Mothercraft: Building Connections Manual

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The Building Connection:  Supporting Community-Based Programs to Address Interpersonal Violence and Child Maltreatment toolkit has been developed by Mothercraft with funding from the Public Agency of Canada, primarily as a support to CAPC, CPNP and AHSUNC programs.  It has been designed to also have wider application for other community-based programs and service providers, as well.

The toolkit has been developed to support service providers in community-based programs who work with women and children who may be living with Interpersonal Violence (IPV).  It is directed specifically towards work with women and children, and has been designed to work from a trauma-informed perspective and to develop trauma-informed relationships that cultivate safety, trust, and compassion.  For programs who serve men and boys, Section 9 (Online resources) includes links to specific resources for engaging and providing support to them.

The toolkit starts from the premise that “violence in adult relationships is often connected to violence and abuse in other relationships.  Mothers who experience violence in adult relationships have often experienced childhood abuse and trauma, or have witnessed violence as they grew up in their own families.  The trauma of IPV often begins in childhood, and continues in adult relationships.”

Section 1:  Setting the Stage for understanding IPV

The toolkit points out that “IPV is complex and multi-faceted, just as responses to IPV by community-based services need to be.”  The authors point out that:

  • IPV can and does occur in all ages, races, cultures, and socioeconomic, education, occupation and religious groups.  But it is more likely to occur with certain groups of women.
  • It can happen in heterosexual or same sex relationships.
  • It is linked to social beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes about men and women, and is a result of the abuser’s actions.  It is not the fault of the woman or the relationship.
  • Many people (both men and women) in IPV relationships have never had the opportunity to experience healthy relationship, as children or as adults.

The authors explain that IPV can take many forms, including emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, physical abuse, criminal harassment/stalking, and digital (or electronic or technological) abuse.  They note that, whilst IPV is different from conflict between partners, “it is important to treat conflict as a red flag for the possibility of violence and abuse.  Look for signs that conflict is escalating into power and control issues that are abusive and can lead to violence.  Let a woman know you are willing to listen and support her if she chooses to disclose IPV.”  They also note that, whilst research findings on prevalence of IPV can be difficult to interpret as “it depends on who is conducting the research and how the questions are asked”, what is known for sure is that:

  • Half of all women in Canada have had at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, so it is a common experience for women.
  • Most women with abusive partners do not involve the police, meaning that reported rates of IPV do not give an accurate picture.
  • Children are often affected.  About half of women going to a shelter bring children with them, and two thirds of those children are under 10 years of age.
  • The most serious form of IPV is intimate partner homicide.  Most victims are women.  Also, death threats against women are common.
  • The research findings indicate that, whilst both men and women experience IPV, “the research shows that women experienced more severe forms of IPV and women are more afraid of the harm that abusers cause”.

The toolkit cites research evidence that some women are more likely than others to experience IPV, including:

  • young women (under 25 years old) with young children
  • women recently separated or in the process of ending a relationship
  • women who witnessed IPV in childhood
  • women in common-law (rather than legal) marriages
  • Indigenous women
  • women from cultures when men’s power over women is the norm
  • poor women, unemployed women, and marginalized women
  • women who live with partners who have heavy alcohol/substance use
  • lesbian, bisexual, transgender and two-spirited women
  • women with disabilities
  • pregnant women

Youth (under 25), lower education/income, history of childhood abuse/childhood experience of IPV, heavy alcohol/substance use, negative/violent role models, past history of abusiveness, and acceptance of traditional gender roles are violence risk indicators for men in relationships.

The toolkit notes that IPV is a form of trauma, and is connected to mental health problems for women, including depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.  IPV can also be a causal factor in poor self-esteem, sleep disorders, eating disorders, phobias and panic disorders, and misuse of alcohol and other drugs.

Impacts of trauma and IPV can include:

  • hypervigilance
  • nightmares
  •  avoiding situations that bring the IPV to mind
  • feeling detached from others
  • focusing on behaviours to cope and ensure survival, including minimizing the violence/protecting the abuser/problematic alcohol or drug use/using aggression as self-defence/remaining in the abusive relationship

Section 2:  Impacts of IPV on mothering and on child development

The toolkit points out that there are many ways that IPV impacts on a woman’s ability to parent, including:

  • The woman comes to believe she is an inadequate mother.
  • The abuser threatens to report the mother to child protection services.
  • The woman comes to believe the abuser’s excuses for IPV and reinforces them with her children.
  • The woman loses the respect of her children.
  • The woman changes her mothering style in response to the abuser’s parenting style.
  • The mother-child bond is compromised.
  • A mother’s ability to manage is thwarted or overwhelmed.
  • Many women use survival strategies that can have negative impacts on children.
  • The woman is forced to compete for her children’s loyalties.

