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Mothers and their children

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Intimate partner violence is the main preventable risk factor contributing to illness and death in women of childbearing age in Australia (AIHW 2021). The experience of violence has been associated with short- and long-term negative outcomes for women, including poorer physical and mental health, alcohol use disorders and economic insecurity (Bayrampour et al. 2018, Brown et al. 2015, Brown et al. 2020, DSS 2022, WHO 2021, Yang et al. 2022). Women’s parenting capacity and relationships with their children can also be affected by intimate partner violence (Hooker et al. 2016, Kaspiew et al. 2017, Lapierre 2021).

This section focuses on the specific challenges for mothers who experience intimate partner violence. For more general information about the impacts and outcomes of violence, see also Health outcomes, Economic and financial impacts. For information about pregnancy-related issues, see Pregnant people.

Reporting on the experience of FDSV for mothers

In AIHW’s Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence (FDSV) reporting, specific terms are used when reporting from certain data sources. The terms ‘women’ and ‘mothers’ are used throughout this topic for consistency with sources and to improve readability. However, it should be noted that some people may not identify with these terms (see Box 1).

Data are available across several surveys and administrative data sources to look at the experience of violence, service responses and the impacts and outcomes of FDSV for mothers and their children.

What do we know about the experience of FDSV in relation to mothers?

How many mothers experience intimate partner violence?

  • 1 in 3 mothers

    experienced intimate partner violence between the birth of their first child and their child turning 10 years of age

    Source: Physical and mental health of women exposed to intimate partner violence in the 10 years after having their first child: an Australian prospective cohort study of first-time mothers

Over 1 in 3 (35%) women had experienced intimate partner violence in any of the 3 follow-up periods (at 1 year, 4 years and 10 years after the birth):

  • almost 1 in 5 (19%) women reported recent intimate partner violence (in the 12 months prior to the 10-year follow-up)
  • 16% of women reported past intimate partner violence (during the first and/or fourth year after giving birth but not in the 12 months prior to the 10-year follow-up) (Brown et al. 2020).

Two in three (65%) women who reported recent intimate partner violence had also reported past intimate partner violence (Brown et al. 2020).

Threats to remove children is a common form of emotional abuse

According to the 2021–22 PSS, about 1 in 5 women (22% or 425,000) and 1 in 4 men (24% or 251,000) who experienced emotional abuse from a previous partner reported that the abuse involved threats to take their child/ren away. About 1 in 11 (8.7% or 167,000) women reported that the abuse involved threats to harm their child/ren (ABS 2023).

About 3 in 10 women (27% or 515,000) and men (29% or 313,000) who experienced emotional abuse from a previous partner reported that the abusive partner lied to their child/ren with the intent of turning them against the victim-survivor (ABS 2023).

In an online survey conducted in 2021 (see Box 3), of women who had children living with them and reported verbally abusive and threatening behaviours:

  • just under 1 in 3 (30%) reported their partner had threatened to have their child/ren taken away
  • 1 in 5 (21%) reported their partner had threatened to hurt their children (Boxall and Morgan 2021).

Perpetrators may involve children in technology-facilitated abuse directed at their mothers

Technology-facilitated abuse refers to abusive behaviours that occur through contact with another person using a device, service or app (Dragiewicz et al. 2020). A non-representative national survey of 515 domestic violence professionals in 2019 found that children were involved in technology-facilitated abuse in about 1 in 3 domestic violence cases:

  • Monitoring and stalking were the most common forms of technology-facilitated abuse involving children. In 45% of cases, perpetrators used technology to learn or try to learn about a new home location or asked a child about the adult victim’s location or activities.
  • Technology was also used to publicly insult the adult victim where the child could see it (38% of cases), send the child messages insulting the adult victim (38% of cases) and to tell the child they would take them away from the other parent (26% of cases).
  • 1 in 3 (33%) cases involved the perpetrator prohibiting or blocking phone and/or online communication between an adult victim and child (Dragiewicz et al. 2020).

See also What is FDSV?Stalking and surveillance and Children and young people.

Mothers may be the target of adolescent family violence

Family violence used by an adolescent within the home (adolescent family violence) may be more commonly directed at siblings or mothers. This may reflect who is seen as the weakest or ‘safest’ target, be due to conflict arising from attempts to establish boundaries and/or be a learned behaviour (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022). See also Who uses violence? for a discussion of the intergenerational transmission of violence.

