MAP Workshop Data Analysis and Initial Thoughts

An analysis of quantitative and qualitative data from the MAP Workshop has now been conducted using selective coding from grounded theory methods. This PhD research project is a multi-phasic study using an Intervention Mapping (IM) Approach, comprising three data sets in total. This is the third and final data set that will be synthesised in the final analysis.

Quantitative data

Quantitative data comprised pre- and post-workshop questionnaires using performance objectives and programme outcomes identified in the IM process. These were completed prior to MAP Workshop by email and at the end of the workshop on the day.

Participants showed an increased level of understanding of issues relating to mothers apart after attending the MAP Workshop. Out of a possible score of 80 (8 x items rated 0-10), participants scored their level of understanding as an average of 50 before the workshop and 70 after the workshop (see Table 6 for mean and standard deviation). A related t test was conducted and this revealed that workshop participants’ understanding of key issues pertaining to mothers apart (workshop objectives) was significantly higher after attending the workshop than it had been beforehand, t (20) = 7.25, p = 0.00.

Table 6. Mean and standard deviation for participants’ understanding

  Means Standard Deviation
Pre-workshop level of understanding 50.62 14.52
Post-workshop level of understanding 70.43 7.44

In addition, every workshop participant stated that they had a raised awareness of a) the situations of mothers apart (including needs and issues) and b) how to improve responses to mothers apart, which were the fundamental aims of the programme.

Qualitative data

Qualitative data comprised feedback provided through open-ended questions on a post-workshop questionnaire (n= 21) (submitted at the end of the workshop) and post-workshop written reflective exercises (n=19) (submitted up to one month after the workshop). Qualitative data has not yet been fully analysed but was reflected on and discussed at the MAP meeting. A preliminary analysis identifies some themes that are discussed here in an initial, informal evaluation of the workshop.

The majority of feedback was positive about all aspects of the workshop with 13 out of the returned 21 post-questionnaires omitting to state a least effective element (thereby asserting no non-effective elements). Remaining participants reported the least effective elements of the workshop were associated with too much information in too little time and resources to complete some tasks, especially the policy and procedure exercise; and 2 participants stated a preference for a family/systemic approach. Germane to this point is that no participants commented on the systems thinking that underpins the investigation in which the workshop was embedded. Systems theory provides a socio-ecological model, which includes the family but goes beyond this level to include community and organisational levels and the values and beliefs of society and culture. Systems theory underpinned all aspects of the Intervention Mapping Approach to the Project and can be seen most obviously in the needs assessment research and the networking components of the workshop. The lack of acknowledgment of this aspect of the workshop is unclear but might indicate a failure to communicate this aspect of the project effectively, or maybe that this element was not prioritised in participants’ feedback.

The vast majority of participants found that listening and talking to mothers apart was the most effective element of the workshop. Participants also identified effective elements as: group discussions, reflective writing, questions and answers, dissemination of facilitator’s research, models/literature/resources made available, multiagency networking providing different perspectives, a needs-led, strengths-based approach, and a focus on women’s centres (one participant proposed a women-centred lead for a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH)).

Participants reported key learning as: understanding long-term trauma for mothers apart; challenges that mothers face through a lack of services and interventions, and ignorance by professionals about non-physical aspects of domestic abuse such as coercive control and maternal alienation; recognising perpetrator invisibility and the need for accountability; understanding the variety of circumstances through which mothers can be separated from their children, but how similar the issues, problems and needs were despite differences in situations such as class and or cultural identity; the need for empathic understanding, listening and believing, not judging and valuing the mothering role; the importance of multi-agency working and networking; mother protection as child protection; and how maternal alienation could happen to anyone – “made vulnerable at the hands of just anyone or any life event really” (P5). One participant noted, “how marginalised and isolated from society they (mothers apart) are once you no longer care for your children” (P20) and the value of peer support and the “need to come together in a safe environment where they (mothers apart) will not be judged” (P20). Another participant was reminded of the importance of how achieving “unconditional positive regard for clients”…. “is critical to achieving good practice”….”within social work, where making professional judgements can sometimes appear to be incompatible with empathy” (P7).

