Getting help can be challenging when an abused mind is a confused mind

Accessing the right kind of help and support can sometimes be difficult for mothers who are at risk of becoming separated from their children. They might not know where to go or who they can talk to, especially if they are frightened that getting help with domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health problems will put them at risk of having their children removed from their care.

Mothers might experience extreme levels of fear, anger and stress when there is risk of mother-child separation that can make engaging with services difficult. They may not know which service is appropriate, especially if they do not have evidence of violence or have not identified domestic abuse when it is of the non-physical type.

A controlling, coercive partner might have threatened the lives of them and their children or told them that if they leave or go for help they will never see their children again. They may not realise that their mental health problems or substance misuse are caused by the abuse they endure, particularly if they are being psychologically abused by a partner who is encouraging drug and alcohol use, isolates them from family, friends and sources of support, and makes them believe they are worthless. An abusive man may tell them and everyone else that they are an ‘unfit mother’. He might make false allegations about them if they do find the courage to go for help. A mother might find herself being scrutinised by the local authorities, accused of violence and abuse when it is she who is the real victim. A woman might come to believe what her abuser tells her and blame herself.

A mother may become separated from her children despite her best efforts to protect them. Her ex-partner might turn her children against her out of revenge or punishment or just because he enjoys the feeling of being powerful and in control, post-separation and in perpetuity. A perpetrator may even decide that his ex-partner deserves the ultimate punishment for leaving him and will choose to kill her. If it is his intention to cause her the maximum amount of mental anguish he might spare her life and separate her from her children by killing them instead or by programming the children to hate and despise her – and refuse all contact. Men who annihilate their families often do not have a history of domestic violence. Coercive control is strongly linked with revenge attacks like these but there is often no evidence, which makes it incredibly difficult for a mother to get the right kind of help even when she knows something is wrong.

Women sometimes talk about knowing something is wrong but not being able to put a finger on anything specific. Victims of violence and abuse can become seriously mentally ill when their abuser is playing mind games with them – controlling every aspect of their life through coercive control, emotional and psychological abuse, and gaslighting. It can be hard to know what type of help to look for when the abuse is sometimes so intangible, indescribable, especially when an abused mind is a confused mind.

The ‘use of children’ is common in these tactics and children can be used as a means to an end, especially in strategies of revenge and punishment when women manage to escape their abusers. Many women also experience mother-child separation when their abuser ends the relationship also though. No matter no who left whom, a determined, coercively controlling, abusive man can engineer a situation in which children never have contact with their mother again. This is really not that difficult to do but very difficult to get help with.

Mothers who have become separated from their children in such situations didn’t get help until it was much too late. As described, women just may not realise that they are living with domestic abuse when it is not obvious. Additionally, this can be because these tactics of grooming and coaching children involve secrecy, lies and manipulation where turning children against their mothers is done without the her even realising it is happening. This can happen when the parenting is shared and there is less opportunity to recognise the abuse. However, this can also happen when mum is the primary carer. This might be hard to imagine but it happens.

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Opposing paradigms in child contact and domestic violence

I came across a neat summary today of the key debates between fathers’ rights groups (FRGs) and men’s rights activists (MRAs) versus DV advocates/feminist researchers in the field of child contact and domestic violence.

The messages of FRGs and MRAs have been incredibly influential in the media, with the public and in the family courts, of course. It is now a common perception in the family law and child protection arenas that mothers routinely fabricate reports of DV (and child sexual abuse) in order to alienate fathers who are unfairly treated in the family courts.

Table 1 by Jaffe, Lemon and Poisson (2003) shows two sides of an academic divide with FRGs and MRAs on one side and researchers and activists working to end men’s violence against women and children on the other.

