Power and control; breaking the cycle of silence « Karen Woodall

February 6, 2013

Working in the field of family separation it is never possible to be far away from the problem of domestic violence. Whether it be an issue which is real or alleged or an issue which is under or over reported, family separation and domestic violence appear, at least from the stories we are told, to go hand in hand.

In many ways the issue of domestic violence is a thorny one within the overall landscape of family separation. For some, domestic violence is at the heart of family separation and must drive all policy and practice around it, for others it is a problem which causes false allegations and is used as a tool to prevent relationships between children and a parent (usually a father). For practitioners who work with family separation, understanding domestic violence and the way in which it is responded to is a serious business. Serious because it can, at the outer extremes, mean the difference between life and death for parents and children or the complete and utter destruction of the relationship between parents and children through false allegations. Either way, domestic violence is an issue that must be taken seriously across all of its manifestations.

Taking domestic violence seriously however does not necessarily mean having to listen to the exhortations of the domestic violence lobby groups. These groups, made up as they are of women (and some men) who believe that domestic violence is only to be understood within a paradigm of patriarchal control, are extremely powerful and determined in their arguments. The core thrust of these being that violence is an issue which is created within a society dominated by patriarchal power and control over women and that liberation from this requires a zero tolerance towards any act of domestic violence across the universe.

For these groups, domestic violence is primarily viewed as being an issue which is perpetrated by men against women and the response to this is to treat every act of violence as a danger signal of the highest magnitude. For these groups, educating women to understand their conflicted relationships within an understanding of being oppressed, is key to liberating them from the dynamic that puts them in danger from ‘their perpetrator’, the use of the possessive term in this culture being akin to the way in which survivors refer to people who abused them as being ‘my abuser.’

But domestic violence does not have to be considered in this way for it to be taken seriously and in fact, to pursue an understanding of domestic violence in this one, narrow focused way, can put men, women and children at serious risk of harm. There is a huge body of research, both in this country and across the world, which has focused upon a much more nuanced understanding of the ways in which violence in families is present during and after separation and it seems vital, to me, that in working with family separation it is to this, more sophisticated way of understanding and responding that we look for guidance to our own policy and practice development.

I am aware however that the domestic violence lobby has a massive amount of power over the support services that are supposed to assist separating families in this country and that to challenge this is often to be viewed as putting women and children in danger. Before I go on to discuss the different ways of understanding and responding to the problem of domestic or family violence as I prefer to call it, let me explain why reliance upon the narrow focused approach taken by many in this country puts children in danger.

The report 29 Child Homicides was written by Women’s Aid in 2004i This report is widely circulated around the support services to separated families as ‘evidence’ for the need for strong and restrictive safeguarding proceedings when working with families where domestic violence is any issue, its focus being upon raising issues of concern about contact being given to fathers who went on to kill their children as a result.

This report is also routinely used by organisations such as the NSPCC to support arguments that the Children Act should not be changed and that their should not be any moves towards presumptions of contact, the intimation being that to do so is to put more children at risk.

This report was actually responded to by Lord Justice Wall in 2006,ii who wrote a rebuttal of the evidence given in the report and showed that it was by no means the case that the courts had been involved in giving contact to 29 fathers who killed their children. In reality, only five cases were actually related to court proceedings, the others had been agreed by consent.

29 children being killed by their fathers is a tragedy but the focus upon whether or not this was because of the court ordering ‘contact’ is not the issue that we need to focus upon.

The real issue of concern is that this report is used to argue for strong and often punitive safeguarding measures around fathers by services which are designed to support separating families. In essence it is used as one of the tools to restrict relationships between fathers and their children, the underlying message being that any father who is seeking to have a relationship with his children after separation, where family violence has been present, must be regarded as being a potential killer of his children. In recent months, I have also repeatedly heard, in discussions around this issue with DV lobby groups present, the terms ‘family annihilator’ which appears to be a label created to name fathers who kill themselves and their children. I find this almost ‘glib’ approach to labelling what is actually, most often, an emergence of what is called in psychiatric terms the ‘Medea Complex’, seriously worrying because it again narrowly focuses upon fathers whilst completely ignoring the damage that disturbed mothers can do.

