We should feel encouraged that, increasingly, friends, colleagues, acquaintances are accepting of the fact that there are parents who face regular abuse from their own children; and understand that parents may suffer further humiliation at the hands of the authorities when they do report the abuse, and its cause is identified as a failure of proper parenting. But there are still some aspects of this phenomenon that seem a step too far, even for convinced supporters. I was in just such a conversation recently when I introduced the problem of parents actually being punished for their children’s behaviour. “I don’t believe it – show me the evidence” was the response. It is indeed hard to believe that we still live in a society that is so procedurally rigid that we cannot accommodate the situations that do not fit the standard template.
I would suggest that there are a number of different scenarios here.
Mothers given Parenting Orders in the juvenile court when their child faces charges for criminal behaviour. Investigations may or may not have already revealed the degree of violence in the home. The punishment of the mother is not just an unfortunate accident of legislation. It comes from the model of youth justice that identifies the parents as critically responsible for their child’s delinquency. (see for example, Hunter, Nixon and Parr)
The government response to last year’s autumn riots in Britain raised the possibility of families being evicted from social housing if their children were found guilty of rioting. Although some individuals were identified for this, no actual evictions have yet taken place.
Parents taken to court and threatened with imprisonment for failure to ensure their child’s regular school attendance. This scenario was famously the trigger for one of the first support services within Britain for parents experiencing abuse. The P.E.A.C.E. programme was established in Lancashire by the Education Welfare Service, to provide a more supportive and intelligent response to the problem.
I accept that, while parents in these examples often report having experienced ongoing abuse as one component of their child’s overall behaviour – contributing to their lack of success in establishing firmer boundaries, none of the above directly involves punishment for that experience of abuse itself. The following are different in that respect.
Hunter, Nixon and Parr give an example from their work of a parent asked to leave a women’s refuge because of the violent behaviour of her teenage son towards her.
A parent calls child welfare services, asking for them to remove the teenager, only to be told that they have failed to protect their other children and risk instead the removal of them. (sorry – no solid reference here)
A woman calls the police to report an assault by her son, but rather than treating the call as an incident of domestic violence, the police use a youth justice response and the woman receives a Parenting Order. (see for example, Holt)
In response to a parent’s attempts to stand up to the abuse, a young person calls the police themselves alleging an assault, or counter claims when the police are called by their parent. This can result in the parent being held in custody and charged themself with a crime. (see for example, Howard and Rottem, 2.7.11)
A Texas newspaper reported, in January 2011, an incident of a parent having to pay her son’s legal costs when he was in court on charges of assault against her.
It is easy to see how someone could find such examples and claims impossible to believe. They come from a rigidity of practice but also an ignorance of the issues. Increased awareness is the first step to avoiding these injustices in future. As frontline workers take time to listen to parents, and have the courage to speak up about what they find in their work, this information can be used to inform their recommendations and actions. As policy makers and legislators wake up to the extent of parent abuse in society, we hope that we can look forward to more thoughtful and respectful responses to the parents’ cry for help. But we must somehow see an end to the situation we currently find ourselves in, where parents can be punished for failing to prevent their own abuse.
Where there is already awareness and good communication between agencies, protocols and practice have developed which affirm parents rather than punishing them further; and which seek to support them in creating a positive and healthy home environment. We all need to work towards a time when this becomes the norm rather than the exception.
If you know of other examples, please join the discussion.
Holt, A. (2009) ‘Parent abuse: some reflections on the adequacy of a youth justice response’, Internet Journal of Criminology,
Howard, J. and Rottem, N. (2008) It all starts at home: male adolescent violence to mothers, research report, Inner Couth Community Health Service Inc and Child Abuse Research Australia, Monash University
Hunter, C., Nixon, J. and Parr, S. (2010) Mother abuse: a matter of youth justice, child welfare or domestic violence? Journal of Law and Society, 37:2