The overarching aim of my research project is to address the problem that, in the UK, there is no comprehensive, statutory provision of support for mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children. But how is it that there are so very many women that need this support? Mother-child separations occur largely in a context of domestic violence and can have profound and long-lasting effects of both mothers and their children. Provision is made, of course, for the health and wellbeing of children through health and social care and the children are the priority – as they should be. However, largely due to a lack of understanding about the dynamics of domestic abuse, professionals often do not see that children could be better protected by protecting and supporting the mother as a priority – by recognising and respecting her status as the primary carer and attachment figure (in the majority of cases), who is often the child’s prime source of soothing and security.
We seem to have found ourselves in a position, however, that mothers are blamed for being in abusive relationships and in seeking to protect the child from being in an unsafe household/environment, all the focus of professionals’ interventions are aimed at the mother: not on protecting her but blaming her. By threatening to remove her children, making action plans with unrealistic targets and setting impossibly high standards of parenting she is all too often set up to fail and ends up losing parental responsibility. Meanwhile, the perpetrator frequently remains largely invisible to any intervention and when a child is removed from its mother because she has supposedly failed to protect the child from the fallout of the abuser’s behaviour, the mother might even find that the abuser eventually ends up with having more contact with the child than she does or even residency of the child. This is likely to be a devastating outcome for both child and mother with lifelong implications for mental health and wellbeing.
When mothers lose their children in a context of violence and abuse and they are no longer the primary carer of their child, all the help and support that was focussed on the child drops away also – precisely because they do not have their children with them. In the main, services are neglecting to address the post-traumatic stress, the grief and loss and the ensuing depression, anxiety and psychological distress that mothers experience pre- (when they are frightened and distressed about the possibility of losing their child) and post-separation from their child. There is a dearth of dedicated interventions or services for mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children in the UK.
There is often no recognition that women need to go though a process of rehabilitation when their minds and bodies have prepared them to be a mother, or when they have been a mother for very many years, and then they are not able to fulfil a mothering role and they struggle to come to terms with their identities as a mother without children to care for. Many women experience an intense maternal yearning for children that they cannot have when babies are taken away from them. They often experience powerlessness and rage when they sense an injustice has been committed if they do not believe that they were given a real chance to demonstrate that they could be effective parents – or if they feel they were judged on their historical circumstances or were not given time to address recommended changes. It is common for women to have multiple pregnancies in a desperate attempt to have a child and be a mother only to have each baby removed shortly after birth. The mothers in these situations are forced to engage with health and social care during their pregnancies but often disappear back in to obscurity once their children are removed because, although there is a duty of care to assess their needs and offer counselling, the therapy offered differs between local authorities, is usually very limited or sometimes not offered, and the quality of therapy varies depending on the provider.
Local authorities that use the services of adoption organisations – such as PAC-UK – offer counselling to birth mothers post-separation but this is very brief and such support is not consistent across the UK. Where I work in Coventry, for example, the local authority does not formally provide support for birth mothers – or any specialised support for mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children. As a counsellor, I was contacted by a social worker asking me for advice about where to get help for a client who had multiple babies removed from her care and was without any therapeutic support to help her with the trauma that she was experiencing. This client eventually turned up at the domestic abuse counselling service where I volunteer and reported that the social worker told her that she had to have psychotherapy but that she did not know why. Therapeutic support came much too late for this mother as she had just given birth and the adoption process was already underway. Despite this, this new mother believed that she had a chance to parent her baby because she said that she knew no reason why she could not do so and that she had been promised a place at the local mother and baby unit. I only saw this client for four sessions because as soon as the order was given in court for her baby to be adopted she disengaged and I never saw her again.
Many clients come to counselling who say that their social workers told them that they have to attend therapy because they have a mental health problem or a personality disorder when, in my professional opinion, this is not the case. What I see is that they are usually suffering from the effects of domestic abuse and from being separated from their babies/children. I hear from professionals in my research that some individuals in organisations are overly invested in seeking a diagnosis for women because it can back up their recommendations for adoption or care elsewhere. Counselling should be for the benefit of clients in order to achieve positive psychological change – not in order to procure a diagnosis that will count against them in court proceedings. In addition, counselling for birth mothers is usually provided alongside the adoption process when mothers separated from their children are often not ready to engage in therapy that, if it is going to be limited to six weeks, might be better offered post-separation for support during the grieving process. Better still, remove the six weeks limit and provide long-term counselling for women separated from their children that is more likely to begin to address deep-rooted issues that invariably start in childhood and lead to the problems that are causing women to be assessed as not having the capacity to parent a child.