Domestic violence is not an issue which can be reduced to sound bites and it is not an issue which can be shoe horned into an idealogical argument about patriarchy. The world may feel comfortable to those women who understand it this way but the reality is that it is a far more serious and far more widespread issue than that.

Lets go back to the 29 child homicides report. Used as I said above to argue that strong safeguarding procedures should be in place around fathers when family violence is presenting in support services. Used also to restrict and restrain fathers from having any kind of automatic ongoing relationship with their children after separation. And quite rightly so, I hear many practitioners say, particularly those who consider that anyone challenging received wisdom about domestic violence must be putting women and children at risk.

How many of those same support services, I wonder, who willingly and blindly accept that the only issue to be concerned about around domestic violence is the safety of women and children, are aware that during the same period covered by the 29 Child Homicides report, NSPCC research, shows that some 800 children have died at the hands of resident mothers or carers. And how many of those same support services that rely upon 29 Child Homicides to inform their thinking, have read the 2000 publication “Child Maltreatment in the UK”, which showed that violent treatment was more likely to be meted out by female carers than male ones.iii

And, in the cold light of a gender analysis of evidence, which clearly demonstrates the appalling level of danger to children from their mothers or other carers in comparison to that posed by their ‘non resident’ fathers, how many have the strong and secure safeguarding procedures in place that routinely assess mothers for risk of harm to their children or worse?

Not enough in my view.

No child should be killed by a parent and no child should be put at risk during family separation and beyond and when they are we should be vigilant in understanding the risk factors and the reasons leading to this. And as practitioners, it is incumbent upon us to understand, the reality of the lives lived by the families that we work with and to take the widest possible view of all of the research that is undertaken with the people that we work with. Similarly, when formulating policy, it is not the case that those with the loudest voices or the most sophisticated media machines, should be allowed to dictate how we consider issues which are serious and which must be tackled directly and systematically if we are to make a difference to the families which suffer through the experience of separation.

The reality of family separation and the issue of violence is that it is present in many different forms, it is used by mothers and fathers and it is also the subject of false allegations in some families. And relying upon reports such as 29 Child Homicides, without counter balancing it with the reality as reported by organisations such as the NSPCC and by the Home Office, 9which shows that of all victims of domestic violence 40% are male), puts more children at risk not fewer, as well as allowing female perpetrators unfettered access to children that they sometimes go on and kill.

It is incredibly difficult to raise these issues in a world in which the power and control paradigm of patriarchy has been the driving force behind responses to the issue in policy and practice for many years. Indeed those who have raised these issues have found themselves up against efforts to discredit them and have been held up as being somehow placing women and children at risk of harm. I count myself as one of those and it is a risk to put my head above the parapet and challenge this orthodoxy. But to stand by silently is to be party to the suppression of truth and when it comes to the safety of children and their mothers and fathers, following the truth is the only approach I am willing to take.

Fortunately I am not the only one working to raise these issues. Tim Loughton, as shown in the extract from Hansard was talking about them in 2006. Erin Pizzy has been talking about it for a very long time. Researchers Johnson and Kelly said in 2008

a growing body of empirical research has demonstrated that intimate partner violence is not a unitary phenomenon and that types of domestic violence can be differentiated with respect to partner dynamics, context, and consequences’ iv

and closer to home, a 2012 from the Centre for Social Justice report stated

‘the patriarchy, power and control analysis remains more or less intact despite its incompatibility with emerging findings about domestic abuse’v

Similarly, the issue of domestic violence is starting to be understood on a more nuanced basis, allowing for depth studies of the drivers behind family violence and the ways in which it can be approached systematically within our culture. Writing about differentiation of types of domestic violence, researcher Dr Jane Wangmann from Australia stated that

‘it is no longer scientifically or ethically acceptable to speak of domestic violence without specifying, loudly and clearly, the type of violence to which we refer’vi

All of which allows us to get closer to the issue of violence, deconstruct our understanding of it and build new strategies to address it. Strategies that safeguard our children and strategies that ensure that we are working with mothers and fathers in ways that reflect what happens in their real lives, not in the lives that we are told that they live by lobby groups who depend upon one narrowly focused understanding of the world around us.