The majority of reflections from participants affirmed the key message of the workshop of the need to support mothers apart – both when they are at risk of becoming separated from a child and when they have become separated. One participant provided the following reflection that is a crucial message of the MAP Workshop: “no matter the reason a parent is apart from their child, the pain or loss they feel is no less easier to deal with” (P11). Practitioners from differing backgrounds recognised these needs more specifically as: help in understanding their situations and options, being empowered to take appropriate action of which they are in control, for counselling or 1:1 intervention, and understanding when they are experiencing DV.

One participant noticed how mothers apart on the workshop “did not refer to themselves as survivors of DV or to their ex-partners as perpetrators” (P13). It is common that mothers apart do not realise that maternal alienation is domestic abuse and this has been a point of discussion in the MAP planning group over the course of the workshop development. When reflecting on the workshop one member of the group (and volunteer on the workshop) explained this was the desire not to be seen as a victim – but it is possible to replace the victim narrative with one of survival.

Participants generally reflected a desire for professionals to work towards keeping mothers and children together rather than compromising mother-child relationships through misplaced professional intervention. Several participants suggested that awareness of alienating tactics be part of safeguarding and that the MAP Workshop “should be used as a component of local authority training for professionals in social care services” (P21). Participants suggested that workers challenge court/institutional decisions more and question decisions that lead to mothers living apart from their children so that the normativity/acceptance of mother-child separations is challenged, especially when decisions “maybe wrong or unjust…as these decisions can be very dangerous” (P3). One participant reported how she had “not really considered the aftermath of the decisions to remove children and the impact this later has on individuals,” (P16) suggesting that the workshop helped in such consideration.

One participant reported how using the CAADA-DASH RIC with mothers apart in mind will lead her to probe further, e.g. when asking about threats to kill, a probe to “explore fully around both mum and children” (P6) could lead to more information that might detect maternal alienation. Participants reported intentions to: defend and advocate for mothers, contact other support services and liaise with other agencies, and develop this area of work locally. One participant reported how the workshop had already influenced her practice in a meaningful way when she (the participant) met with a client and “spoke about the workshop and she (her client) was very interested in the experiences of other mothers (i.e. shame, guilt and profound loss). The session opened up other opportunities to explore her (client’s) particular situation and she became more motivated to ensure that she has access to her children” (P17). The importance of advocacy in times of trauma and confusion was recognised, for example: “they (mothers apart) are so vulnerable and grief stricken that it should be their right to have an independent advocate to support them”(P1). It was suggested that multi-agency working was the best way to avoid contributing to unnecessary mother-child separations but some doubts were expressed about: a) the options for working with other agencies in their current work situations and, b) the practicality of networking if the only option for this was outside of working hours.

One theme in the feedback and reflections concerning child protection matters in a context of maternal alienation as a form of violence against women and children suggested a lack of understanding amongst some participants. For example, 1 participant stated that the influence of the workshop on practice would be limited because, “work typically involves a child being removed from a mother due to child protections concerns and not where there is maternal alienation” (P19). Strategies by abusive men who target the mother-child relationship can lead to child protection concerns when perpetrators make false allegations, e.g. of substance misuse, mental health, ‘unfit mother’, etc. Therefore, child protection concerns founded on untrue accusations against a mother can directly lead to maternal alienation, especially when social workers recommend the care of a child be transferred from the mother to the father. In these ways, professionals can unwittingly collude in maternal alienation or can knowingly contribute to mother-child separations when abusive men threaten them. This was explained on the workshop but a misunderstanding by more than one participant suggests a failure to convey how the exploitation of systems and manipulation of professionals are key strategies of perpetrators of maternal alienation. Alternatively, some practitioners may have understood what I was explaining but rejected the idea.

