120,000 Reasons to Listen to Women

Clare Hyde wonders whether the government's thinking about focusing on 'problem' families is informed by an understanding of the reality of domestic violence.

Author: Clare Hyde

It is common sense that families dealing with complex, longstanding issues will need intensive, long term, highly personalised support if they are to stand a chance of turning their lives around. Families and their individual members tell us, if we listen, that they need a trusted relationship with as small a number of helping individuals and agencies as possible. This was the subject of our recent publication Women at the Centre.

This is especially true when families are living with domestic abuse and for many of the 120,000 ‘problem’ families who are the focus of government plans revealed earlier this week, domestic abuse will be a core cause of many of their other problems. If this abuse is not recognised, understood and tackled as a core cause then the government’s plans will flounder and fail.

Firstly we should acknowledge that domestic abuse is a gendered issue and society’s response to it is at best confused and misogynistic at worst (the support and sentiment expressed for Rauol Moat for example should alarm anyone who believes that women and girls deserve respect and have a right to a life free from violence and threat)

Many agencies work directly with women and children experiencing domestic abuse and that paradoxically can make it less likely that women will end abusive relationships. We know for instance that women and children living with domestic violence may have to visit more than 13 different agencies to get the help they need. For some women the energy and resilience required to persevere and navigate complex services are understandably lacking.

Women may not have trusted relationships with statutory agencies and may be reluctant to, or actively avoid, seeking help. Women describe their fear of seeking help, of telling any professional the extent of their problems. They are very afraid that their children may be taken into care, that they will be judged as poor parents; bad mothers. And they are right to be afraid.

Professional opinion about the quality of a woman’s parenting is subjective and when domestic abuse is compromising the quality of that parenting, professional opinion can be prejudiced and dangerous. Women are often presented with a choice by professionals ‘Resume your relationship with him and we will have to remove the children’.

I have heard professionals talk about women ‘choosing’ to let a violent man back into the family home and expressing their opinion that her relationship with the violent man is obviously more important to her than her relationship with her children. 

The reality can be extreme - women have absolutely no choice when they have a knife at their throat, or the real and believable threat that the house will be set on fire and the children killed if she doesn’t allow her partner back in. The risk of letting a violent partner back into the family home, even though this will mean facing daily violence and abuse and the possibility of your children being taken into care is less of a risk than not letting a violent partner back into the home.

We hear, almost on a weekly basis that ‘distraught’ fathers/ husbands have killed or attempted to kill their partners and/or children. One woman told me:

At least if he was in the house, I knew how to keep the children safe. If I tried to keep him out he would shout threats from the street outside or turn up at the school gates. He told me that he would kill the kids if I left him and I absolutely believed him.

Women know from painful and bitter experience that the police, the courts, the women’s refuge, social services, the probation service cannot protect her or her children from a man who is determined, obsessive and relentless. Women who are killed by their partners or former partners almost always tell someone ‘he is going to kill me’. How has that become normal?

Our response to domestic abuse, as professionals, as a society and as individual human beings is difficult to understand. We react strongly to reports of war crimes, of torture and institutional abuse and yet we tolerate the long term, unrelenting abuse of women and children in their own homes and blame and punish women when they cannot protect themselves or their children.

I hope that the Prime Minister has a source of good advice about working with families experiencing domestic abuse and that lessons are learned from organisations like WomenCentre based in West Yorkshire who have set the standard for working with women and families who had been written off by other agencies because the domestic abuse seemed so entrenched.

To succeed the lead professional, key worker role which is a major part of the government's proposals should have much in common with the roles developed by successful domestic abuse services otherwise we risk placing everyone in greater danger and compounding families problems even further.

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

120,000 Reasons to Listen to Women © Clare Hyde 2011.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 21.12.11

children and families, Women-Centred, Article

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