Heading towards Autumn and I am engrossed once again in the issue of gender blind practice in family services. Another Local Authority, another case of assumptions based upon the idea that mums are the ‘proper’ carers for children whilst dad is at best an add on and at worst a threat to the very existence of mum and her children. Another long drawn out battle to get someone, somewhere, to listen to the fact that mum is quite possibly the danger to her children in this family. More children failed by social workers who are riddled with the feminist ideology that appears to create a gap in awareness that mothers as well as fathers can be dangerous to their children. A young man of 17 who is now in long term psychotherapy because he was physically and mentally abused by his mother after the father was evicted from the home when he was nine years old, aided and abetted by the local domestic violence family support worker. A young man who was beaten regularly by his mother, left alone to bring himself up and given drugs to sell to feed himself.
Gender blind practice, it leads to distress, damage and in some cases, death. And in too many cases it is not men who become family annihalators.
Daniel Pelka was four years old when he was killed by his mother and his step father. He was starved, beaten and suffered months of ’incomprehensible cruelty’ at the hands of his mother Magdelena Luczak and stepfather Marius Krezolek. Like Baby P, this case hits our consciousness square between the eyes and much time is spent agonising in the media about how such a thing could possibly happen. My question is, how does it not happen, given the kind of institutionalised practice which leads to such devastating outcomes for children.
Looking at these cases of mothers who abuse or kill their children, through a feminist lens, the responsibility is almost always shifted to a man, in these kinds of cases, step fathers. Through a feminist lens, women cannot be perpetrators and are quite simply, also the victims, usually of a man who is controlling and abusive. Similarly, when women kill themselves and their children, the background to the case is either that the woman has a mental health problem or that they are being driven to escape from a controlling and abusive man. Never, ever, is the situation analysed in terms of the responsibility of the woman for failing to do whatever it takes to ensure that she does not put her children at risk.
I have even heard this feminist analysis applied by the fathers rights group Families need Fathers. The argument being that step fathers are more dangerous to children than biological fathers. This disengenuous attempt to align with the feminist argument, that women should never be blamed, misses the point that step fathers can also be biological fathers and vice versa. And it overlooks the reality, which is that mothers and fathers, be they biological or step parents, can each, in different circumstances, pose great dangers to their children. To miss this point is to create a lethal gap in practice around the separated family, which can lead to tragic consequences.
This is not to say that separated families are automatically dysfuncational, they are emphatically not, by default, problem families and we should not approach them as if they are. Most separated families get on and do what they have to to create safety and security for children and most parents bear the brunt of the pain so that their children do not have to. But in some families, the separation itself cracks open a fault line which brings with it the risk of serious dysfunction and it is this fault line which we must examine, with gender aware and not gender blind practice, if we are going to properly protect children over the longer term.
Gender blind practice is rife in family services in my experience, it is present across social work, housing, health services and CAFCASS. Gender blind practice means understanding the family from a basic level analysis, which, in the past forty years, has been underpinned by feminist teachings.
I recently heard that a very senior social worker referred to social work as being a ‘feminist industry.’ This astonishing admission, was followed by the most lucid critical analysis of social work in the UK, in which the issue of fatherlessness was pinned down with such absolute accuracy that anyone who regularly reads this blog would be heartened.
Why then, I wonder, do we continue to experience the consistent choking of such analysis and silencing of those voices which express concern at the way that feminism strangles the life out of reality based practice around the family?
The same reason, I guess, that it takes over fifteen years of persistent and determined unpicking of gender bias, to uncover the kind of discriminatory practice that leads to fathers being routinely blamed for being domestically violent, simply for wanting to have a relationship with their children after separation.
Little wonder it takes that long, when the leading Domestic Violence Charity writes on its FAQ information sheet -
Unfortunately, even after separating from their abusers, many mothers find it extremely difficult to protect their children from ongoing abuse as a result of the requirement to comply with contact orders made by the family courts. (Women’s Aid FAQ – 2013)
The last paragraph needs explaining a little because to the uninitiated, the statement by Women’s Aid can be quite discomforting and it can be difficult to see how it leads to the ‘routine assumption that fathers are domestically violent simply for wanting to have a relationship with their children after separation.’