There are pockets of the country where some services have begun to address these problems such as WomenCentre in Calerdale and Kirklees where Siobhan Beckwith runs a support group for mothers living apart from their children. Also, Chance4Change is a service in Edinburgh for birth mothers who have had a child adopted or are in the process of having a child placed for adoption. Similarly, the Independent Birth Relative Services in Dorset supports birth mothers and is run by one female social worker. Over the years, I have met many social workers who are sympathetic towards mothers apart from their children. I realise that this is not a commonly held view but I am seeing – from a position where I have moved from service user to service provider – that those social workers who seem determined to remove children from their mothers in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is in the best interests of the children to remain with her, are not in the majority. I see that social workers are like any other profession in that there are good ones and bad ones. Unfortunately, this means that if you are a child living in a household where there is violence who would be better off staying with its mother, the likelihood that you will remain with your mother will be determined by whether your social worker understands the dynamics of domestic abuse or not. There are many social workers that just don’t get it but there are many who do and, through my research, I am meeting those that do and I can tell you that there are many social workers who understand the needs of mothers apart and want to support them.
Additionally, MATCH mothers is a nationwide, online charity that provides support to mothers separated from their children and whose members run support groups throughout the UK where mothers support each other in self-directed groups. Mothers that join MATCH are women that become separated from their children in a variety of circumstances. It is not just birth mothers who have had children removed from their care that are underserved by agencies.
There are many mothers who are becoming separated from children when abusive partners target the mother-child relationship. Perpetrators of domestic violence are able to groom and alienate children from their mothers during hostile and aggressive divorce and children proceedings. Such abusers are highly manipulative and can influence children and professionals and exploit institutions that have a culture of disbelief and victim/mother-blaming, such as the family courts and social services. It is relatively easy for a perpetrator to do this to a mother by making false accusations about her – child abuse, mental health and addiction, for example – particularly if he is wealthy and/or in a position of power. Abusers’ power to frighten, threaten and intimidate professionals should also not be underestimated as they tell me that sometimes decisions are made to give residency of a child to an abusive man when his threats have overwhelmed a female worker who becomes too frightened not to accede to his demands. In this way, it is possible to use the system to punish a woman for leaving and to continue to emotionally/psychologically abuse her through litigation abuse and by keeping her separated from her children in perpetuity. It’s a way of staying in control that is very effective as it affects a woman’s whole life and future happiness beyond the abusive relationship. The ‘use of children’ in domestic abuse is an area that is under-researched but which has been identified by feminist researchers over decades. Abuse of children as abuse of mother and targeting the mother-child relationship are common strategies that can entrap women for fear of losing their children if they have been told that they will never see their children again if they leave – or if the threat involves death threats that are sometimes tragically carried out as with the murder-suicides.
My research focuses on mothers because mother-blaming is central to many mother-child separations and goes a long way to explain the lack of support or empathy for women in these situations. In my research I have been talking to many professionals who tell me that women who no longer have parental responsibility for their children are commonly viewed as being beyond hope, not worth helping and unlikely to engage in support. Mothers are blamed for failing to protect their children and being able to create a safe environment for their children due to a partner’s domestic abuse. Mothers are frequently told to end an abusive relationship and flee domestic abuse as if this was an easy thing to do when, in fact, this is an extremely difficult and dangerous thing to do. Women know that violence escalates when they try to leave an abuser and, for mothers whose children – or mother-child relationships – have been threatened, it can be an impossible choice between leaving and staying alive and risking serious harm or a mother-child separation. Mothers are mostly motivated by what is in the best interests of their children and they might conclude that violence towards them is less damaging to their children than for their children to be separated from them – especially if the children are likely to end up in care of their abuser. Mothers have the additional problem that when they do manage to escape their abuser they are then forced to promote contact between their children and the perpetrator by the very same agencies who forced her to leave him. There are many of these contradictions that are largely borne through taking a gender-neutral approach to domestic violence instead of viewing the problem as one component of violence against women and children. In relationships where there is domestic violence, the risk of mothers and children becoming separated from one another either pre-, during, or post-separation from an abuser is always there from a number of sources and women know this. It is often this risk that prevents mothers from seeking the help that they need when seeking help can be a risk in itself.
If more professionals understood the issues that face women who are mothering through domestic abuse, they might be more inclined to support women to leave abusive relationships safely by prioritising the relationships between mothers and their children. Then, child protection could become more about women protection first before resorting to removing a child from its primary carer who is also its most important source of comfort and love.