Is this what you think victims of domestic violence look like?

In the Mothers Apart Project one of the themes emerging from talking to both mothers apart and professionals is the problem of stereotyping, and judging people by those stereotypes according to myths about ‘bad mothers’. Another theme is that professionals who are not in the field of domestic violence avoid asking questions about violence and abuse in order to have to deal with it – and this is for a variety of reasons. Professionals are telling me that this is what they observe on a regular basis in other professionals who avoid at all costs opening ‘Pandora’s Box’ that is domestic violence (you have to bear in mind that the professionals I am interviewing are going to be sympathetic to survivors/mothers apart as they have granted me an interview to support the Mothers Apart Project).

What is it about domestic violence that professionals fear? Well, for a start, many professionals do not have the knowledge of the dynamics of domestic abuse , due to a lack of training, which is often not mandatory in all sorts of professions where you think it would be necessary; such as in law where judges and members of court panels receive no such training. It is very concerning when professionals often only see domestic violence in very black and white terms of a physical incident or not. Most survivors who are mothers apart do not even know that they have been victims of domestic abuse themselves and professionals tell me that this applies to most survivors whether they are mothers are not. It is a bad situation when neither the victim/survivor nor the professional understands what domestic abuse is or what to do if a perpetrator is targeting the mother-child relationship. Both professionals and mothers need educating to understand how strategies of psychological/emotional abuse and coercive control that are used to groom children and alienate them from their mothers are common because it is very easy to manipulate professionals, children, family and friends and exploit patriarchal institutions where a culture of disbelief enables victim-blaming, and mother-blaming. These same old tropes about women making false claims of domestic violence in divorce and children’s proceedings are heard again and again but the research shows that this is not true. This is simply the propaganda of men’s rights groups – as are myths about fathers getting a raw deal in the family courts that are regularly promulgated by fathers’ rights groups. Abusive men know how easy it is to capitalise on these myths by claiming that women are lying because these familiar stories are easier to accept than to struggle to understand the complex nature of domestic violence that it is a pattern of abuse rather than an isolated incident. It is mostly a matter of expediency for time-pressed professionals for whom the narratives about bad mothers and vicious ex-wives are useful heuristic devices, which enable speedy decisions that require little thinking in a busy day.

But why are so many professionals not interested in domestic abuse? Why is that they do not seek the training that they surely need to make good decisions? I think that I have gained some insight about why this might be this week through two experiences where I was exposed to similar narratives about domestic violence. These tales painted a picture about survivors that were blatantly prejudiced against mothers involved with an abusive man as if this was a simplistic choice made by some kind of idiot woman who wanted to live like that. One was the BBC drama Silent Witness: Protection, which explored issues of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and the other was a training event about attachment theory that I attended at University of Warwick where the trainer, Clark Baim, enlisted the excellent Geese Theatre Company to explore different attachment styles through scenes of family violence and neglect. The experience of the social worker was at the centre of both the drama and the training (which was largely aimed at trainee social workers) so the audience was able to get a pretty good idea of the challenges that social workers face. The job of the social worker is clearly a tough one where decisions are made on daily bases that affect the lives of children and their families. These decisions are guided by the training that social workers have, their interpretation of parents’ behaviours, their gut instinct and the assumptions that they make about people. If the stereotypes that were presented of women mothering through domestic violence in both the aforementioned drama and training are anything to go by, then it is no wonder that social workers have such a dim view of mothers who are survivors. These mothers were shown to be selfish, vacuous, moronic women, loyal to violent and abusive men and blind to the needs of their children.

I am appalled at these stereotypes and very concerned that training for social workers includes these misrepresentations of mothers that could profoundly influence their future decision-making processes as professionals confronted with violence against women and children. I’m not saying that such women don’t exist and that there aren’t mothers who should not have their children removed from their care (although I have never met a survivor yet who was not a ‘good enough’ mother). But let us please educate professionals about what it might be like to survive domestic violence when hugely resourceful, intelligent, caring, strong women find themselves in abusive relationships that they did not choose and have to learn to recognise and deal with abuse when it comes from a man who can also be loving and caring. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are not able to entrap women by being abusive all of the time and most are charming, romantic and highly persuasive partners (and fathers) for a lot of the time. Professionals need to be educated about this and see that the perpetrator does not conform to stereotypes either (especially when they are confronted with a calm, collected, rational man is describing his partner as abusive and an addict who is ‘crazy’ and a ‘bad mother’). False accusations about victims/survivors are one of many domestic violence tactics that are readily believed by professionals. Women mothering through domestic violence are mostly doing their best to protect their children and trying to work out how to leave a violent relationships in a society that; blames them, cuts funding to help them escape an abuser, closes down refuges for them to flee to with their children and persuades professionals that they are bad women. Professionals, like all of humanity, are influenced through stories. Narratives that blame mothers for not protecting children from abusive men (whilst the perpetrators remain largely invisible) abound in our culture through a range of media. Professionals are not impervious to the subliminal messages of these stories that they hear in daily life but when these narratives are central to specialised training this is bound to reinforce the stereotypes that they hear all around them. This is a bad thing for women who are mothering through domestic violence and can be utterly disastrous for the mother-child relationship and the futures of children.

About Dr Laura Monk

I am a researcher and counselling tutor based at University of Nottingham. My doctoral research investigated how to improve professionals' responses to mothers who become separated from their children. I developed a training workshop for the professionals who mothers come into contact with - largely at the intersection of health and social care, the family courts and domestic abuse services. I am also a counsellor and psychotherapist and offer feminist therapy for survivors of domestic abuse - especially coercive control. I am a Women's Aid domestic violence prevention advocate.
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