It was evident that many practitioners had in-depth experience and knowledge of how mothers lose their children to perpetrators in these ways, especially those working in the field of DV who might have understood MA prior to the workshop. For those workshop attendees who were hearing about MA for the first time, there was evidence that participants either embraced or rejected the concept along with the theories and philosophies on which it was based. This is to be expected both because the concept of MA is grounded in feminist standpoint theory and because the present study takes a cultural feminist position, which values motherhood. Feedback and reflections showed that participants either valued or rejected feminist ideas. Therefore, there was likely to be anti-feminist backlash. It is also possible that the critique presented during the workshop of systems and professional practice might have been taken personally by some participants, which subsequently created an emotive state that became a barrier to learning. Perhaps the critique was simply rejected out of hostility towards feminist ideas. The critique, however, was crucial to the understanding of MA and systemic alienation – which involves exploitation of institutions and manipulation of professionals – and clearly essential to explore how professionals can improve their responses when it is necessary to know first how responses are deficient.

On this note, then, some anomalous feedback (3 out of 21), which continued in the reflections, arose from participants’ disagreement with some of the central tenets of the workshop, or judging the workshop content and/or facilitation negatively. A further analysis of this feedback revealed these participants were, a) unhappy that the workshop focussed entirely on mothers apart and did not include issues relating to fathers apart or male victims of domestic violence, b) believed the facilitator to be biased against men and also against children’s services/social workers and, c) fundamentally disagreed with the notion of mother protection as child protection (as espoused by Professor Liz Kelly (1996)). Incidentally, 2 participants reported experiencing a negative attitude from another workshop participant although it is not clear whether this was the same participant or not. One participant’s reflection included comments about workers who “do not get it” (P12). These anomalies, then, were most likely due to participants’ own values/attitudes/beliefs/bias that led to a rejection of the key ideas presented in the workshop and/or created a barrier to learning. Data relating to these variances are the outliers in the analysis that support previous evidence and theory, which identifies these areas for change in order to improve professionals’ responses to mothers apart.

A wide range of comments were made about the delivery and facilitation, which ranged from the (mostly) very encouraging and enthusiastic to the critical. The disparity in the comments illustrates the apparently polarised values/attitudes/beliefs of workshop participants. These in turn, reflect the differing views of professionals in the services and institutions that mothers apart generally engage with. The contradictory approaches to women and children’s safety in the field of DV and CA support a wealth of research that evidences long-standing differences between organisations based on feminist theory, research and practice (e.g. DV services) and anti-feminist organisations (e.g. men’s rights activists and fathers rights groups), and between workers in the field of domestic violence and workers in social services. These are well-documented issues in the literature pertaining to DV and CA and were discussed in Anne Morris’s own research into MA.

One example of these conflicts, revealed in the feedback/reflections, is well illustrated by the component of the MAP Workshop concerning listening and talking to the mothers apart, which the majority of participants identified as the most effective element. Some participants stated that training which involves talking to survivors and listening to the voices of women most effectively raises awareness of DV but some (a lesser number) participants thought this introduced a problem of only hearing one side of an argument. This suggests that participants did not take volunteers stories at face value and alludes to the problem of professionals disbelieving what survivors say. One participant even suggested that the children of the volunteers might have chosen to live with their fathers despite their situations, which completely misses the point. Of course, some children choose to live with their fathers and this is not problematized when fathers are non-abusive. What is being highlighted here is the problem of children rejecting protective mothers with whom they have had close, loving relationships in favour of living with fathers who have been abusive to their mothers and/or them. This happens when abusive men target the mother-child relationship post-separation and manipulate children, family, friends and professionals (e.g. using false allegations) and exploit the system (e.g. grooming children to reject their mother so that they say they don’t want to see her – especially effective when professionals prioritise the ‘wishes and feelings’ of children).

