Domestic violence is a situation fraught with implications for both mothers and children, sometimes with safety needs for both parties .However, women often fear telling about abuse because they are afraid of social workers removing their children, and this serves to keep them silent and entrapped. Many mothers see the involvement of child protective services as akin to a "death sentence" (Bancroft 2005 p. 173). Most mothers experiencing domestic violence are loving, caring women who try to balance survival with the needs of their children. Their partners denigrate them as mothers, and it is extremely important that social support services do not replicate this dynamic. While most social workers in child protective services are genuinely concerned about the welfare of children, there are some who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence and who respond in insensitive and unhelpful ways - again failing to hold perpetrators accountable for abuse.
There are other ways in which you can support an abused mother and her children to safety. Lundy Bancroft advises, "Unless you fear that a child is at risk of being killed or severely traumatized, and you have no way to build a positive relationship with the mother to help her, it is generally best not to involve child protective services in domestic abuse cases...If you are concerned about the safety of children in a home where the mother is abused, begin by calling a hotline for abused women. Describe the child's circumstances without providing any names, and ask the advocate whether she is of the opinion that involving child protective services would be a positive step. Ask the advocate how well social workers in your area respond to abused mothers, and seek advice on alternative approaches you could take to help her and the children (2005, p. 327-8)"
Several important things to remember:
Do not assume that the woman's situation will improve just because she leaves: The danger of further abuse - battery, rape or even homicide - escalates sharply after the end of a relationship. Abusive men often step up their campaigns of terrorism, exposing children to actually more danger. Further, some women remain with abusers precisely because if they leave and the abuser is awarded access, they will not be there to protect their children from him. So, remaining may be seen by mothers as a strategy to keep the children safer (Bancroft 2005, p. 175).
- Do not assume that she is a "bad mother" because she has remained in an abusive relationship. Assume that she has her children's interests at heart, and engage with her at that level. Remember, her abuser denigrates her parenting - be the opposite to him.
- If you do decide it would be best to proceed with a report (Bancroft pp 328-9):
- Inform the mother ahead of time of your intention to make the report (unless she herself is a danger to the children). She may need time to prepare for the abuser's reaction to the involvement of protective services.
- Include as much positive information about the mother's parenting when you make the report. This may help steer social workers away from victim-blaming. Express concern for the mother as well as the children, and emphasize that the case involves domestic violence.
- While it is often best not to report at all, if you do so, give as much information as possible. This may help foster a safer and more constructive response.
- Let your local domestic violence service know that you are making the report, and ask if they can advocate for the mother in any way. Ask if they have connections in child welfare services who may be sympathetic to the mother's plight.
- Follow up with protective services a few days after reporting to find out what action is being taken. Liaise where possible with those investigating the case.
- Express to the mother your hope that reporting will not shut down communication between yourselves, and offer her assistance for what is to come.
- Encourage her to build positive relationships with child protective workers so that her safety and that of the children is a collaborative process, rather than another thing being forced on her by people who may blame her.
- Child protection workers should:
- Be educated about the dynamics of domestic violence
- Actively network with domestic violence services for advice on how to give the best possible support
- Recognize that her children may be her only reason for surviving.
- Reassure her that you do not want to take her children, but are there to support her as well as the children in seeking safety. If removal of children is deemed a necessity, please work with her wherever possible to create conditions where they can safely be returned.
- Ensure where possible that support of the children or other actions are a collaborative effort between yourself and the mother - with you listening to what she believes she and the children need
- Convey respect to the mother in all interactions - don't admonish, judge, patronize or belittle her in any way.
- Never blame the mother for the perpetrator's violence towards herself or children
- Remove children as a very last resort.
- Give her time. Understand that there are rarely simple solutions for her situation.