The continuum of control strategies in organised abuse

Control is one of the central dynamics of organised abuse. Psychologically, perpetrators are often motivated to sexually abuse children by a desire to feel powerful, and displaying control over their victim/s accomplishes this. From a practical point of view, maintaining this control is crucial to ensuring that organised abuse goes undetected. 

In this sense, organised abuse is similar to (and often intersects with) other forms of gender-based violence such as domestic violence, which is also characterised by the use of physical and sexual violence to control and dominate victims. 

However, while the control strategies of domestic violence perpetrators are well documented (although they continue to evolve), the ways in which organised abuse perpetrators control their victims has received considerably less attention.

Over the last twelve months, I've been developing a continuum of control strategies in organised abuse to articulate the degrees of control that abusive groups exert over their victims. The continuum is provided below:

Level 0: Chaotic, disorganised abuse

Mass child abuse occurs due to social disorganisation, such as a breakdown in the social fabric due to factors including cumulative disadvantage, mental illness, intergenerational trauma and geographic/social isolation.

Level 1: Opportunistic or situational organised abuse

Organised abuse occurs due to the convergence of multiple motivated offenders, vulnerable children and a lack of oversight or consequence.

Level 2: Motivated and premeditated organised abuse

Perpetrator groups have a well-developed repertoire of grooming and inducement tactics designed to manipulate and entrap their victims in a culture of abuse and exploitation. Coerced perpetration often begins at this level, in which the child is manipulated or forced into the abuse of other children to engender a sense of complicity and shame.

Level 3: Coercive control in organised abuse

Perpetrators seek control over all aspects of the child’s life, including the child’s body and sexuality, and exchange the child with other perpetrators to demonstrate their ‘ownership’ of the child.

Level 4: Disruption of recall and disclosure

Perpetrator groups use methods such as sedation, drugging and hypnosis to disrupt victim memory and limit their ability to disclose abuse. These strategies result in significant gaps in victim memory, including a partial or total lack of recall for abuse.

Level 5: Deliberate traumatisation

Perpetrator groups orchestrate traumatic ordeals with the intention of terrorising victims, inducing traumatic symptoms such as amnesia and severing the child’s sense of belonging to the social order.

Level 6: Induction and manipulation of dissociation

Perpetrator groups use electroshock, ritual abuse and other forms of torture with the intention of creating dissociative parts, systems and responses.

As the continuum progresses, the likelihood of detection, investigation and prosecution diminishes. Levels one and two describe those cases of organised abuse that are most likely to come to the attention of the authorities. Level three is being occasionally prosecuted, however level four, involving the use of sedatives and other measures to interfere with victim memory and disclosure, is the point beyond which criminal justice sanction rarely occurs.

Levels five and six describe the most destructive and effective control strategies utilised by organised abuse perpetrators. These tactics virtually ensure the impunity of organised abuse perpetrators, since they profoundly compromise the ability of victims to protect themselves or seek help. Most victims subject to these techniques will never disclose, and those that do are likely to be disbelieved or labeled as delusional. 

The full continuum of these control tactics has been well documented by mental health practitioners working with organised abuse victims and survivors for over thirty years. However, the breadth of this continuum is largely unknown to law enforcement, child protection services and most mental health practitioners and agencies.

There is a clear need for comprehensive training in the control tactics of perpetrator groups to ensure that organised abuse is being adequately investigated, disrupted and prosecuted, and victims and survivors are being identified and supported.