Parenting in the context of domestic abuse

Heather Coady argues that mothers experiencing domestic abuse provide the long-term support and protection to their children and that, for the benefit of children, we need to ensure that mothers are supported to parent to their fullest potential.

Parenting can be difficult and challenging at the best of times, but for those who live with or are trying to escape domestic abuse, there can be huge additional difficulties, many of which are inadvertently compounded by those who may be trying to help. The results are often devastating and extensive and can lead to children having to come to terms with difficult and traumatic experiences without the support of their mother, the very person who may have tried their utmost to protect and support them. Living with domestic abuse can affect a woman's ability to parent; and being a parent can severely limit her choices. Given this, mothers' needs as adult victims must be seen alongside their needs as the parents of (often traumatised) children (Jaffe and Crooks 2005).

Men can experience domestic abuse, as can couples in same-sex relationships. However, statistically, women experience it in greater numbers. They are more likely to be physically harmed, report far greater levels of fear and are more likely to report suffering from depression as a result (Hester 2009). Therefore, this article mainly focuses on domestic abuse and its impact on mothers as parents.

While mothers who are experiencing domestic abuse face significant challenges which can have far-reaching consequences, research shows that many such women parent as effectively as non-abused mothers; testament to their strength and resilience even in adverse circumstances (Radford and Hester 2006).

There has been a marked improvement in understanding and responding to domestic abuse; and wider recognition that it is about one person's attempt to control and dominate another using fear as a tactic rather than isolated acts of abuse. At the same time, there has been a considerable shift in attitudes and increased recognition of the important role fathers play in their children's lives. Therefore, we must consider perpetrators of domestic abuse separately from non-abusing fathers to avoid compounding the difficulties women and children are already experiencing.

Domestic abuse undermines, and can severely damage, the mother-child relationship. High levels of stress as a result of ongoing abuse can severely affect a woman's physical and mental health. She may be exhausted as a result of trying to manage from day to day in difficult circumstances. Higher levels of substance abuse and mental health problems occur among this group, usually as a consequence of the abuse.

Children are undoubtedly affected, requiring emotional support and reassurance which their mothers may feel too physically and emotionally depleted to provide. In addition, women's confidence in parenting skills and authority as parents may be severely undermined, either indirectly (because of the abuse witnessed) or as a tactic to break her down and control her.

Listening to what children themselves have to say about what they have witnessed can be quite chilling and hugely distressing for mothers who may believe they were successful in shielding their children from witnessing the abuse or being affected by it (Mullender et al. 2002). The guilt mothers may feel as a result can inhibit them from seeking help when their children do display signs of distress, because they fear their children will be removed by social services. This is a threat often made by abusers and one which can too often be realised (Humphreys and Stanley 2006).

There can be considerable pressure on women to leave and considerable censure if she chooses to stay. It is much more common to hear the question 'why doesn't she leave?' rather than 'what is stopping her from leaving?' A subtle difference, but one which overlooks the barriers she may be facing and her perceived failure to protect herself and her children. One of the main obstacles to leaving may well be fear. There is an abundance of evidence that shows that risk of serious assault and homicide increases significantly when an attempt to leave the relationship is made (Fleury et al. 2000; Humphreys and Thiara 2003; Kurtz 1996).

Another barrier to leaving (and for some mothers a reason for returning) is the expectation that they will keep themselves and their children safe while at the same time facilitate contact with the abusive parent. They may have been motivated to leave because of a grave concern about the safety and wellbeing of their children, or because the abuse is so severe that they are threatened with the removal of their children if they do not leave (Hester et al., 2007; Scottish Executive, 2002a; Scottish Executive, 2002b). It is quite common to have a protective order in place and yet still be ordered by the court to facilitate contact arrangements (Buchanan et al. 2001). With little or no risk assessment and management, these decisions can severely undermine what are often fragile attempts to rebuild a sense of safety and security.

This is often because of assumptions that the abuse will stop on separation and that contact with both parents is in the child's best interests despite a history of domestic abuse. However, contact arrangements can provide the perfect opportunity for ongoing control and abuse and, in extreme circumstances, children being killed (Saunders 2004). A research study conducted with perpetrators in the US found that they themselves commonly identified this as a way to continue to abuse and harass their former partners (Francis et al. 2002). This can have a devastating effect on children and severely hamper their recovery. Despite increasing evidence (Jaffe and Crooks 2005), the significance of domestic abuse is often downplayed in civil court proceedings determining contact and residence arrangements. There may even be a growing scepticism in courts that mothers citing domestic abuse are predominantly motivated by a wish to alienate fathers and to secure outcomes in their own favour rather than genuine concerns for safety.

However, women often do not raise the issue at all because they worry that they will not be believed, or that they will be seen as 'bad mothers' for staying as long as they have and putting their children at risk. Domestic abuse is also notoriously difficult to substantiate, and many victims choose not to seek help from the police except in the most extreme circumstances for fear of reprisal. Consequently, being able to provide evidence of abuse-even when it has been extremely violent-can lead to a belief that any abuse is hugely exaggerated, particularly if there is no evidence of police involvement.

There have been some important legislative changes in Scotland which are a step forward in recognising the importance of safeguarding the safety and wellbeing of children alongside their non-abusing parent. However, without training and a continuing commitment to risk assessment and management which focuses on the perpetrator (rather than on mothers who may be still trying to recover from their experiences) these changes will not be enough to safeguard mothers and their children.

We also need to provide mothers and children with the opportunity to recover from their experiences; to be supported and given time to rebuild their lives. Aiding the recovery of children by rebuilding and strengthening the mother-child relationship is the aim of an innovative multi-agency approach currently being rolled out in Scotland after a successful three-year government-funded pilot. CEDAR* (Children Experiencing Domestic Abuse Recovery) is a 12-week groupwork programme based on a psycho- educational approach and adapted from a similar programme developed in Canada.

Parallel groups are run for children and their mothers, with the aim of strengthening the mother-child relationship through creative and experiential sessions, with mothers also supported to aid the recovery of their children. It is a strengths-based approach, rooted in empowerment. It depends on group facilitators from a wide range of disciplines to co- deliver the 12-week curriculum and whose knowledge and skill in dealing with domestic abuse is greatly enhanced as a result.

So, despite the gains in how domestic abuse is viewed and dealt with, a consistent approach which considers domestic abuse within the context of parenting, particularly in public and private law proceedings, is still required. It is misguided and dangerous to pressure mothers to leave the person abusing them, punish them if they do not manage this, and at the same time punish them for failing to facilitate contact arrangements once they manage to get away.

In the interest of all children who have experienced the trauma of domestic abuse, we need to ensure that mothers are supported to parent to their fullest potential in all circumstances. To do this, we need a response that is informed, that can accurately assess risk and its source, and that offers support and protection to both mother and child. When all the professionals have vanished from the scene, it is the mother who provides the long-term support and protection. So, it is imperative that they are empowered to help their children's recovery.


About the author

Heather Coady has been a children's policy/rights worker at Scottish Women's Aid since 2000. Her main areas of expertise include child protection and safe contact arrangements within the context of domestic abuse. She has been responsible for introducing the CEDAR (Children Experiencing Domestic Abuse Recovery) project to Scotland.


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