Coercive control is as dangerous as physical violence. Hannah Clarke's parents know all too well.

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of domestic violence that may be distressing to some readers.

The Clarke family know all too well just how insidious and dangerous coercive control can be. 

In February 2020, Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, six, Laianah, four, and Trey, three, were killed by Hannah's estranged husband, after he ambushed her car on the morning school run. There, in broad daylight on a normally quiet street in Brisbane, he took the lives of the four people he ought to have loved most. Unwilling to live with the consequences, he also took his own. 

The crime reignited the conversation about family violence in Australia and prompted conversations about coercive control, which had rarely been spoken about until then.

"90 per cent of the time, coercive control can end in homicide," Sue Clarke, Hannah's mum, tells Mamamia. "This is why laws to criminalise coercive control will save lives."

Watch: the realities of coercive control. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia. 

Coercive control is a pattern of abuse designed to dominate, oppress and trap another individual.

Though it can come hand-in-hand with physical violence, it typically involves more insidious and manipulative tactics like social isolation, intimidation, humiliation and degradation, monitoring movements and communication with others, controlling finances, and more.


This week, a new study led by PhD candidate Susanne Lohmann from the University of Melbourne investigated the relationship between coercive control, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It found the mental health impacts of coercive control are significant — and on par — with those of physical abuse. To have concrete research evidence like this is a step forward in highlighting the reality so many victims and victim-survivors face.

"Victims as a whole are belittled and told they are useless, worthless and no one will love them. Along with this, they're constantly walking on eggshells, scared they'll say the wrong thing. It's no wonder so many victims are left with PTSD as a result," Sue Clarke tells Mamamia.

The meta-analytic review found that victim-survivors who are exposed to coercive control in intimate relationships are at an increased risk of developing PTSD and depression.

It's an area under-researched, and it's a misunderstood form of abuse aptly described as "intimate terrorism".

Researcher Susanne Lohmann tells Mamamia: "Intimate terrorism characterises the nature of coercive control really well. There's a sense of constant terror and entrapment. It's important to have a good, real evidence base like this which can help inform legislation and clinicians, alongside testimony from victim-survivors as well."

Historically speaking, coercive control has been difficult to measure in research. So now having a greater understanding of what coercive control entails and the impact it has, helps society and the research sector as well.


Now that we know the mental health impacts of coercive control can be likened to other serious traumas, Susanne hopes this will spur on further research and clinician training. 

It's a subject she also cares a lot about, interested in examining the psychosocial perspective of this issue in a bid to make a real systemic difference. 

"Trauma-informed mental healthcare that supports long-term recovery is important. The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children that came out last year also said this, saying a core focus should be on helping to reduce re-traumatisation and supporting victim-survivors to be safe," she says.

"We have seen lots of important advocacy around this, now it's time for services and funding to match that in terms of providing psychological support."

Sue Clarke and her family have been working tirelessly in this field for three years now, passionately advocating for greater action. The Clarke family has done this via The Small Steps 4 Hannah Foundation, which they set up in Hannah's name. 

Image: Supplied/Sue Clarke.


Sue says to Mamamia the project she's most proud of enacting via the foundation is Hannah's Sanctuary.

It's a joint collaboration between Beyond DV, Small Steps 4 Hannah and a Brisbane philanthropist, the sanctuary is a group of nine newly-built townhouses in Brisbane for women recovering from domestic violence.

"It's a wraparound service for women in recovery that's a more long-term approach, helping them study or get back into the workforce. We'll also have a social worker available to them. It's basically assisting them in getting their lives back on track," Sue explains.

What Sue has found frustrating lately though, is that all states and territories bar one have spoken to her and the foundation about enacting tighter coercive control laws.

"We've actually sent a letter to the Victorian Attorney General wanting to just have a conversation about coercive control laws, because they feel their laws are good enough. But they're not," says Sue.


"Victoria is now the only state or territory that refuses to acknowledge that coercive control is an issue they need to deal with. Some other states are close to finalising legislation, while others are getting started or at least having the conversation."

The Queensland Government has promised the Clarke family that by September, their state's coercive control laws will be officially in place — around the time of Hannah's birthday.

It's honouring her daughter and grandchildren's lives that is always front of mind for Sue.

"We don't want them forgotten. We're developing an education program at the moment called HALT —  named are Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey," she says.

"Just this week, we lost another woman. We can't keep having women and children murdered every week, it's just too much. So if we can save someone's life, we're doing something right."

For more about the work The Small Steps 4 Hannah Foundation is doing, you can visit their website here

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Feature Image: AAP/Mamamia. 

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