Help-seeking during systematic and chronic abuse: Survivor and professional perspectives

M. Salter

Western Sydney University, School of Social Sciences and Psychology,

Systematic and chronic abuse (SCA) refers to experiences of physical and sexual violence that are (a) premeditated, deliberate and involve multiple perpetrators and/or colluding bystanders, and (b) involve frequent and severe incidents of abuse over a prolonged period of time. The background and experience of victims of SCA are diverse but they all experience enmeshment within coercive relations in which physical and sexual abuse, and psychological coercion, are normalised and camouflaged. The psychological impacts of SCA include complex forms of post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation that are poorly recognised and challenging to treat, and are often seen to undermine their credibility as complainants in the criminal justice system.

This paper reports on a pilot qualitative study with survivors of SCA, and the mental health professionals who treat them, to examine their experiences seeking help from a range of agencies, including police, medical services and child protection agencies. Drawing on a social ecological perspective, the paper argues that the risk of SCA is heightened by ongoing institutional and system failures to recognise SCA, identify victims, provide adequate care or hold perpetrators to account. The experience of research participants suggests that victims of SCA are presenting with some frequency to crisis and mental health services, but their abuse histories and psychosocial needs are frequently misunderstood or overlooked. The paper concludes that SCA is a poor fit within dominant models of ‘domestic violence’ or ‘sexual assault’, and that policy and service frameworks should address more fully the diversity of victimisation experiences.


Dr Michael Salter is a senior lecturer in criminology and member of the Sexualities and Genders Research Group at Western Sydney University. He researches violence against women and children, with a focus on complex forms of victimisation such as organised abuse and technologically-facilitated abuse. His book Crime, Justice and Social Media on online abuse and harassment was published this year by Routledge.


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