In a non-representative survey of over 5,000 young people aged 16-20 years living in Australia in 2021, 1 in 5 (20%) reported they had used violence against a family member:

  • 2 in 3 (68%) had used violence against a sibling
  • 1 in 2 (51%) had used violence against their mother
  • less than 2 in 5 (37%) had used violence against their father (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022).

What are the outcomes for mothers who experience intimate partner violence?

Health issues

Mothers who experienced intimate partner violence were 3–4 times as likely to report mental health symptoms.

According to the Mothers’ and Young People Study, 39% of women who experienced physical and emotional violence from an intimate partner, in the first 12 months after giving birth, reported depressive symptoms, compared with 12% of women who did not experience violence (Brown et al. 2015). Similarly, 40% of women who had experienced recent intimate partner violence (in the 12 months prior to the 10-year follow-up) reported depressive symptoms compared with 12% of women who did not experience violence (Brown et al. 2020).

Recent and past experience of intimate partner violence were both associated with mental health problems. Mothers who reported intimate partner violence in any of the three follow up periods (1, 4 and/or 10 years) were 3–4 times as likely to report depressive, anxiety or post-traumatic stress symptoms than women who did not report intimate partner violence:

  • 30% compared with 12% for depression
  • 23% compared with 7.4% for anxiety
  • 31% compared with 9.3% for post-traumatic stress (Brown et al. 2020).

Mothers who experienced intimate partner violence were more likely to have poor physical health.

The Mothers’ and Young People Study also found that mothers who had experienced intimate partner violence were more likely to report poorer physical health and chronic health conditions at the 10-year follow-up (Brown et al. 2020).

Mothers who had experienced intimate partner violence in any of the three follow up periods (1, 4 and/or 10 years) were more likely to have poor functional health status (self-reported quality of life) at the 10-year follow-up when compared with those who had not experienced violence (44% and 21%, respectively). They were also more likely to report common physical health problems (extreme tiredness, back pain, severe headaches or migraines, severe period pain, and urinary incontinence) and chronic health conditions (asthma, heart disease and/or diabetes) (Brown et al. 2020).

Mothers with recent experience of violence were more likely to report common health problems than those with a past experience of violence. However, chronic health conditions were more likely to be reported by mothers who reported past experience of violence (Brown et al. 2020).

Parenting issues

Mothers who experience intimate partner violence are more likely than those who do not to report negative experiences of motherhood, including parenting difficulties and attachment issues (Hooker et al. 2016, Kaspiew et al. 2017). Family violence perpetrators use a range of strategies to control women, which may in turn affect their parenting capacity and relationships with children. This can include controlling financial and material resources and decision-making, undermining their authority, limiting interactions and communication with their children and the use of violence directed towards, and/or perpetrated in front of, children. These strategies can undermine women’s confidence in their ability to provide adequate care and protection for their children (Hooker et al. 2016, Kaspiew et al. 2017, Lapierre 2021).

Analysis of data on inter-parental conflict from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (see Box 4) found that mothers who reported persistent (past and current) conflict were significantly more likely than mothers who reported no conflict to report:

  • psychological distress (ranging from 24% to 33%, compared with 6.2% to 7.0%)
  • low efficacy as a parent (25% to 27% compared with 9.0% to 13%)
  • high irritability (24% to 27% compared with 11% to 12%)
  • low consistency (32% to 35% compared with 12% to 13%) (Kaspiew et al. 2017).

Strategies used to control women may prevent them from leaving a violent relationship (State of Victoria 2016). Mothers may not feel that they are able to leave due to: concerns about being able to support themselves and their children; the fear of ongoing or escalating violence; partners threatening to kill or harm the children or to have children removed from the victim-survivor’s care through family court or child safety systems; and disruptions to children’s education and social participation (Kaspiew et al. 2017, Lovatt 2020, State of Victoria 2016).

What are some of the hidden costs of FDSV for mothers?

'If you manage to hold on to your job, you lose out on opportunities for career advancement. Like everyone, I have bills to pay and need to keep a roof over our heads. I go to work for a ‘break’ – for eight hours I get to pretend I have some semblance of a normal life. I am stuck in a casual role because of the ongoing post-separation abuse that I continually must navigate. Because of the relentless stress I’m not the mother I could and should be to my children. My kids have a mum whose parenting capacity is crippled by the ongoing abuse, while the perpetrator plays Disney Dad. The hidden costs of leaving a violent situation are multidimensional and multilayered.'

