by Louise Armstrong: A summary by Janet Dodd, (surrounding an internet discussion on CPS):
The book is fabulous. Historically, the concept of “family privacy”, has
functioned, in practice, as protection from public scrutiny for families
headed by able-bodied, middle-class (and above), white, hetero-sexual men. You show very clearly in your book that for the most part it still does. This makes legal policies and procedures organized to manage “family” problems a VERY powerful but mostly invisible organizer of race, class, and gender relations
in the US.
What is revealed so clearly in your book is how the standards of mothering
are CLASS standards that reflect the particular interests/experiences of
hetero-sexual men who are raced white (not co-incidentally the group
still – and overwhelmingly — most likely to be represented in positions of
power/authority/decision making in all professions from business to religion
These standards of mothering work against women in relation to men when
women are trying to protect themselves and their children but they don’t work
against all women in the same way relative to each other. Black women, poor women, immigrant and/or non-English speaking women, working-class women,
Native-American women, women with disabilities, and queer women are all
subject to being held accountable to the standards but may have more or less resources to fight it depending on the context of their resistance.
Policing domestic violence offenders is organized around the belief that
women won’t leave because they suffer from “learned helplessness” (or some
other discrediting, individualizing, victim-blaming mental dysfunction). If there
is any evidence of their physically resisting and they are NOT middle-class,
white, able-bodied, or heterosexual (and sometimes when they are), they
stand a good chance of being arrested at the scene as the “primary aggressor” or the scene may be interpreted as a case of “double-domestic-violence” and both partners will be arrested. In many jurisdictions, responding officers can
(in some cases are mandated to) turn the children over to CPS when both parents are arrested. If women are NOT married to white, middle-class men and/or if they have a physical disability (whether they physically resist their abusive partner or not) they are also much more likely to be charged with “failure to protect” their children than are abused wives of white, middle-class men.
A district attorney told me that it’s much easier to win cases against mothers’ for
“failure to protect” than it is to win cases against men (read that: fathers) for domestic violence when the mother won’t testify against him. A [retired]
chief of police told me he thought that was all right “if it got them to leave”.
This guy just couldn’t seem to comprehend a situation where “leaving” wasn’t
possible/desirable (because her partner would track her down and kill her,
cause her to lose her job or be deported, take her kids away from her, hurt her
children to get back at her, leave her and the children destitute, etc.,
etc., etc.) In short, women’s resistance is often criminalized whether they
fight back or not because they are violating the standards of femininity from a
white, middle-class male standpoint encoded in professional policies and practices (including criminalization procedures for holding domestic violence
offenders accountable) organized to manage “family problems”.
Likewise, men who are NOT white, middle-class, English-speaking, or
heterosexual are much more likely to be held accountable at the scene of
domestics for using violence (physical or sexual) against partners/children than men who ARE white, middle-class, English-speaking, or heterosexual.
Divorce/child support/custody/visitation policies and procedures are
organized from the same standpoint and the focus is once again on the
mothers’ actions/reactions. In this context, there is NO presumption of “learned
helplessness” since the belief organizing DV policy is that women don’t
leave abusive men and that a father’s abuse of a child’s mother is not considered abuse of the child (except in cases where mother’s are held accountable for not
protecting the child from witnessing the father’s abuse of her!) This is the reasoning that creates the context of women’s experiences that you detail in your book.
The assumption is that mothers have primary responsibility for their
children’s well-being so it is the woman’s credibility as a mother that is
subject to intense scrutiny by the court. And, as you show so clearly in the book, when the issue is a white, middle-class father’s sexual abuse of his children, the courts are MORE likely to give custody to HIM based on the belief that she is a bad mother, i.e., she is lying to damage him or get more money from him or turn his children against him, etc., than it is to hold him accountable for this particular crime. As you point out in the book, child sexual abuse is a crime so why is it being decided in divorce/civil court? The answer seems to be that the conceptual politics of family shapes patterns of vulnerability and accountability relative to intimate coercion, but it does so in particularly raced, classed, and gendered ways that seem to work to the advantage of able-bodied, economically-privileged, hetero-sexual, men raced white.
I’ve recommended the book countless times and will continue to do so.
Janet D. (Janet Dodd is a social worker in the Syracuse area. Louise Armstrong is a well known writer on issues of child abuse and violence against women.)
(We have this book in our library at ANHC.)