Issue Fathers’ Rights Groups Domestic Violence Advocates
Post-separations parenting arrangements Shared parenting is best Shared parenting endangers abused women
Prevalence of domestic violence Domestic violence is exaggerated Domestic violence is underreported
Nature of violence Women are as violent as men Male violence is more severe, more injurious, and causes greater risk to life
Allegations of domestic violence Allegations are false, used to bolster custody claims Mothers are punished for raising allegations and counter-accused of being alienators
Family court bias Bias against men Bias against women and domestic violence

Table 1. Fathers’ Rights Groups and Domestic Violence Advocates (from Jaffe, Lemon and Poisson 2003: 12)

Sexist and misogynistic practice by men and women alike is an unfortunate reality in many spheres of work. Some workers may be operating under misguided notions of addressing the balance of alleged bias against fathers when they are influenced by the key messages of FRGs and MRAs. But there is no bias against men and fathers in the family courts as shown recently in a study by Maebh Harding at University of Warwick.

Jaffe, P. G., Lemon, N. K. D., and Poisson, S. E. (2003) Child Custody and Domestic Violence. Thousand Oaks: Sage

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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.

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Northampton Violence Conference Review

I was asked to review this conference for British Psychology Society’s ‘Qualitative Methods in Psychology Bulletin’ so I thought I would share my review here too.

Violence: Children, Family and Society Conference 2015

The University of Northampton

Northampton 24th – 26th June 2015

Laura Monk

Coventry University

This three-day conference provided an interdisciplinary forum to explore the impact of violence on children, families and society. Taking a multi-professional approach, interventions and responses to violence were considered at individual, interpersonal, community, social and political levels. As a researcher-practitioner with an interest in domestic violence, this conference offered an impressive selection of talks and events pertinent to my research and practice so I was fortunate to be able to attend.

There was an absorbing range of professional, high quality keynote presentations over the three days. Professor Liz Kelly from London Metropolitan University in London shared lessons learnt from the Mirabel Project on perpetrator programmes. She talked about how women were able to have more ‘Space for Action’ when male partners attended perpetrator programmes, which led to the creation of space and freedom in addition to decreased violence. It was stressed that survivors live in a pattern of coercive control – the familiar description of ‘walking on eggshells’ – rather than living with physical incidents and, therefore, the focus of perpetrator programmes should not just be about safety but also about freedom.

There was a stunning keynote presentation by Carlene Firmin MBE from MsUnderstood Partnership and University of Bedfordshire. She talked about an exploration of the nature of violence and abuse between young people. Carlene’s work draws on research into teenage relationship abuse, child sexual exploitation, harmful sexual behaviour and serious youth violence. Carlene talked about the individual agency of young people and how they were not just passive victims. Case file evidence and young people’s voices brought this presentation to life and effectively illustrated how young people can simultaneously be powerful and powerless when they take their power back to abuse others in an effort to resist being victims themselves.

Dr Jane Callaghan from the University of Northampton – who was also our host – talked about children’s experience of domestic violence in her keynote presentation. Reporting on her two-year project, ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies’ (UNARS), Jane talked about young people’s capacity to have resilience in a context of domestic abuse and how their sense of resistance and agency helped them to keep themselves safe. The absence of children from the UK Government’s definition of domestic violence was called into question and how this might impact on children who are not perceived as victims but as “collateral damage” was discussed. Jane called for an understanding of children from “the position that they are in rather than a fantasy of how children’s lives should be” and recognition that children are not just passive witnesses to domestic violence but are actively involved with agency, resistance and resilience.

Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid spoke about ‘Change that Lasts: A new approach to ending violence’ in her keynote presentation. This is a new multi-agency model that takes a strengths-based, needs-led approach to domestic violence. Polly stressed that while the need for safety was an important element of surviving and recovering from domestic violence it was just one need of many that are not currently being addressed – including longer-term goals such as independence. Polly talked about how the current system fails to support survivors when it is too narrowly focussed on high-risk cases, which only addresses the tip of the iceberg and wastes money due to this imprudent focus. It was argued that ‘Change that Lasts’ is cost-effective compared to the current situation that “depletes survivors’ resources and fails to provide support in the long run”. Polly announced that the Model is due to be piloted in the coming year in the next phase of this new approach.

