I provide training to child welfare workers a few times a year about the impact of domestic violence on children and families. During most of those sessions I heard a worker talk about a parent’s (always a mother’s) failure to protect her children from the domestic violence. I usually try to re-direct the responsibility for the abuse back to the perpetrator, but workers seem to be at a loss as to how to address the issue and may look for other language that may still end up stigmatizing the non-offending parent and perpetuating the idea that child protection workers are adversaries.
I reviewed a few articles about failure to protect and have provided the links below. However, I would like to take space here to paraphrase some of the important points and hope that you will take the time to read the articles in full. I will not be addressing the issue of mothers as perpetrators and/or persons who are complicit in the child abuse. Those areas definitely need to be addressed by the child welfare system. I am just addressing the issue of blaming a non-offending parent for the actions of the offender.
When charging a mother with failure to protect, assumptions and stereotypes create a heightened duty on the part of the mother. The assumption that women have a greater capacity for nurturing and therefore a heightened duty to protect produces a gender disparity between women and men. Also, in some cases, when the woman is abused, the court and others may feel that this was sufficient to alert her to the batterer’s tendency to violence and leading her to leave him in order to protect her children. This viewpoint on the part of the court or services may be in direct opposition to a cultural or religious belief in the keeping the family together at all costs.
In the past, Battered Woman Syndrome may have been used to explain failure to protect; however, BWS is now seen as reinforcing negative stereotypes about women’s passivity and weakness. On the whole, though, the failure to protect seems to reflect a gender bias, and sometimes racial bias, that needs to be addressed.
The three stereotypes that appear when someone is charged with failure to protect are:
1. The All-Sacrificing Mother – in which the assumption is made that the mother can leave the abuser and that the threat of the charge will encourage her to act when she would not do so otherwise. Workers or the court may not consider what steps she may have taken to leave or protect her family that did not work or if she has been blamed for any steps she did take by being told the actions were “inconsistent or ineffectual.” The lack of shelter space and permanent housing, lack of financial or other support, little protection from the court system, and fear of the batterer may not be taken into consideration.
2. The All-Knowing (and Blamed) Mother – mothers are assumed to be all knowing and face harsher scrutiny. Women are expected to have a greater ability to discern the causes of bumps and bruises and be able to see through their partners’ lies than would a male non-offending parent.
3. The Nurturing Mother/Breadwinning Father – Often, in two parent household in which the mother works there appears to be a higher expectation that she be aware of any abuse to her children and more able to prevent it than for the working father.
Given what we know about the control an abuser has over his victims and the fear a women may have of being involved in the system, we can see that when abuse is occurring in the home she is caught between a rock and a hard place. Trauma victims will often resort to doing what is important for the moment and do their best to protect themselves and their children; however, these efforts may not be explained and/or considered enough by workers or by the judge if the case rises to that level. We also know that women often feel conflicted when they know that their children love the offending parent and they may choose to stay because of that bond. Also, a history of witnessing domestic violence in her own home as a child along with victimization as a child may result in difficulty in making productive decisions for her and her family. There also may be other issues such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness that contribute to a sense of powerlessness.
When asked what could be used instead of “failure to protect” in documenting these incidents, I responded by asking the worker to identify what community and societal barriers are in place that make it difficult for the mother to make the changes necessary and to be sure that the final “blame” for the abuse is placed firmly where it needs to be. Is there adequate, affordable housing near her family supports, daycare, and place of employment? Is there shelter space for her and her children? Is there a protective order in place and, if so, is it being enforced? Is the offender being held responsible for his actions? If the offender is the father, have protections been put in place for visitation? If the offender violates the protective order and is back in the home, is this due to coercion on his part or need for financial assistance on her part? Is there a definite pattern of power and coercive control? When a report needs to be filed, can another reason be used rather than “failure to protect”, such as drug exposure or medical neglect?
According to an advocate, “if a mom is filed on for ‘failure to protect’ from domestic violence it will be very difficult for her to change that behavior or break out of the cycle of violence given the powerless over the actions of the perpetrator. If a mom is filed on for exposure to substance or anything else, those become goals she will more likely agree upon and will be more likely to constructively work towards.”
When a situation rises to the attention of child welfare, I am strongly aware of the mandate to ensure children are protected from further harm. Social workers are dedicated individuals who are burdened by this heavy responsibility. By recognizing that the “failure to protect” allegation against victims may further harm, stigmatize and create resistance, workers can find other ways to partner with non-offending mothers in creating safe lives for their children.
Chickens at a local NH shelter. They provide fresh eggs and the children love them!