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Impossible expectations? Abused mothers’experiences of the child protection and family court systems

Date:19 FEB 2020
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Liza Thompson, Chief Executive of Domestic Abuse Charity SATEDA

Keywords: Domestic Abuse - Relational Autonomy - Child Protection - Family Law - Biopower - Gender


CFLQThe full version of this article will appear in Child and Family Law Quarterly, Vol 32, No 1

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Mothers who have been subjected to domestic abuse often find themselves involved in the child protection system where they are expected to navigate a range of relationships with a variety of professionals. The behaviours of an abuser negate the autonomy of their victim, rendering it difficult for the victim to make choices for herself. It is therefore vital that relationships that an abused mother has with professionals promote her autonomy, enabling her to make sustainable changes for herself and her children. 

To gain an understanding of abused mothers’ experiences, I conducted case studies that were centred around interviews with mothers. The case studies also included interviews with the mothers’ social workers, alongside an examination of various professionals’ case files. Jennifer Nedelsky’s relational autonomy framework was applied and the structuring forces of juridical power, biopower and gender were identified as creating a range of situations where the mother’s autonomy was negated.

This article describes one such situation. The mother’s social worker is recognised as a child welfare expert, situated in both the child protection and the private law family court settings. Within both settings, the social worker’s expertise is strengthened by legislation. In the child protection setting, the social worker’s normative judgments are based upon a ‘failure to protect’ view of the child’s welfare, where the child’s welfare is promoted by the mother ending her relationship with the abusive father; yet within the family court the same social worker’s normative judgments are based upon a ‘separate but continuing’ family form, where the child’s welfare is promoted by the mother facilitating ongoing contact between the child and the abusive father.  

The mother finds herself in an impossible situation. She faces conflicting expectations from the same professional, and is not regarded as an individual with autonomy but is framed as the problem.


This article has been accepted for publication in Child and Family Law Quarterly in Issue 1, Vol 32, Year 2020. The final published version of this article will be published and made publicly available here 24 months after its publication date, under a CC-BY-NC licence.



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