Protective mothers are mothers who love their children

When I was an attorney, protective mothers would work very hard with me to get away from their abusers and protect their children. Several times these clients would return seeking my help trying to leave another abuser. They all blamed themselves and wondered what was wrong with them that they picked another abuser. The problem is that abusers are able to act respectfully and to treat partners well. This is what they do at the start of a relationship because otherwise there never would be a relationship. I explained to my clients that there are all too many abusive men out there and statistically too easy to find another one. There was nothing these protective mothers did wrong, and they have every right to feel good about themselves.

Protective mothers are simply normal and caring mothers who love their children and will do whatever is necessary to protect them. My first book was called Scared to Leave Afraid to Stay, but my working title was THE COURAGE OF FEAR.  When President Kennedy was asked what it was like to be a hero (referring to the episode when he saved his men on PT 109), he said it was purely unintentional because they sank his boat. The same consideration applies to protective mothers. They did not set out to display heroic courage. Faced with unbearable danger and risk to their children, protective mothers are forced to risk everything to protect their children because the courts do not understand abuse and are severely tilted in favor of abusive fathers.

Different Groups View Protective Mothers Very Differently

Judges and lawyers using the flawed high conflict approach assume protective mothers are angry at the father and act out in ways that hurt their children. Many believe the myth that mothers frequently make false reports and so are highly skeptical of abuse reports. The legal professionals hold mothers to higher standards of child care but minimize the importance of primary attachment. Mothers are given less credibility than fathers and frequently face gender bias.  The judges and lawyers treat mothers’ concerns about their children as an obstacle to co-parenting that is only raised to gain an advantage in the litigation.

Evaluators work in the same system as the legal professionals and share many of the same opinions. Evaluators are quick to pathologize protective mothers based on minor personality differences and fail to consider the context; such as the success mothers have in other parts of their lives. Evaluators often disbelieve reports of domestic violence and child abuse because they do not have the necessary training and then label the victims with pejorative diagnoses like paranoid, delusional, or alienator. Mothers are blamed for their inability to cooperate with their abusers and for any reluctance children have to spend time with abusive fathers. Evaluators hold mothers to far higher standards than fathers.  Evaluators are reluctant to limit abusive fathers’ contact with children but are happy to retaliate against mothers who are the primary attachment figures who always provided good care for the children. In many cases, evaluators pressure mothers to accept dangerous custody plans and punish them for insisting on safe arrangements.  Legal and mental health professionals mistakenly view mothers’ anger and emotion during the litigation as a reflection on their ability to parent.

Abusive fathers view mothers as misbehaved women who need to be punished. The fathers believe she had no right to leave so they are entitled to use whatever tactics are necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control them. They believe any problems the children have were caused by the mothers. The fathers view their assaults and other abusive tactics as self-defense because the mother did not obey him. The fathers object to anyone helping the mother and often attack friends or professionals who dare to support her. Fathers also view any maintenance or child support as illegitimate because it goes to the mother.  They view any problem with their relationship with the children as alienation.

Researchers have established that mothers involved in contested custody cases make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time. They know mothers are reluctant and afraid to report a father’s abuse but do so because of the need to protect the children. Mothers are at a litigation disadvantage because they will not allow harm to their children in order to gain a litigation advantage. Mothers tend to have far superior parenting skills because they have provided most of the child care. They are also the best source of information about the fathers because they pay close attention to the fathers for purposes of survival.

The children usually love both parents but prefer to live with their mother. They are more likely to seek out their mother when they need help. They view their mother as the safe parent and so when they need to act out are more likely to do so with her. Children appreciate that their mother is fighting to protect them even when court professionals view her response negatively. Living with their mother allows children to live with less fear and stress.

Mothers blame themselves far more than they deserve and are more open to accepting or sharing responsibility for problems caused by the father. Mothers tend to minimize the father’s abuse. They are afraid of the abuser but stand up to him during litigation because they are trying to protect their children. Mothers often support more contact between the father and children than is safe.  Mothers tend to be more accommodating with court professionals and this leads to them being pressured to agree to unsafe arrangements. Mothers’ first priority is always to protect their children.

Conclusion

I have generalized in the last section, but what I wrote is generally true. In most cases, the father wanted or demanded the mother provide most of the child care during the relationship.  In any other litigation, his actions would be understood as an admission she is a good parent because otherwise, a loving father would not leave his children with her. It would be extremely rare for someone to suddenly become an unfit parent because she left her abuser and reported his abuse. This could happen in a rare case, but in the broken custody courts, this is a common and almost always mistaken finding.

The family courts are influenced by the legal profession, evaluators, and fathers’ rights supporters. They are not listening to researchers, protective mothers, or the children. Put another way, the courts are failing to listen to the people who have the best understanding of the dynamics in the family and the well-being of the children. In Dutchess County, New York, the legislature asked a committee of professionals to study the county response to domestic violence in the wake of a series of DV homicides. They found that male supremacist groups had a strong influence over the family courts. This led protective mothers to stop using the courts because the judges made their situations more dangerous. The committee found this bias in favor of abusers was one of the causes of the series of DV homicides in the county.

Of the groups family courts listen to, evaluators who are part of the cottage industry and fathers are clearly biased. The other professionals do not have the DV knowledge Saunders found to be essential. Researchers and the children are not biased and have information the courts need. 

Abusers often act in particular ways before assaulting their partners. Protective mothers pay careful attention to the abusers’ tone of voice; body language; choice of words; gestures and other clues because this can give mothers advance warning they and their children are in danger. They may be able to protect their family by agreeing to whatever the father wants; lock themselves in a room; run away; tell the children to run to a neighbor; call for help or at least try to cover their head before he strikes. 

In my experience, my clients have an uncanny ability to predict the actions and tactics of their abusers. It is the knowledge that most court professionals fail to recognize as valuable. Even when courts recognize the father’s abusive behavior, they still refuse to listen to the mother’s concerns about the danger he poses.

In many of the batterer classes I have taught, the men offer a variety of explanations for why their partners reported their abuse. I then explain that the real answer is actually very simple.  They just want his abuse to stop. This really also would help the courts understand protective mothers more realistically. They just want the fathers to stop hurting their children.

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Barry Goldstein
Barry Goldstein

Research Director

Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.

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