For her own good
Once you start to listen for it, it’s amazing how deeply that phrase, or at least the sentiment behind it, underlies “expert” interventions into the lives of marginalized people, especially marginalized women. That's why I got excited when I learned that the BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre’s Sexual Assault Service, Aboriginal Health, and Woman Abuse Response Program was hosting a conference confronting the way of thinking behind of policies and practices we put in place “for her own good.”
The conference brought together health care workers, researchers and staff from women-serving agencies to reflect on the ways in which social and health care systems designed “for her own good” may actually further harm and marginalize women. Presentations and panels looked at building relationships with sex workers, advocating for immigrant women, working with women involved with the mental health system, and providing care to women experiencing domestic violence.
I was invited to the conference to present on the child welfare system’s response to violence against women. Violence against women is a factor in a huge proportion of child welfare cases, yet the dynamics of violence against women in relationships and best practices for working with women to plan for their safety are poorly understood by many child protection workers. My co-presenter, Rosa Elena Arteaga of Batter Women’s Support Services ,and I used case studies and examples from our own work to take participants on a journey through the web of competing pressures and expectations facing mothers who are experiencing violence and to explore the ways in which concepts of “for her own good” can be detrimental to building relationships that promote safety for women and children.
I began by sharing the words of some of the women who took part in Pivot’s 2008 study looking at mothers’ experiences with the child welfare system. Ideally, the Ministry would be a place mothers could go to access the services and supports that they need to care for their children in their home, to become connected with community based services, and to develop plans of care for their children during a crisis. Instead, mothers who voluntarily went to the Ministry for help felt that they were stigmatized for reaching our and that any help they received came at a price.
Women living in or attempting to leave a violent relationship too often felt that social workers labeled them treated as being attracted to negative relationships, immature, overly passive, or selfish for choosing their partner over their children’s well-being. In some instances, asking for help resulted in the realization of their worst fear, the apprehension of their children. One mother who took part in our study explained it this way:
I feel like I have to be so careful in what I tell my social workers. There is a lot of miscommunication and sometimes very minor things are really blown out of proportion. I feel like I am always being judged by the social workers and they do not understand my life or how I grew up. (Affidavit #12)
Some child protection workers told women they would remove their child(ren) if they could stop the abuser from making contact with them. While likely inadvertent, the attempt by child protection workers to help the mother make the “right” choice for her and her children does not take into account the complexity of the woman’s situation and is received as a threat and a judgment about her parenting. The result is to shut down any future open dialogue between the mother and the MCFD.
There are many reasons that child protection workers struggle to support mothers dealing with a violence partner, they have large caseloads and few resources for families. Often, however, workers seem to struggle with the same basic question that many of us ask when we see a woman living with violence and abuse: “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
In some cases, the mother wants to leave but doesn’t have the support she needs to get her ex-partner out of her life, as this mother who took part in our study explained:
I am at a loss as to what I can do to get my baby’s dad out of my life. The police witnessed that he threatened to kill me. He was only charged with breaches again. He is already out of jail for the break-in, and I still don’t have the baby back. The father of my baby got the right to a quick court hearing for his criminal matters, and I have been waiting over eight months to go to trial over the apprehension. (Affidavit #8)
There is also the well-documented reality that leaving a realtionship is often the most dangerous time for women and their children. Women who do leave have to contend with a family law system that assumes shared parenting, a significant loss of income and limited options for affordable housing and childcare. In Rosa’s presentation, she also highlighted the dynamics of power and control at work in the lives of immigrant and refugee women who experience violence and she opened my eyes to another important and easily overlooked piece of many migrant women’s experiences- the ways in which gendered violence and abuse is perpetuated across the lifespan of many women.
After many years of exploring ways we can better support mothers experiencing violence, I am always surprised when I attend a conference like this one and see just how much more I have to learn. Participants in our workshop included police officers, child protection workers, transition house workers, and medical professionals. Each of them shared insights and raised questions that challenged me to think about issues in new ways. At the end of the day, I appreciated the chance to be a part of a dialogue aimed at shifting the paradigm from fixing broken women to fixing broken systems that deny women their right to safety, dignity and equality.
Learn more about the “For Her Own Good” conference at www.forherowngood.org