Dr Ingrid Palmary from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa gave a paper on ethnographic research into how children navigate South African borderlands in her keynote presentation. In this fascinating talk, Ingrid explained how child protection concerning child migrants crossing borders in South Africa was at odds with how people live their lives. Ingrid used her research to show how the current model of child protection not only fails to protect the migrant child but also sets up danger for children when crossing the border. She explained how borders are not natural things that exist as unsafe entities in the context of children’s lives but are made unsafe by laws that restrict their behaviour such as when they cross the border to see friends unaccompanied, for example. Ingrid’s talk highlighted how children’s lives can be pathologised when they don’t live up to ideals and how global and local forces impact on children’s everyday lives when child protection systems skim over the complex needs of child migrants.

The final keynote presentation was from Professor Arlene Vetere from Diakonhjemmet University College in Oslo, Norway. Arlene is a professor of family therapy and she talked about the systemic approach to safe therapeutic practice with couples and families used in her ‘Reading Safer Families’ domestic violence intervention service, which she established twenty years ago. Arlene talked about the intergenerational and developmental impact on children and described how systemic thinking and practice places families at the heart of therapeutic work when there is domestic violence, which was positioned as a mental health issue. Arlene shared her experience of early resistance from local services to an independent family violence intervention practice. She recalled they were suspicious that couples’ therapists would blame everyone equally, would be easily manipulated because they were “nice women”, and would not report domestic violence as a safeguarding issue. Despite these reservations, Arlene reported that her service was promptly used by the local services shortly after opening and has been thriving ever since.

In addition to this impressive range of keynote presentations were two symposiums, and a formidable choice of papers and posters. I attended the symposium convened by Jane Callaghan on children’s experience of domestic violence and abuse that extended her keynote presentation where she talked about UNARS (see above). This symposium included a wonderfully creative element where drawings and photographs supported children’s articulations of domestic violence. The method of photo elicitation used with the one hundred children interviewed for this project not only enabled children to express their experiences of domestic violence but also resulted in a powerfully emotive dissemination of the research findings. Jane talked about how children’s verbal expressions of violence and abuse were often perceived as risky when the key lesson learned is the danger of speaking out. She explained how this potentially draws unwanted attention from the abuser, from social services, from bullies and from unwanted helpers. Jane gave the example of Paul (pseudonym) who said that he “told his social worker things but dad found out and he went mad”. Also in the symposium, Joanne Alexander talked about the ethics and practicalities of doing research with vulnerable families and about the reflections of the six researchers who took part in UNARS. Finally, Lisa Fellin talked about a most interesting group based intervention for children and young people that was developed out of the UNARS project. This intervention drew on creative, systemic and feminist approaches – moving away from an individualising, ‘overly-therapeutised” deficit-model to a more relational, embodied and resource-oriented approach. Lisa talked about how the group therapy drew on the embodied accounts of the children and young people’s experiences of domestic violence and their ways of coping through the use of space, objects, materials and games. The Conference included a fascinating exhibition of the artwork produced by the children and the researchers through UNARS. Judith Sixsmith, Claire Harrison-Breed and Stavroula Mavrou made up the full complement of researchers on the UNARS project.

I convened the other symposium on ‘Professional responses to mothers, with and without their children, when there is violence and abuse’. This was a cross-disciplinary panel of independent researchers exploring interactions between mothering, mother-child relationships, abuse and violence. The overarching connecting theme was professional involvement in circumstances where mother-child relationships can be threatened, interfered with and affected by abuse and violence. I presented on Maternal Alienation by talking about the accounts of six women who described strategies that included exploitation of institutions and manipulation of professionals who collude with perpetrators when mother-child relationships are targeted. Ariane Critchley from the University of Edinburgh talked about social work practice in pre-birth child protection through an ethnographic study where issues of power and control were identified when there is familial violence. Siobhan Beckwith from University of Huddersfield spoke about a mental health and wellbeing project for women in the North of England. Drawing on mothers’ experiences of separation from their children, Siobhan talked about the book, ‘In Our Hearts’ produced by the Mothers Living Apart from their Children Project. The book is a powerful resource for both mothers apart and the professionals who work with them. Dr Emma Katz from Liverpool Hope University talked about her research, which examined how professional responses may help or hinder mothers and children to attain a life free from abuse. Emma offered insights into the important matter of how professionals enable survivors of domestic violence who are mothers caring for children to promote each other’s long-term recoveries.

