Dr Emma Katz is a UK domestic violence researcher at Liverpool Hope University. In a new study, she’s examined how coercive control perpetrators, predominantly male, stalk ex-partners in the digital world, using everything from social media to WhatsApp following the breakdown of a relationship.
Dr Katz said: ‘These unhinged parents are also using tech to stalk their children, yet these youngsters are not consistently recognised as victims or given the support they need. Technology-facilitated abuse and stalking need to be taken much more seriously as a crime. It’s part of a pattern of harmful behaviour which a perpetrator has typically been committing for years.’
‘And through the use of things like social media, the victims of domestic abuse and stalking – both adults and children are living in constant fear and are subject to intrusive surveillance. Relationships with children are being weaponised by abusive fathers to continue their campaigns of abuse, and police forces need to be awake to the dangers.’
The new research published in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence sees Dr Katz and colleagues from the University of Lapland, Finland, analysing dozens of stalking cases dealt with by district courts in Finland between 2014 and 2017.
The researchers found stalkers used technology to be ‘omnipresent’, sparking ‘continual fear’ in adult and child victims. The research uncovered cases where women had had their reputations demolished on social media by the perpetrator while presenting themselves as the ‘good’ father.
In seven cases, it was mentioned that the perpetrator had installed spy software in a woman’s or child’s mobile phone, affixed a spy device to a woman’s car, used or threatened to use GPS data in tracking the woman and children.
Just eight of 139 cases dealt with in the Finnish courts comprised a female stalker and a male victim. And, overall, the children were recognised by courts as an ‘injured party’ in only 13 of the 131 cases involving a male stalker.
The cyber-harassment involved threats of violence and death, intrusive and obsessive fatherhood, as well as disparaging and insulting remarks about an ex-partner’s motherhood or womanhood.
The work concludes that ‘children’s exposure and vulnerability to fathers’, or father figures’, technologically-facilitated stalking of their mothers must be more widely recognised.’ And while the study is centred on Finland, Dr Katz says the findings closely mirror the state of play here in the UK.
She added: ‘What we’re calling for is that when one parent is stalking the other, especially fathers stalking mothers, we need to stop and ask ourselves – ‘How are the children being affected by all of this, and what can we do to support and help them?’
In the UK, stalking crimes are currently covered by The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which sought to address fears among victims that stalking wasn’t being taken seriously by the criminal justice system.
A new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is also set to be introduced imminently. The Act will, the Government says, emphasise the fact that domestic abuse is not just physical violence and can also involve ’emotional’, ‘controlling’, ‘coercive’, and ‘economic’ abuse.
But Dr Katz is worried that some police forces are not using the powers they already have when it comes to stalking and giving them more might paper over the cracks.
She pointed to the recent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report into the epidemic of violence against women and girls (VAWG). She explained: ‘The information looked at police responses to crimes of violence against women, and one of the things found was that there’s a real postcode lottery when it comes to stalking. Some police forces around the country have issued just one or two stalking protection orders when they should have issued thousands of them.’
‘Some police forces are also regularly choosing not to attach bail conditions to men who have recently beaten up or sexually assaulted their partners or ex-partners. So it’s not necessarily about the police being given more power; it’s about the police not using the powers they already have.’
‘Over and over again, we see survivors go to the police to report these matters such as a case where a father had riddled their child’s tablet with spyware during a contact visit so that he could hear and see everything that’s happening in their ex-partner’s house and been told that it’s just a civil matter and it’s not their job to get involved. To me, that’s a huge issue and one that needs to be addressed.’
Dr Katz is also adamant children should not be encouraged to leave social media to escape the ‘constant coercive and controlling abuse‘.
She added: ‘We can’t simply tell children to ‘come off social media to end the stalking and abuse by a parent. It’d be like telling an adult, ‘If you don’t want to experience a car crash, never get in a car’. Instead, we put laws in place to limit dangerous driving and punish it when it occurs.’
‘And for young people, in particular, social media is a massive part of their lives. They’ve never lived in a world without social media. If they lose social media, then they lose significant parts of their friendship networks. It’s the people who are perpetrating the crimes who need their behaviours curbed. They’re the ones who need less freedom.’
And it’s not just police who need better awareness of technology-facilitated parental stalking – the society in general needs to be aware of the threat.
Dr Katz stated: ‘One tactic of a stalker is to slander their ex, usually through social media, to make them look bad and to attack their reputation. Perpetrators will draw on gendered stereotypes about how a mum should be a ‘well behaved’ mum, perhaps criticising an ex-partner for partying or drinking, for example.’
‘The accusations are likely to be entirely false, yet it’s plausible to those on social media because that’s a common narrative around bad mothers, and we send our disapproval their way. As we’re doing that, we’re giving an abuser who has made false narratives more power. We’re sympathising with them and condemning a victim who’s probably done nothing wrong at all.’