyberbullying, cyberstalking, online dating, trolling and self-presentation.
Dr March’s work on the psychological profile of internet ‘trolls’ was an Australian first study, and she has received both national and international recognition for her research on cyber abuse. Dr March is currently involved in projects exploring individual differences and the propensity for online intimate partner violence, such as intimate partner cyberstalking and cyber dating abuse.
Niamh O’Connor, Policy Officer, Relationships Australia ACT
Niamh O’Connor is currently a Policy Officer in the Research Evaluation and Policy team at Relationships Australia Canberra & Region (RACR). Her previous role was Group Facilitator for the Got Your Back program at RACR. Niamh has worked with children, young people and their families in a variety of roles in out-of-home care and community services. She has a passion for trauma-informed and restorative practice and has worked to increase the safety of children and young people and their families through the use of restorative practice and family group conferencing. Her work has always kept people and their relationships at its core.
Kristen Poel, Regional Services Manager, Better Place Australia
Kristen commenced her career as a generalist social worker before working in vocational rehabilitation in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. Later she gained her registration as a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner and was Program Manager of a Family Relationship Centre (FRC) in regional South Australia. In 2013 Kristen Joined Better Place Australia as Team Leader of the Family Relationship Centre. Kristen managed the delivery of family and children counselling services as well as family dispute resolution. Kristen’s current role for Better Place Australia is Regional Services Manager of mediation services for the South East of Victoria and she has particular interest in the impact of technology in the context of Family Violence.
Senior Research Officer, Child and Family Evidence, AIFS (Facilitator)
Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald works in the areas of evidence synthesis and knowledge translation. Jasmine is currently leading a project to translate empirical research findings about coercive control into resources to support child and family welfare sector practitioners. Jasmine has practice experience in mental health and research expertise in trauma exposure and reactions. Jasmine is also an Adjunct Lecturer with the School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University. Jasmine has previously served as Methodological Consultant for the APS journal Australian Community Psychologist and held academic roles at Charles Sturt University (Wagga Wagga, NSW), Australian College of Applied Psychology (Sydney, NSW) and RMIT University (Melbourne, Vic.).
Senior Research Officer, Child and Family Evidence, AIFS (Facilitator)
Melissa Willoughby engages in knowledge translation activities across a range of research projects related to child and family wellbeing. Melissa’s research focuses on health inequity, violence, criminal justice and gender. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative methods, including analysing linked administrative data. Melissa is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne examining violence-related deaths and morbidity among adults and young people involved in the criminal justice system. She also holds a Research Assistant position at the Centre for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.
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