The problem of professionals not believing survivors in such situations is disastrous for mothers and children surviving DV and CA when it contributes to MA. This situation is antithetical to the feminist position of believing survivors and illustrates the problem facing mothers apart who are often obliged to engage with institutions/organisations that are not feminist or are anti-feminist. DV services in the UK are feminist because take the standpoint of believing women and not blaming them for their abuse unlike the other institutions/organisations that they must engage with, which blame women for their abuse and pathologise them as being emotionally abusive to children (failing to protect), or do not believe them and, again, pathologise them as being emotionally abusive to children when they interpret their stories as false allegations against a father (frustrating contact). Again, this is well documented in the literature and very well illustrated by Marianne Hester’s (2011) ‘Three Planet Model’.

One of the drive home messages of the MAP Workshop is that once women are in a relationship where is DV or CA, they are at risk of becoming separated from their children when they are disbelieved, blamed and/or labelled as emotionally abusive when they do not leave violent relationships or fail to promote contact with ex-partners once they have left the relationship. This can lead to the bizarre post-separation situation in the UK, where children are placed in the care of the violent partners of women who have been labelled ‘emotionally abusive’ and consequently regarded as not ‘good enough’ mothers but where the abusive men are deemed ‘good enough’ fathers because they are no longer living with the woman who they have abused. In such situations both parents are seen as abusive towards children but fathers are given care of children when their abuse is targeted towards the mother and is viewed as stopping when the relationship ends. Mothers abuse is viewed as targeted at the child when she cannot protect her children from the abuse so care of children is denied to her if she cannot leave her partner. This way of thinking, then, ignores an analysis of violent men as fathers – despite a wealth of literature that links abuse towards women with abuse towards children – and ignores the value of the mother-child relationship as part of recovery from DV. See Dr Emma Katz’s research, for example, on this subject.

It is worth pointing out that a focus on mothers apart does not equate with a dismissal of issues faced by fathers separated from their children or misandry. Of course there are good and loving fathers struggling to have contact with their children in the UK as there are elsewhere in the world. The omission of matters relating to men as victims/survivors was partly due to extremely limited time in which to convey a large amount of information and simply due to the fact that the focus of the present study is on mothers not fathers. I made an apology for this omission during the workshop but this was given out of respect towards any participants that would have liked to hear more about the male viewpoint and not an admission of wrongdoing. Furthermore, because my research is focussed on women as mothers who are survivors of DV, my research is only concerned with abusive men and fathers. This does not, of course, mean that I am “anti-fathers” or “anti-men”, or biased against men – or that I am saying all men are abusive, which would be ridiculous. I have not studied men as fathers in general and do not feel qualified to impart information on this subject. I know that some good research exists into birth fathers, for example, but this is not my area of research.

Additionally, one participant suggested that male participation on the workshop would have been beneficial but this was not for want of trying. Although some men expressed interest in the training when it was advertised, no men signed up or attended. This may have given the impression of bias against men that was not intended and this may have further exacerbated the problems identified above.

In addition, 1 participant stated that the workshop took an anti-intervention approach despite the fact that one of the key messages of the workshop and my research project is the need for an intervention for mothers apart. However, this comment may have been referring to early intervention. In this respect, I am not anti-intervention but against the practice of removing children from mothers as a method of early intervention when there is DV and CA in favour of protecting and supporting mothers as a superior form of child protection.

Constructive feedback also provided useful suggestions for exploring DV/mother-child separations in same-sex relationships. Research data on this area that was not included – again, because there was not time for everything. In this vein, a distinct heterosexual perspective to violence against women and children was taken, which is the most widely recognised dynamic of domestic violence and is my area of study.