I very much enjoyed all of the key presentations and symposiums. It was hard to choose which individual papers to listen to though when preferred presentations coincided. I listened to Anthony Collins from Durban University of Technology in South Africa talk about sexual violence and institutional culture at two South African universities. He gave a chilling account of how one university’s response to rape was to silence and threaten by attacking the feminist population and closing down women’s and gender studies courses. Annemarie Millar from Queen’s University in Belfast gave a paper on emotional intelligence for social guardians, in which she highlighted the need for professionals to develop skills such as self-awareness and empathy when responding to children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. Jo Neale from University of Bedfordshire explored the ways that professionals respond to women seeking help for domestic violence and how their choices are affected by self-perceptions. Jo talked about positive interventions being identified as those that help women to increase their self-efficacy and unhelpful responses as including professionals’ active, if unwitting, collusion with the perpetrator. Suzanne McKenzie-Mohr from St Thomas University in Canada gave a beautifully eloquent paper on what she called the ‘tell-ability’ and ‘hear-ability’ of intimate partner sexual violence. Suzanne spoke about how dominant discourses diminish and “delegitimise women’s experiences of sexual violence” when this type of violence is denied or women are blamed for it. Suzanne suggests that practitioners use meaningful questions with survivors of rape and be mindful that tone and manner are crucial. There were so many more papers that I would like to have listened to. I heard that Craig Newnes from Shropshire NHS Psychological Services gave a superb paper on violence in child services. I was sad to have missed this amongst others but you can’t listen to everything.

The key themes that I heard over the three days included: how survivors of domestic abuse are pathologised, the prevalence of professional collusion – both knowing and unwitting, how the needs of survivors are more than safety alone, how children’s lives are idealised instead of addressing their realities, and the importance of survivors’ agency and resilience – in particular, that of children and young people.

I hope that I have managed to convey what an excellent conference this was and certainly unmissable if this is your field of research.

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Early reflections on the MAP workshop feedback

The training workshop for professionals: ‘Improving Responses to Mothers Separated from their Children – or at Risk of Becoming Separated’, took place this week on 17th June at Coventry University. It was very well attended by practitioners who came locally, from the surrounding counties and London and as far as from West Yorkshire. There was a diverse mix of professionals who included:

Clinical Supervisor
Social Worker (and trainee counsellor on placement)
Education, Training and Employment Advisor
Independent Domestic Violence Advisor
Counsellor/Senior Caseworker
Managing Director
Social Work Student
Family Intervention Practitioner
Service Co-ordinator
Befriending Support Worker
Social Worker
Domestic Violence Co-ordinator, Programmes Co-ordinator/Facilitator
Domestic Violence Support Worker
Senior Practitioner
Social Worker
Family Practitioner
Therapist/Practitioner
Social Worker
Domestic Abuse Practitioner
Birth Relative Support Worker
Team Manager Early Intervention Service
Early Intervention Worker

22 women in all – and yes, all women. No men attended the workshop and this was commented upon by one participant who noted that there are many male practitioners in this field – so why none at the workshop?  Men were certainly not excluded from the workshop and the possibility of male attendees was discussed in the monthly planning groups. As Project Lead, this was something I needed to check out with the volunteers as they were going to be telling their stories in front of people who they had never met before. Their accounts of how they became separated from their children involved male violence towards women and children and it was a concern of mine that they felt the environment safe enough to do this. None of the mothers apart objected to male workshop participants and so the workshop was equally open to both sexes.

The workshop was then advertised through Coventry University Psychology Department newsletter, VIA (Violence and Interpersonal Aggression) (specialist group run by my PhD supervisor and Director of Studies, Professor Erica Bowen) newsletter, Warwickshire CAVA E-Grapevine ezine, Reducing the Risk of Domestic Abuse bulletin (Independent DV Advisory Service for Oxfordshire), and by email through the contacts/stakeholders that I have built up during the Mothers Apart Project.