They note that, when partners separate, the violence can continue or escalate.  The continued abuse can include:

  • Undermining her mothering
  • Threats to obtain custody
  • Abusive behavior during child exchanges
  • Physical/sexual abuse of the children during visitation
  • Stalking
  •  In extreme cases, abduction or homicide

For service providers working with women and children, the toolkit identifies the following ‘red flags’:

  • She defends, excuses, minimizes, or apologizes for the inappropriate actions and words of her partner.
  • She seems strenuously resistant to the suggestion that her partner be involved in any activities at your program.
  • A mother lacks confidence in her ability as a parent, perhaps needing far more reassurance than other parents in your program.
  • She describes herself as overly permissive or indulgent to compensate for the authoritarian parenting style of her partner
  • She describes being overly strict with her children to keep them from annoying her partner
  • She seems overwhelmed in her role as a mother, and is often fatigued, depressed, jumpy or constantly angry with her children
  • You have reason to believe she is abusing substances
  • You have reason to believe she is using harsh discipline or perhaps maltreatment
  • Her children display disrespectful behavior towards her and/or her children seem to take the caregiver role with her

(Adapted from Professor’s Resource Guide to Teaching About Woman Abuse and its Effects on Children).

The toolkit discusses Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how children experience IPV, and the impacts, challenges and risks faced by children who live with IPV, noting:

  • Children under 5 are more likely to live in a household where IPV occurs than are children in any other age category.
  • The longer children live with IPV, the more likely this trauma will affect brain development and their ability to learn.
  • Children who live with IPV are usually aware of it, even though adults often think children don’t know.
  •  Infants and toddlers have reactions to living with IPV, too.
  • Older children might try to protect their mother.
  • Abusers might use children as a control tactic against mothers.
  • Children often experience strong mixed feelings toward the abuser.
  • Many (although not all) children who live with IPV can have a greater possibility of physical, behavioural, and social problems.
  • Children who live with IPV have twice as many mental health issues (especially PTSD) as children from non-violent homes.
  • Some children who live with IPV don’t have higher rates of problems (however, “the ACE Study suggests, the impact of IPV is cumulative.  This means that the longer a child lives with IPV or lives with other adverse experiences, the more likely it will harm the child’s development.”)
  • Children can be supported to become resilient:  “Most children who live with IPV can recover and heal from their experience with early intervention and support.  For children living with IPV, one of the most important things that helps them do well is a strong relationship with a caring, non-abusive mother.  Remember:  helping mothers helps children.”
  • Service providers can promote resiliency in children:  “There’s a lot service providers can do to promote resilience.  One way is to support women in their mothering capability.  By supporting women with their mothering, service providers will also be helping their children.  And providing a caring, consistent and structured environment within community-based programs helps children feel safe and supported….In particular, service providers can support mothers to form secure attachment bonds and develop positive mothering strategies.  This will help improve the lives of children who live with IPV.”

Section 3:  Identification of IPB and prevention of trauma responses

This section addresses in detail the following areas:

  • Understanding why mothers experiencing IPV stay in the relationship
  • Parenting by mothers living with IPV
  • Understanding a mother’s actions and behaviours
  • How service providers can respond to women living with IPV, including:
    • Emphasize confidentiality
    • Ensure privacy
    • Remain supportive
    • Avoid judging
    • Allow women to tell their stories at their own pace
    • Assist women to make safety plans
    • Help women access information about resources
    • Begin with the assumption that her behavior is logical
    • Tell her you understand how difficult it can be to mother while living with IPV
    • Reassure her
    • Ask what she’s been doing to keep herself and her children safe
    • Let her know how important she is to her children’s resiliency
    • Help her identify and connect with social supports
  • How organizations can respond to women living with IPV, including:
    • Develop and implement referral procedures
    • Ensure that staff are educated about and trained in appropriate responses to IPV
    • Support staff to be alert to the cues and signs
    • Ensure women are asked about IPV in sensitive, safe and appropriate ways
    • Be alert to the high rate of substance use and/’or mental health issues
    • Ensure that program space is physically and emotionally safe for women and children

It also looks at ways of supporting children through identification of IPV and prevention of trauma responses, looking at ways children are affected by living with IPV, signs a child might be living with IPV,  how service providers can support children identified as living with IPV, and ways of building resilience and preventing trauma responses in children.

Section 4:  Supporting safety for women and children living with IPV

This section addresses ways in which community-based programs can support safety for women and children living with IPV.

