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The Re-traumatisation of Domestic Abuse Survivors: The Problem of Mother Blaming in Public Child Law Proceedings

Date:29 NOV 2021
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Dr Lisa Deblasio, Lecturer in Law, University of Plymouth

Key words: Domestic abuse - Public child law - Birth mothers - Victim/mother blaming 

Social science literature reports on the existence of institutional victim and mother blaming attitudes towards women who have experienced domestic abuse. Despite major law reform and a greatly improved understanding of domestic abuse, there remains a problematic victim blaming culture within children’s social care and the family courts. A recent report published by Safe Lives and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner found that ‘the family justice system retraumatises victims with a strong theme of victim blaming along with a system perpetuating myths of domestic abuse’. Women whose children have been adopted from care (referred to here as birth mothers) appear to be highly vulnerable to mother blaming by professional bodies. Holding mothers solely responsible for family dysfunction is not a new problem; research shows it exists in many institutions from health care to law.

The aim of this study was to explore the personal perspectives of birth mothers who experienced domestic abuse and who were involved with children’s social care and the family courts. Specific attention was paid to the attitudes and language used by professionals both in and out of court. To achieve authentic voice, unstructured interviews were conducted with ten birth mothers. The interview transcripts were analysed using discourse analysis, with words and narratives being compared to examples of victim and mother blaming language in cases of domestic abuse. Analysis revealed that responsibility and culpability for domestic abuse was often placed on the victims by professionals, who at times adopted a ‘passive voice’ where domestic abuse is acknowledged but the perpetrator is not. This practice maintains the invisibility of the abuser, known as ‘agent deletion’, this being where the agent of the process, in this case the perpetrator of abuse, is omitted or backgrounded.

The findings, although small scale, provide additional knowledge to the fields of adoption, birth mothers and institutional attitudes towards survivors of domestic abuse. As a group birth mothers are stigmatized in society as well as being stereotyped as culpable victims. The emotional implications for these women, who lose all rights to parent their children, are severe. They are traumatised by domestic abuse and then find they are blamed by authority figures who may have initially been seen as offering support. Many birth mothers are left feeling suicidal and unable to forgive themselves for being unable to prevent abuse they had no control over. The residual culture of mother blaming within the family courts and children’s social care should be addressed with relevant training and awareness. Adoption of aspects of empowerment models, traditionally deployed by domestic abuse advocates, and a trauma-informed approach would be a step in the right direction.

This article has been accepted for publication in Child and Family Law Quarterly in Issue 1, Vol 34, Year 2022. 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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