Two men expressed interest in the Project from this range of promotion. I had 30 initial enquiries in all with 28 practitioners requesting a place on the workshop. The 2 men that reserved a space on the workshop did not then confirm their place once the process of registration took place but they did not give a reason for this – they just did not communicate beyond the initial correspondence. I reserved spaces for workshop participants as the enquiries came in. I needed a certain amount of attendees for the workshop to go ahead so I did not have the luxury of ensuring a diverse range of participants as possible to include men. I am sure that attendance by the 2 male practitioners would have contributed to the collaborative approach that we took in the workshop through networking and sharing perspectives. However, the workshop did not attract men for whatever reason and we had an all-female cohort. We certainly had a diverse range of professional roles though and this was a strength of the workshop.

A brief study of the feedback on the questionnaires suggested that the most popular elements of the workshop were; talking to mothers apart, networking and reflective writing. Only one person mentioned the lack of men on the workshop but there were some comments made about the absence of discussion about fathers and male victims of domestic violence. My research specifically focusses on male violence towards women who are mothers but I will certainly reflect on these comments over the coming weeks and think about the relevance and importance of these areas to my research.

Of all the comments, I was disappointed to see that some workshop participants thought that I had a negative attitude towards social care workers and services. This was bad news as I am aiming to develop multi-agency training.  This is a shame and was absolutely not my intention and not the message that I wanted to convey. I can see how this might have happened though and it is worth briefly analysing this although I will return to it in the coming months. I see that in order to educate about how to improve responses it was first necessary to highlight the unhelpful practice before explaining what is more helpful. My information about what is unhelpful came largely through my research – that is the needs assessments and interviews with professionals that I conducted, and the literature that I have reviewed. I reported on a variety of unhelpful practice and judgmental, critical, unempathic professional attitudes and responses to mothers apart. What I clearly failed to communicate though was that the helpful responses that I was reporting on also came through my research – through the same assessments, planning group activities and interviews with professionals. I spoke to several brilliant social workers who are doing the most amazing jobs with mothers apart and want to support mothers and children to stay together wherever possible. I know that social workers have an incredibly difficult and challenging job to do and I certainly acknowledged that. Somehow I did not manage to communicate my positive attitude to social workers though and this was my error. Although I know that there is some bad practice in social care I don’t know that this is worse than in any other profession and I know many more excellent social workers and have friends who are social workers. I also know that many social worker want to do more for mothers apart than the system allows them to.

This feedback is incredibly useful for me though because I can see now that the workshop would have been much improved by highlighting the positives as well as the negatives across interventions and organisations. I think I could have framed these positives as: this is what professionals/organisations are doing well. I have got loads of data on this as it was one of my interview questions. As I have said, it is one source of my information about how to improve responses to mothers apart. I will reflect further on the comments made by workshop participants over the coming months and think about how the workshop could have been improved. I am greatly looking forward to receiving written reflections on the workshop and these comprise the last piece of data to be collected in this study.

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Will Rebecca Minnock become another mother apart?

The media reports of Rebecca Minnock who has gone into hiding with her son are sure to make chilling reading for mothers living apart from their children. I am wondering what the outcome of this story will be – will Rebecca and Ethan be separated from one another in the end? And if they are – was that the outcome Rebecca feared in the long term that contributed to her running away? Many mothers apart will undoubtedly have considered running away with their child(ren) at some point rather than risk their child going to live with a parent who they suspect of abusing/harming their child – or risk their child being alienated from them and losing their protective mother.

Few mothers take the step that Rebecca Minnock has taken. Most will comply with court orders and stand by helplessly as professionals disbelieve and ignore their concerns about abuse and hand their child over to their abuser. Mothers apart may be condemned to a life of wondering what they could have done to protect their child – rehearsing each step of the process of becoming separated from their child over and over. They might fantasise about what would have happened if they had just run away with their child and imagine living somewhere else in the world where the concerns of mothers are valued and the mother-child relationship protected. The tension between listening to the maternal instinct to protect our young and listening to the authorities who tell mothers to hand over their children is enough to make some mothers run for the hills – but most do not not.