Feminist practice in social work starts from the premise that women live and work in a patriarchal society. In this society (the same one that you and I live in), women are always oppressed and men are always the oppressors. This derives from a belief that men have access to money, control and power, simply because they are born male. Women, in this patriarchal society, have no access to money, control and power, simply for being born female. In a patriarchal society, the role of feminism is to even up the power balance and ensure that women are not oppressed by their lack of money, control and power. This is achieved by ensuring that women can be supported financially by the state and not dependent upon men for money if they wish to leave a relationship and by ensuring that women have control over where their children live. In this patriarchal society therefore, any man who seeks to prevent a woman from leaving a relationship and taking the children with her, to be cared for as she determines, is considered to be controlling and abusive. Fathers who wish to have a shared care arrangement so that they can participate in the upbringing of their children, are, in this patriarchal society, considered to be abusive and are often thought to be attempting to continuing to control the mother through the children.
There is no place for a father who simply loves his children and does not wish to be removed from their lives in this patriarchal society, apart from the role which is considered to be properly his, which is in paying his child maintenance.
Simply writing those paragraphs leaves me shaking my head in disbelief that our practice around fragile families is underpinned by this blanket nonsensical approach. And I am left again, wondering, not how these tragedies in families happen, but why they do not happen more often. The gender blind feminist approach to supporting the family seems to me to be so far away from the reality of what is actually needed that I am surprised that tragedies are not occuring on a daily basis.
And then I remember. They are. Only society does not pay attention to them because they are not happening to women. They are happening to men and their children and men don’t count as victims, EVER, in this patriarchal society we are told we live in. And, neither, it seems to me, do children.
The tragedies we don’t hear about are the children who are abused and damaged on a routine basis by their mothers, (the NSPCC’s own figures showing that mothers are are equally likely to be involved in mal treatment and murder of their own children as fathers) and the men who suffer domestic abuse (the Home Office statistics show that 40% of victims are men) and the reason we do not hear about these tragedies? Let me introduce you to domestic violence against men, the Women’s Aid way.
On the Women’s Aid website there are pages and pages of information, statistics, research and ‘evidence.’ Evidence like this -
Research in Scotland, re-tracing men who were counted as victims in the Scottish Crime Survey, found that a majority of the men who said that they were victims of domestic violence, were also perpetrators of violence (13 of 22). A significant number of the men re-interviewed (13 out of 46) later said they had actually never experienced any form of domestic abuse (Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2002). Other evidence also confirms that men who report that they are victims of domestic violence have mostly had different experiences from women victims/survivors and require a different response.
(Coulter 2007; Robinson and Rowland, 2007).
Which is pretty much the only information for or about male victims of domestic violence you will find on the Women’s Aid site. This would not be a problem, it is, after all, Women’s Aid, who are a women’s rights organisation. Except that the inclusion of ‘research’ which concludes that most male victims are actually perpetrators speaks volumes, especially to the men who are in the 40% of victims that the Home Office tell us exist.
This ‘patriarchal’ society that we live in has no male victims and when men say they are victims, they are usually lying and when someone raises the issue of violence against men, they are usually ‘apologists’ for violent men. This circular argument, which is underpinned by the notion that women cannot, do not, and will not do anything wrong, (unless they are coerced into it by a man), ignores completely the way in which women can, do and will, harm others, including their own children, and it prevents the kind of interventions that safeguard children on an ongoing basis.
Gender aware practice holds men AND women responsible for the damage they do.
Gender blind feminist based practice, silences victims, prevents debate and creates a lethal gap into which children can fall whilst we are all to busy looking the wrong way to notice that women as well as men can be dangerous to their children.
One leads to the kind of whole family practice that prevents tragedy, the other allows tragedy and then seeks to find a man to blame for it.
There may be a Victorian legacy at work in some hidden assumptions made about the nature and roles of men and women in the family. The man, the breadwinner, strong, driving, often undisciplined and a bit remote from the children; the woman the homemaker, the primary carer, soft, irrational and particularly vulnerable to the man's influence (etc- you all know the stereotypes).
This attitude towards women is so embedded in our cultural norms that when we find a woman who has abused children we are infinitely more shocked than if it were a man (eg Myra Hindley).