Ultimately, all comments were welcome because they illustrate the tensions between contradicting approaches to DV and CA as outlined above and support the research that identifies these conflicts. In this respect, data collected from the Workshop will add much to the final analysis and discussion sections of my dissertation. Additionally, the comments will certainly shape future workshops in which I will attend to these matters at the outset in the hope of lessening hostility to my research and to free up minds for greater learning development opportunities.

Qualitative data affirmed the need for training for professionals. There was undoubtedly too little time in this workshop for the amount of information that was imparted. This was mainly because the delivery was guided by interviews with professionals who advocated for an interactive workshop with plenty of group activity. This was provided but at the expense of being able to explain the many elements in any depth. All the feedback and reflections were useful and I am extremely grateful for participants’ attendance at the workshop and for the feedback and reflections.

I think that in future workshops I might spend more time encouraging self-awareness and thinking about values/beliefs/attitudes/bias, etc. Although these ideas were introduced on the workshop we didn’t spend long on this due to time constraints. In the field of DV and CA, however, I think it is tremendously important for practitioners to know what theory and philosophy underpins their practice. As a researcher-practitioner, I understand that different forms of feminism that I align myself with (i.e. radical and cultural) – are not entirely compatible with each other but underpin both my research and practice, and that feminism – which focuses on societal and cultural explanations of violence and abuse – also conflicts with my person-centred, humanistic training, which places the individual at the centre. I am aware of these tensions in my research and practice that can contribute to my standpoint. One of the many advantages of qualitative research in critical social psychology for me is in acknowledging the subjectivity that comes from our values, beliefs and attitudes. I realise these have been shaped by my life experiences and, in both my research and practice, I believe these put me at an advantage as an ‘insider’ rather than an ‘outsider’. I have spent over half a century in training to understand the dynamics of CA, DV and MA and I acknowledge that I bring subjectivity to my research because of this apprenticeship. It would not only likely be impossible for me to remain objective when I know things empirically but undesirable. I see such epistemology as a strength, however, and do not hold a pejorative view of my bias. Rather, I acknowledge my subjectivity and choose to include these ways of knowing in my research. I also try to respect the viewpoints of others who are also likely to be biased due to cultural and societal influences on their thinking and due to their life experiences.

Overall, the aims of the MAP Workshop were achieved in any event. This is evidenced by the objective, quantitative data described at the start of this report. More subjectively, qualitative data confirmed this and the many encouraging comments affirmed the overarching aim of the Project to raise awareness of mothers apart and the lack of help and support for them in the UK. We particularly enjoyed comments such as this one, which was music to the ears of mothers apart in the MAP planning group.

“The workshop identified how sparse support for mothers apart is and that there is a real need to support these mothers. I feel empowered to support women on this journey in the future due to the workshop and I look forward to this project developing and further influencing my practice. The workshop allowed me to reflect on how mother-blaming the child protection process can be. I feel empowered to continue to support mothers to be empowered to go through the system and have good outcomes for their children. Thank you for the workshop and introducing me to such inspiring, brave, strong women” (P4).

Overwhelmingly kind and thankful comments were made about the (free!) learning development day, and these were much appreciated.

Naturally, many thanks went to the mothers apart volunteers. One participant said “thank you to all the mothers apart in attendance for sharing your wonderful work, research and life stories with us all. You are all amazing” (P12) and another was “amazed by the courage, strength and resilience shown by the mums and how they never gave up hope of being reunited with their children” (P9).

(N.B. Some of us are still alienated from children but we all continue to hope for good relationships in the future because we know the importance of our mothering in our children’s lives no matter how old they become. Our special ways of knowing as mothers motivates us to educate professionals about the importance of trying to keep mothers and children together wherever possible for the sake of healthy childhoods and adult lives).

Thanks also were given by participants for the delicious food provided by the volunteers, and for the quality of the venue at Coventry University.

I echo this gratitude and say a massive thank you to the MAP planning group members and mothers apart, workshop participants, research participants who provided data that informed the workshop, my clinical and research supervisors, and Coventry University for the venue/facilities.

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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