Most mothers take a deep breath, put on a brave face for their children, try to stay calm for the sake of their children and do what they are told. Most mothers apart struggle to maintain contact when an abusive ex opposes and sabotages their contact but they stay committed to doing what they can within the restrictions imposed upon them. Many mothers withdraw from children’s proceedings because they can see it is damaging their child even when they know that the decision of the court is not in the best interest of their child. Being separated from each other when there has been abuse can affect mothers and children profoundly and for a lifetime. Many mothers apart watch from a distance as their child grows up without them and sometimes they see their worst fears for their child’s well-being realised. Then the fantasies return and they wonder how things might have been different.

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Now booking places for workshop pilot in June

I am very pleased to announce the pilot of the multi-agency workshop for professionals – to improve responses to mothers apart – will take place on 17th June 2015, 9.30-4 at Coventry University. Registration will begin at 9am for a prompt 9.30 start to a full day of theory- and evidence-based, interactive learning.

I have talked to 30 professionals in health and social care, and in the legal profession. I have spoken to men and women working in the fields of domestic violence – and associated services, e.g. homelessness, prison, addiction, and in adoption and family courts who have shared their knowledge and experience about mothers apart with me about how professionals can better respond to this, often extremely vulnerable, population. I have listened to participants’ views on training for professionals – what the main aims of the training should be, which professionals it might be useful for, and how they would like it to be delivered. I have analysed these interviews and worked with mothers apart at the monthly Mothers Apart Project planning group to develop a workshop that we hope will be everything that both professionals and mothers apart want it to be. This workshop will help professionals to understand the diversity of circumstances in which mothers become separated from their children, what they need and want from professionals and how professionals can best help and support mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children – primarily, but not exclusively, in a context of domestic abuse.

The mothers apart who have helped me to plan and develop the workshop will be there on the day to talk to professionals about their experiences and, as both a practitioner and mother apart myself, I feel that their presence, combined with the evidence and theory base of this workshop, cannot fail to assist professionals in their responses to mothers apart and in cases where mother-child separations have occurred or are threatened.

Workshop posters are going out now and I look forward to hearing from you:

The Mothers Apart Project invites you to….

FREE Training Event for Professionals: “Improving Responses to Mothers who have Become, or are at Risk of Becoming, Separated from their Children”
Wednesday 17th June 2015, 9.30 – 16.00 at Coventry University

There is currently no comprehensive, statutory support for mothers who have become, or are at risk or becoming, separated from their children (primarily in a context of domestic abuse). This theory- and evidence-based, awareness-raising workshop for practitioners and service providers is focused on the varied and complex situations of mothers apart, their needs and the value of a needs-led approach to improving professional responses to this vulnerable population.

The workshop has been developed as part of The Mothers Apart Project that is central to a PhD study being conducted by Laura Monk (funded by a Coventry University studentship). The project aims to raise awareness and generate change to professional, organisational, societal and cultural responses to mothers apart. The study uses an Intervention Mapping Approach to programme planning – drawing on existing research, psychosocial theories, multiple methods of data collection, and a planning group with stakeholders who include mothers apart.

Outcomes and Learning Objectives
________________________________________
Following from a needs assessment, the health-promoting outcomes for professionals are to gain a raised awareness of:
• The ways that mothers can be become separated from their children
• The dynamics of domestic abuse and its impact on mother-child relationships
• The needs of mothers apart
• How to improve responses to mothers apart
________________________________________
Developed and facilitated by Laura Monk MSc (Psychology), MBPsS, MBACP (Registered & Accredited) Counsellor and Psychotherapist, Domestic Abuse Prevention Advocate (Women’s Aid),
with members of the charity, MATCH Mothers – Mothers Apart from Their Children

Places strictly limited. For more information contact Laura on monkl@coventry.ac.uk

The workshop is suitable for a wide range of practitioners and service providers, e.g. health and social care, family courts, domestic abuse, foster & adoption, substance misuse & homelessness services, etc. Relevant to professionals responding to mothers experiencing separation from a child, e.g. women survivors of domestic abuse, birth mothers, women experiencing high-conflict divorce who lose residency or have reduced contact, etc.

This workshop has been developed as part of a PhD project.
Attendees will, therefore, be research participants and are required to complete a brief pre- & post-workshop questionnaire and a follow-up reflective exercise.

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