Supporting women:

Laying the groundwork for supporting safety, including:

  • Positive messages about mothering
  • Positive messages for mothers about their children

Ways to support a woman who makes a disclosure:

  • Make sure you know and understand the reporting requirements
  • Let the woman know the limits of confidentiality
  • Allow the woman to tell her story
  • Reassure and validate her feelings
  • Do not criticize or speak negatively about the abuser
  • Do not make commitments or promises you can’t keep
  • Let the woman know what you’re going to do

Safety planning for women, recognizing that she is the expert on her life, every woman is unique, and the need to proceed with caution:

  • Let her know she is not alone
  • Listen and don’t offer advice
  • Safety is the priority
  • Encourage her to develop a safety plan
  • Reinforce key messages:
    • Abuse is never warranted and it is not her fault
    • Her safety and the safety of her children is always the most important issue
    • She is not responsible for changing her partner’s behavior
    • Apologies and promises will not end the abuse
    • It is a crime to physically or sexually abuse or stalk a partner

Supporting children:

The toolkit gives information on how to understand the situation from a child’s perspective, and outlines the reporting responsibilities and requirements for all service providers.

Section 5:  Developing trauma-informed responses that support women and children living with IPV

This section outlines trauma and immediate and prolonged reactions to trauma, and identifies why trauma-informed practices are so important in responding to IPV.  The toolkit reinforces that “trauma-informed practices are recognized as a best practice approach for working with women and children living with IPV.”  Trauma-informed practices:

  • Acknowledge the impact of trauma on women and children….
  • Are an overall good practice….
  • Enhance the conversation and the practice of service providers….”

The toolkit emphasizes that trauma-informed practices help service providers destigmatize women, and points out that “there are two important points for community-based organizations to remember when they are trying to become trauma-informed:

  • Service providers do not need to be specialists in trauma-specific treatment in order to implement trauma-informed practices.
  • Trauma-informed practices do not require disclosure of details about a woman’s experiences of trauma. “The focus of trauma-informed practice is on stabilization, safety, and understanding the links between trauma and mothering – not on inquiring or questioning the details of the woman’s experience.”

The toolkit states that, when trauma-informed practices are not implemented, services are less effective. “When service providers don’t use trauma-informed practices or don’t understand the impact of trauma, this can:

  • Interfere with the way they respond to women who are seeking help…
  • Hamper engagement…
  • Inadvertently re-traumatize women….”

The toolkit stresses:  “Becoming trauma-informed creates less, not more, work for service providers.”

Detailed advice is given on how to enhance emotional safety for women through a variety of means:

  • Understand emotional safety
  • Provide a safe and soothing space
  • Help women manage their feelings
  • Provide information about how early experiences of trauma have impacted their mothering
  • Provide clear information and avoid surprises
  •  Help women feel comforted and in control

Some of the ways listed through which community-based service organizations can provide trauma-informed support to children who live with IPV include:

  • Create calm, stable, and predictable environments
  • Support mothers to help their children manage their emotions
  • Be a role model
  • Work collaboratively with other services for children in your community

This section gives suggestions on how to take steps to make community-based programs trauma-informed, including:

  • Reflect on your program’s practices and polices
  • Create an environment with regular opportunities to reflect
  • Engage with co-workers to recognize the ways in which tensions that arise within your programs (among women receiving services and among program staff) can be related to staff feelings about, and reactions to, trauma, and develop ways to safely and respectfully address these issues with each other when they arise.
  • Reflect on the impact of the work that you do on your own life, remembering that vicarious trauma can interfere with the ability to support and engage with women and children.
  • Examine personal biases and experiences.

Section 6:  Role of community-based programs

Noting that IPV is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach, this section looks at some ways community-based programs can respond to mothers and children living with IPV, including:

  • Developing positive practices using a trauma lens
  • Understanding that IPV can be transmitted from generation to generation
  • Developing collaborative relationships with women
  • Building collaborative community partnerships
  • Developing culturally relevant referrals and linkages
  • Advocating with service providers and systems
  • Above all, listening to and believing in women

The toolkit outlines specific ways in which community-based programs can develop practices to work with child protection services to support the safety of both children and mothers, and gives a list of questions for organizations to utilize to develop practices that support women and children living with IPV.

The toolkit ends with the following statement:

“Community-based programs that provide a caring, consistent, and structured environment help mothers and children feel safe and supported.  Anything that service providers can do to support women who live in, or have left, situations of IPV to form secure attachment bonds and to develop positive mothering strategies can improve the lives of mothers and children who live with IPV.  Similarly, when community-based organizations are able to develop strong and effective relationships among a wide array of helping services, the system as a whole becomes supportive of and responsive to mothers and children who live with IPV.”

Sections 7, 8 and 9 provide a detailed list of references used in compiling the manual, a bibliography for the literature review, and a selected list of online references.