Violence and family separation do indeed go hand in hand but, the existence of it does not mean that we must automatically exclude fathers from children’s lives based on an assumption that they will be dangerous to their children. For to do so, based upon the same assumption and informed by the empirical evidence, we would be forced to do exactly the same on a routine basis to separated mothers too.

Breaking out of the power and control paradigm means also being able to step out of the control that the domestic violence lobby has over the issue and being brave enough to challenge the orthodoxy (and bear the consequences). Doing so takes courage but it also offers services to families which are more protective not less and more focused upon their real needs in ways that truly assist them to change.

Not one for silence, I will be speaking about these issues more over the coming months and I will, if I have to, bear the consequences of that. I do so not because I am on some kind of mission, not because I have an axe to grind on behalf of fathers but because I know that doing so means that I am focusing my attentions on safety in the right places, not spending my time looking in the wrong direction for danger when it is going on behind me.

And because separating and separated mothers and fathers are human, they are each capable of good behaviour and each capable of harm and they each, without exception, deserve to be helped to the best of our ability.

i) 2004, Hilary Saunders – women’s Aid – 29 Child Homicides – lessons still to be learned on domestic violence and child protection.

ii) See – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/vo060302/debtext/60302-18.htm

iii) It pains me to have to single out one organisation that has behaved reprehensibly on this issue. I would be the first to acknowledge that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has done a lot of good work in raising awareness of child abuse and campaigning against it, promoting good practice by engaging children, and raising substantial funds for services for vulnerable children. Many members of my party in my constituency enthusiastically raise money for the NSPCC, as I have in the past. However, during the proceedings on the Bill in the Lords, the NSPCC put out a briefing note that attacked our amendments as a threat to the safety of children, yet produced no evidence to support its claim.

In its latest briefing note, for our scrutiny of the Bill, the NSPCC has made the following claim:

“NSPCC believes that any proposals to introduce into the Bill a legislative presumption of contact will be interpreted and put into practice by the courts in a way which is detrimental to the welfare of the child and could ultimately threaten the safety of the child.”

In effect, it is saying that if a non-resident parent—predominantly a father—benefits from a presumption of contact, he is more likely to do harm to his own child.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: Let me finish and I certainly will.

In support of its claim, the NSPCC cites the fact that 29 children were killed over the past 10 years during contact visits to non-resident parents. That is an appalling figure. However, it ignores its own research, which shows that over the same period some 800 children have died at the hands of resident parents or carers, and the 2000 publication “Child Maltreatment in the UK”, which showed that violent treatment was more likely to be meted out by female carers than male ones.

The briefing is alarmist, sensationalist, misleading, empirically flawed, completely irresponsible and highly reprehensible. It is not worthy of an organisation such as the NSPCC, which claims to stand up for our children. I hope that our deliberations on the amendments will be based on balanced, rational and well-informed debate, rather than the arrant nonsense that I am sure will shock many dedicated and hard-working NSPCC supporters around the country. (excerpt from Hansard – 2 March 2006: Column 438 – see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/vo060302/debtext/60302-18.htm)

iv) Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: research update and implications for interventions. Joan B. Kelly Michael P. Johnson, Family Court Review 2008

v) Beyond violence: Breaking cycles of domestic abuse, Dr Elly Farmer and Dr Samantha Callan, Centre for Social Justice, 2012

vi) Johnson 2005, quoted in Different types of intimate partner violence, Dr Jane Wangmann, Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2011.

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