FAQs on working with mothers who remain with or separate from their abusive partner

I am concerned that a child’s mother is putting her relationship with her abusive partner before her child’s needs as she won’t separate/remain separated from him. What can I do to help her understand that this is harmful to her child?

Think about the barriers to leaving

Often, mothers are expected to make urgent major decisions such as permanently separating from their abusive partner who may be their child’s father, when they are not ready or when they have very little support in place. Sometimes, social workers question why the mother stays with her violent partner instead of thinking about what are the barriers to her ending the relationship. They may also fail to consider how to manage his behaviour.

In addition, when couples reconcile, mothers are often seen as being at fault for allowing the father back, whereas it could be that this has happened because of the mother’s lack of options or support or due to the her partner’s coercive control.

What might help her decide what she should do?

It is important not to have a simplistic attitude and instead to think about why the mother may be behaving in a particular way. It may be that you can try to find a way to help her prioritise what will keep her child safe within her care, where possible. Despite the domestic violence she has experienced, the mother may experience separation as a grieving process and may have many logistical and emotional problems to overcome. Of course, her child should not be put at risk by this but acknowledging and trying to help her address the complexities she faces may be beneficial.

You may be able to help a woman to make informed decisions about relationships and to follow through on decisions she makes more effectively. For example, you could help her remain separated by giving her the means to access professional specialist support and advice, from domestic violence organisations, housing services and legal services amongst others. There are useful contact details in where to get further help.

Be aware of the difficulties that women face in accessing legal aid and obtaining court orders and of the impact that changes to the benefit system may have on their ability to afford refuge places or safe accommodation.

Mothers with no recourse to public funds will face particular challenges and are likely to need your help and that of experts in this field.

Develop a shared understanding of harm to the child

Try to engage with the mother in thinking about how the domestic violence has impacted on her child. This should take into account her perception as well as your professional assessment and that of the other agencies working with the child and family. Be specific about what harm her child is experiencing/may experience and the particular risks that uncertainty in the current situation poses. It might be helpful to explain to her why social workers tend to become more concerned when parents show less concern about, or appear to minimise, problems such as domestic violence.

Discuss options

Discuss openly what the different options may be, including that she may be able to apply for a legal order to get protection and that your department may pursue legal action and alternative care within the family if needed. Encourage her to seek independent advice including specialist legal advice so that she can make informed decisions about how to proceed. See where to get further help.

If a mother chooses, or is forced, to give up care of her child either temporarily or permanently, think about how good contact can be promoted.

What do I need to think about now that a mother I am working with has separated from her abusive partner?

Risk assessment and safety planning

You are right to be aware that the family you are working with may well have particular needs following separation. Separation does not always guarantee that a child and their mother are safe from domestic violence. The risk of violence often increases when a woman leaves or afterwards. Be aware that some families may continue to need your support or the continuity of services in order to stay safe and to prevent repeated patterns of assessments or short-term interventions. The period following separation may need careful planning/assessment and effective safety-planning.

You may need to assess what role/support you can offer to ensure that the mother and child have access to any specialist support they need. This may include legal advice for a mother to protect herself and her child through court or to make contact arrangements, help with housing, financial needs, parenting needs and any therapeutic support.

Maintaining confidentiality

You may need to maintain confidentiality and security very carefully because of the potential continued risk of violence following separation. This should be reviewed with the mother and her safety network. Do take care when sharing any personal information, especially where the perpetrator is the child’s father and may continue to have contact with the child or where your department remains involved with the child and therefore needs to continue to work with the child’s father.

Ensure that information is not shared that could put the mother and child at risk.

Contact arrangements

The family court may be involved in making decisions about contact arrangements and who the child should live with so this needs to be linked into your plans and interventions with the family. Where contact with their father is decided to be in the child’s best interests despite him being the perpetrator, consider how you can ensure that it is safe and that the arrangements are reviewed. It can be difficult to find suitable contact centres and supervision arrangements so do try to assist with this where you can. If the lack of contact services in your area is a challenge for vulnerable families, make sure that you raise this with your local authority so that they can consider a strategy to address this.