I’ve been working on a theme that is to do with unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children in a context of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) (mothers apart for short). I am arguing that these responses stem from mother-blaming and involve attitudes, beliefs, values and perceptions that are influenced by culture, society, theories and the media. I also argue that blaming mothers apart can lead to secondary abuse/coercion, re-victimisation and re-traumatisation, and relates to the dearth of support for this at-risk population of mothers apart who are largely a marginalised and stigmatised vulnerable group of women with complex needs that are currently not being met by services/interventions.
These are arguments that I have made before (although not so developed) in the Mothers Apart Project (MAP) Workshop that I created (with collaboration from MATCH Mothers), and piloted last year in Coventry, and at a recent practice development seminar that I gave at King’s College London to a group of practitioners as part of the Making Research Count partnership between KCL and University of Bedfordshire. These were both invaluable experiences for my research project as both were attended by a range of practitioners, especially social workers, from whom I learned much. Their responses and feedback to my work has helped me to appreciate the nature of mother-blaming that leads to unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers apart, in much greater detail than I previously understood it.
I have observed that mother-blaming (related to mothers apart) involves a way of thinking about women victims/survivors of DVA, who are abused mothers, as follows:
- A rigid belief that women freely choose to stay with their abuser when they are, in fact, easily able to leave safely. This belief does not take into account the complexity of why women stay, or don’t leave, which is not at all black and white.
- This belief co-occurs with another belief that abused mothers freely choose their abusers over their own children when they are given an ultimatum by the state. Again, this belief is highly simplistic and fails to consider a range of reasons why women may make such a decision.
- A perception of motherhood as a totally selfless, all-giving occupation where a woman’s needs must always come second to her child’s needs, which is largely based on Eurocentric, middle-class beliefs about an ideal childhood rather than the reality of the child’s life or actual needs (usually to be with its mother when she is the primary carer).
- A biased attitude towards scrutinising mothers’ behaviour from a critical position that judges from an impossibly high standard of mothering, which the average mother in the UK is not able to achieve (because it relates to the point above, that this standard is idealistic rather than realistic).
- A valuing of attachment theory to blame development problems on the type of secure or insecure bond that the abused mother has cultivated with her baby/child. The use of this theory does not apportion blame to the DVA perpetrator who negatively impacts the mother’s parenting and, in fact, the DVA perpetrator who is the child’s father may even be given primary care of the child if the state decides that the mother’s parenting is not good enough when she has ‘failed to protect’. (This is because violent/abusive men can still considered to be good enough fathers in the UK family courts).
- A judgemental attitude towards abused mothers where a deficit model of mothering draws upon attachment theory to blame, rather than a strengths-based model using attachment theory to highlight the numerous and creative ways that mothers are able to protect their children from DVA. So, although attachment theory is likely to be used to support the removal of a woman’s children, it might not be used to support and preserve the mother-child relationship when there is DVA.
- A belief that women commonly make up allegations of DVA and child sexual abuse (CSA) during family court proceedings and that this is due to ‘parental alienation (PA)/parental alienation syndrome (PAS). This belief stems from ignorance about how PA/PAS has become a tool used by DVA perpetrators to conceal their violence, and continue their control and abuse through the weaponisation (Evan Stark’s term) of children in the family courts. This belief has almost become an article of faith in the family courts to the extent that women are now being warned not to report DVA and CSA in case they are accused of PA/PAS, when the outcome is likely to be that the child will be placed in the care of the father even when he is a DVA perpetrator (see above).
- A perception of abused mothers as ‘unfit mothers’ who are also likely to have a range of stereotypes conferred upon them, that fit with the ‘toxic trio’ (DVA, substance misuse, mental health problems) opinion. With this perception, comes a failure to recognise the effects of DVA that can be misdiagnosed as mental health problems or personality disorders, or the fact that substance use might be a way of coping with DVA or that the woman may be coerced into using substances in order to entrap or blame her. This perception can be fixed without acknowledging that abused mothers’ parenting usually improves when the DVA perpetrator is removed from the situation.
- A valuing of the individualised approach to health and social care that omits to consider the social/cultural factors of DVA, which leads to blaming women for the DVA that is perpetrated towards them and pathologising them (see above).
- An attitude that is biased towards removal of care from the mother as an effective form of early intervention (sometimes as a form of defensive practice). This attitude fails to recognise the importance of the mother-child relationship for the protection of, and recovery from, DVA for both mother and child (see Emma Katz’s work), or that mother protection is often the best form of child protection, which many key figures in DVA scholarship keep telling us (e.g. Liz Kelly, Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft, to name a few).
During my research project, I have observed and learned of these attitudes, values, beliefs and perceptions held by a wide range of professionals at the intersection of DVA services, health and social care, and the family courts (private and public). I argue for the need for DVA training that includes an understanding of how violence and abuse is a risk factor for mother-child separation. I have identified mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children as a serious problem right now that is largely not recognised by professionals/services/organisations, and that specialised training is required in order to use the new coercive control legislation to combat this problem. I also argue for the need for specialised support for mothers apart who have experienced mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children. Currently, I only know of the charity, MATCH Mothers, which provides emotional support to mothers apart, and WomenCentre in Calderdale and Kirklees, which is an exemplary service offering support that is specific to mothers apart.