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“I lost my mum twice over”

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The devastating impact of maternal imprisonment related to domestic abuse.

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Domestic abuse is a driver of women's offending

This is a guest post by Prison Reform Trust Associate Sarah Beresford written after recent conversations with two children whose mother had been imprisoned for assaulting her violent and abusive partner. All names and some details have been changed in order to preserve anonymity

Roxy (aged 16) knew this argument was different. “I’d heard my stepdad screaming and shouting at my mum loads of times before, and I knew he hit her, though we never spoke about it. But this felt really scary… I came downstairs, and he had her by the throat in the kitchen. It all happened really fast… I just remember mum picking up a frying pan and whacking my stepdad over the head with it.” Neighbours called the police; Roxy’s stepfather was taken to hospital with a serious head injury; and her mum, Trish, was charged with Assault occasioning Actual Bodily Harm which resulted in a 6-month custodial sentence. Her history of experiencing years of domestic abuse at the hands of her partner was not mentioned in the pre-sentence report; like many women, Trish had been afraid to disclose what was happening for fear that her three children would go into care.

Increase in domestic abuse throughout COVID

According to the government’s own figures, Trish is one of approximately 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse in the UK each year, the vast majority of whom are women. Recent reports suggest that levels of domestic abuse have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic; UK charity Refuge has reported a 50% increase in calls to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline and a 400% spike in visits to its website since the lockdown began. As highlighted in our report “There’s a reason we’re in trouble” – domestic abuse as a driver to women’s offending, nearly 60% of women in prison have experienced domestic abuse. The total figure is likely to be much higher, and many, like Trish, report that their offending was as a direct result of their abuse.

For Roxy and her two younger brothers, living in a household where domestic abuse occurs took its toll over the years. Roxy describes feelings of anxiety and depression which led to self-harm; one brother became aggressive which caused problems at school; the youngest became very withdrawn and started wetting the bed. All of them felt frightened, guilty (because they could not protect their mother), and alone. None of them spoke out and asked for help. “We didn’t know who to turn to,” Roxy says, “We didn’t even speak about it among ourselves, we were that scared. And our stepdad was clever – he would buy us treats and basically try to be our friend. I think even we thought sometimes that it was mum’s fault.”

The Domestic Abuse Bill

The Domestic Abuse Bill, which had its second reading at the end of April 2020, will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse which includes emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour alongside physical violence. In the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill, UK charity Action for Children set out the case for the impact of domestic abuse on children to be recognised in the statutory definition in order to better recognise children as “victims and survivors in their own right.” PRT is calling for a new statutory defence and an amendment to the law on self-defence to be added to the Domestic Abuse Bill for those, like Trish, whose offending is driven by their experience of domestic abuse. This would reduce the criminalisation of victims and ultimately protect children like Roxy and her brothers from the additional trauma of being separated from their mother. The Bill will also place a duty on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.

When their mum was sentenced to prison, the emotional impact on Roxy and her brothers of experiencing domestic abuse was compounded. As reported in What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system, the imprisonment of a mother is traumatic and can affect every area of a child’s life including their education, health, and wellbeing. As well as experiencing grief, loss, and devastation at their mother’s imprisonment, many children have new carers, which may bring other changes such as a new home and a new school. Roxy and her brothers were left in the care of the very person who had abused their mother. “No one asked us”, Roxy say, “and we were way too scared to say anything.”

This fear of speaking out is common among children who live with domestic abuse and those who experience parental imprisonment; for those with a mother in prison, the stigma and shame are even greater and the loss even more devastating. Roxy agrees: “I basically lost my mum twice over.” There can be a tendency to put responsibility on women, rather than the perpetrator, as Trish found: “I felt like they [social workers] were saying, ‘She’s failed to protect her children, she hasn’t met their needs.’ No one actually asked what kind of support I needed or what would be best for the kids.”

woman prisoner on bunk
© Andy Aitchison

The impact of imprisonment on children

The need to recognise the impact of imprisonment on children has long been called for, as outlined in our blog about Child Impact Assessments. It is imperative that children’s voices are heard in court proceedings in a way that feels safe for them and allows them to acknowledge the complexity of emotions, particularly where there has been domestic abuse; many feel angry at their mother, the abuser, and the authorities who have not given their mother the help she needed.

London-based charity Advance published its report A place to go like this in March this year. The report sets out measures that will break the cycle of harm for mothers involved in offending who are survivors of domestic abuse and mitigate the impact on their children. Key recommendations include a gender-specific criminal justice response, whereby all professionals understand the specific drivers of women’s offending, including domestic abuse, and the devastating impact custodial sentences have on children; and investment in women’s centres and initiatives like Advance’s Minerva programme which offers intensive trauma-informed support to women, including advocacy in engaging with children’s services and assistance to obtain legal representation to challenge care proceedings or to gain, or increase, contact with their children.

Hidden Harms

The government’s recently announced Hidden Harms Summit is a welcome initiative and an important opportunity to ensure that the most vulnerable are kept safe from harm and exploitation. Strengthening the legal protection in the Domestic Abuse Bill for women driven to offend, must be a part of this. If reforms are not made, we are simply allowing the devastating cycle of victimisation, offending, and harm to continue for people like Trish, Roxy, and her brothers. No child should experience losing their mother to domestic abuse; to lose her a second time to the criminal justice system is something that can, and must, be prevented.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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