Lily

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Women who had experienced partner violence or abuse were more likely to be living as single mothers

Analysis of the 2016 PSS showed that women who had experienced violence or abuse from a partner (since the age of 15) were more likely to be living as a single parent of children under the age of 18 (‘single mothers’) when compared with women who had not experienced partner violence or abuse:

  • 11% of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner since the age of 15 compared with 2.1% for women who had not
  • 10% of women who had experienced emotional abuse from a partner since the age of 15 compared with 1.7% for women who had not (Summers 2022).

Financial impacts

Family and domestic violence is the main reason women and children leave their homes in Australia (AHURI 2021) and it is often the people who have experienced violence who bear the costs for leaving (HRSCSPLA 2021). The substantial financial costs can include deposits, rental bonds and furniture for a new home, legal and medical costs, travel or moving costs, and for mothers, costs associated with providing for the needs of their children (HRSCSPLA 2021). These costs may prevent women from leaving an abusive relationship and may be a reason some women return to a previous violent partner (HRSCSPLA 2021, Summers 2022). See also Economic and financial impacts.

A range of services are available to support people who have to leave their home due to violence, including crisis payments and accommodation, subject to eligibility criteria (see also Services responding to FDSV and Financial support and workplace responses). People who are in severe financial hardship and have experienced changes in their living arrangements due to family and/or domestic violence, and are receiving, or are eligible to receive, an income support payment or ABSTUDY Living Allowance, may receive a one-off crisis payment. Half (50% or around 10,500) of the women who were granted family and domestic violence crisis claims in 2021-22 were receiving Family Tax Benefit (FTB) at the end of the 2021–22 financial year, meaning they had dependent children in their care (AIHW 2022a).

Homelessness

Women and children affected by family and domestic violence are one of the national priority homelessness cohorts identified in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (CFFR 2018). Specialist homelessness services (SHS) provide a crisis response for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including people experiencing domestic and family violence (AIHW 2022b). However, the limited supply of long-term affordable housing makes it difficult for women and children affected by family and domestic violence to move into permanent, independent housing (HRSCSPLA 2021). The 2021 Parliamentary inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence also recommended that the Australian Government and state and territory governments should consider funding emergency accommodation for perpetrators to prevent victim-survivors being forced to flee their homes or continue residing in a violent home (HRSCSPLA 2021). See also Housing.

Around 62,700 female clients aged 18 and over who sought SHS assistance in 2021–22 had experienced family or domestic violence (see Box 5). Of these clients, 1 in 5 (21% or 13,000 clients) presented to specialist homelessness services as single with child/ren (AIHW 2022b).

Almost half (47%) of adult female clients who presented to specialist homelessness services as single with child/ren identified FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance.

In 2021–22, 35% of adult female SHS clients identified FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance (AIHW 2022b). The proportion was higher for female clients aged 18 and over who presented to specialist homelessness services as ‘single with child/ren’ – almost half (47%) of these clients identified FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance. Other main reasons nominated by these clients were housing crisis (18%), inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (8.1%) and financial difficulties (7.7%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Female clients aged 18 and over who presented to specialist homelessness services as single with child/ren – main reasons for seeking assistance (top 5), 2021–22

Source: AIHW SHSC | Data source overview

Figure 2 shows the proportion of female clients aged 18 and over who presented to specialist homelessness services as single with child/ren and identified FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance from specialist homelessness services declined from 43% in 2011–12 to 39% in 2012–13 before increasing to 49% in 2020–21. There was a slight decrease to 47% in 2021–22.

Changes over time should be interpreted with caution due to changes in practice which may result in a decrease in FDV client numbers since 2017–18 (AIHW 2022b).

Figure 2: Female clients aged 18 and over who presented to specialist homelessness services as single with child/ren and identified FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance, 2011–12 to 2021–22

Source: AIHW SHSC | Data source overview

See also Housing.

Experience of violence following separation

Separation has been identified as a time of increased risk for family violence (DSS 2022, State of Victoria 2016). Financial abuse (for example denied or misused access to financial or material resources) may escalate or occur for the first time after separation and for some women this can result in periods of homelessness or housing instability and poverty (Kaspiew et al. 2017).

Shared parenting or maintaining contact between children and their father can also be challenging for women who have experienced violence (Lapierre 2021). Some perpetrators may use contact or child support arrangements to engage in violence and control victim-survivors and/or their children after separation (Lovatt 2020, State of Victoria 2016).

