Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Social Work (MSW)


Social Work

First Advisor

Rachel C. Casey, PhD, MSW

Second Advisor

Caroline Shanti, PhD, MSW

Third Advisor

Susan Wiggin, LMSW


Supervising Professor: Rachel Casey Informed by the researcher’s work with women struggling through separation and child custody legal proceedings with their abusive male co-parents, the study seeks to understand if and how Maine’s court system considers intimate partner violence (IPV) in family matters cases. The research aims to gain specific insight into family lawyers’ understanding and consideration of coercive control—a term encompassing gender-based, psychologically abusive and controlling behaviors—when representing clients in divorce and parental rights and responsibilities cases. Under the label “post-separation abuse,” growing literature demonstrates the extent to which coercive control among separating co-parents manifests through the family court process. Research shows the many ways in which family courts have entirely discounted and/or misunderstood the experiences of IPV victimized parents when making child custody determinations, a process that is often complex and re-traumatizing for victim-survivors. To add, Maine funnels family matters cases through its underresourced district court system. To break down silos between systems supporting separating families and allow for more coordinated response to aid those experiencing abuse, it is crucial to identify gaps in Maine’s legal system that impact IPV-victimized parents in family matters cases. The present study aims to broaden understanding of the legal perspective on coercive control in the context of family matters to help bridge gaps between involved professions and inform policy change in Maine.


The study uses grounded theory methodology that aims to discover or construct theory from qualitative data using comparative analysis. The researcher collected data via interviewing 10 Maine attorneys with family law experience. Findings rendered a fairly linear process by which lawyers evaluate cases and make strategic decisions for representing clients; mutually reinforcing beliefs, experiences, and knowledge inform this process. Commonly identified challenges included striking a balance between validating clients’ abuse experiences with maintaining realistic desired case outcomes, Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders potentially complicating family matters and escalating abuse, and the adversarial nature of court proceedings. Study findings point to Maine family lawyers’ frustrations with the state legal system and their awareness of challenges that IPV victims face during the family matters process with their abusive co-parents. While the study has its limitations in terms of a small sample size and participant bias, potentially meaningful implications for legal and social work practice, policy, and research are discussed, such as: examining current state law for opportunities to expand the abuse definition to include coercive control similar to what the State of California has done (California Domestic Violence Prevention Act, 2020); implementing more systems coordination and cross-sector professional training on IPV/coercive control; further exploring alternative, non-adversarial, and trauma-informed models of family matters case resolution.

Included in

Social Work Commons