Almost half of single mothers experienced violence while temporarily separated from a previous violent partner.

The Summers (2022) analysis of the 2016 PSS showed that an estimated 46,700 women who were living as ‘single mothers’ at the time of the survey had moved out of the home during a temporary separation from a previous violent partner. Of single mothers who have moved out of the home during a temporary separation from a previous violent partner:

  • almost half (49%) experienced violence from the previous partner while temporarily separated
  • 14% reported that the violence increased while temporarily separated (note, estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution).

Almost 2 in 5 (37%) ‘single mothers’ who had experienced violence by a previous partner more than once while living together reported that violence by the previous partner increased after the relationship finally ended (Summers 2022). Separation is an identified risk factor for intimate partner homicide (Boxall et al. 2022).

Intimate partner homicide

The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network (ADFVDRN) identified 311 cases of intimate partner homicides (homicides that were preceded by a reported or anecdotal history of domestic and family violence) between July 2010 and June 2018. The majority (77%, or 240) of these homicides involved a male killing a current or former female intimate partner (ADFVDRN and ANROWS 2022).

Of the 311 intimate partner homicides, the offenders and victims were parents of at least 172 children under 18 at the time of the homicide. Across 4 of these cases, 8 children were killed along with their mother (ADFVDRN and ANROWS 2022).

See also: Domestic homicide.

What are the impacts of FDSV for children and young people?

Experience of, or exposure to FDSV, can affect children and young people’s health, wellbeing, education, and social and emotional development (see Children and young people for more information).

According to the 2021–22 PSS, many parents who reported experiencing violence from a partner also reported their child/ren had seen or heard the violence, with:

  • more than 2 in 3 (69%, or about 483,000) women and about 1 in 2 men (48%, or about 57,600*) saying their child/ren had seen or heard the violence used by a previous partner
  • about 1 in 2 (49%, or an estimated 44,400) women saying their child/ren had seen or heard the violence used by a current partner (ABS 2023).

Note that estimates marked with an asterisk (*) should be used with caution as they have a relative standard error between 25% and 50%.

In a survey of around 3,800 female carers living in Australia during 2021 (see Box 3), 1 in 3 (35%) women who had experienced intimate partner violence in the past 12 months indicated that a child in their care had been exposed to the violence (Wolbers et al. 2023).

The Mothers’ and Young People’s Study found that children whose mothers experienced family violence in the 12 months following birth were 3 times as likely (27%) to have emotional and/or behavioural difficulties at age four as children with no abuse reported (9%) (Brown et al. 2015).

Studies have also indicated there is a relationship between domestic violence and poor maternal attachment and aggressive behaviours at school (Moore et al. 2017) and that experiences of, and exposure to, FDSV can increase the probability of the child or young person using violence in their home and later in life (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022; Ogilvie et al. 2022).

How are services working for children?

'Services for children are very limited and are very difficult to access. I sought counselling for my daughter and faced six month waitlists for children’s counselling services that I had to hunt down and make sure I was eligible for. Once in those services I could only access them within work hours and they offered very little options in terms of types of therapy, days or hours available. It was so heartbreaking. I felt like a failure of a mother juggling the impossible.'

Jasmine

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Is it the same for everyone?

Mothers of Aboriginal children

Preliminary findings from 170 mothers of Aboriginal children (see Box 6 for details of the Aboriginal Families Study) from the follow up questionnaire indicated that 37% had experienced violence from a current or former partner in the previous 12 months. A higher proportion of women who were single (59%) reported the experience of partner violence in the previous 12 months when compared with women who were living with a partner (20%) (Brown et al. 2021).

See also: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Migrant and refugee women

Analysis of data from the Mothers’ and Young People’s Study (see Box 2) found that a higher proportion of migrant mothers (women born overseas in countries where English is not the national language) experienced physical or emotional violence from a partner in the first 12 months following birth when compared with women born in Australia (22% compared with 17% respectively) (Navodani et al. 2019). Of particular note, migrant mothers were more likely to report the experience of emotional abuse only and it is thought that isolation from extended family and the additional challenges of having a baby in a new country may have contributed to this finding (Navodani et al. 2019).

Visa restrictions may prevent access to health services, including sexual and maternal health services, for migrant and refugee women (Marie Stopes Australia 2020). Women on a temporary or partner visa may be reliant on a violent partner financially and/or for residency and threats related to deportation or the removal of children may also be used to control them (AIJA 2022).

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