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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Just another mother

March 12 2014
Half of so-called ‘single’ homeless women are mothers, estranged from their children

Margaret Mary’s daughter is nearly three years old. She’s a happy little girl, doted on by her mum and dad, who enjoy playing with her, whether in her own room or in the small garden out the back of her home in Glasgow. “But this has been a long time coming,” says Margaret softly. This is Margaret’s third child – her third time lucky. She was just 19 when she walked out of an abusive relationship, violence on both sides fuelled by drug addiction, and left her first daughter, then 18 months old, with her dad. It seemed like there was no other choice. “At least it gave her a chance, rather than stay and me and her dad just end up killing each other and she ends up being taken by social work anyway,” she says.

Homeless and heartbroken, she “spiralled badly after that”, her addictions out of control until another pregnancy led her to rehab. For a while it seemed like it helped, but after discharge and with no support, the substance misuse started again. Her son's behaviour was difficult and the murder of his father when he was six, made things yet tougher for both mother and child. When he was diagnosed with autism, Margaret was not surprised. “I always knew there was something more,” she explains. “My way of coping was to go back on the drugs – that was all I knew.” Meanwhile, her son was in and out of residential units.

But a tipping point came. "When I met my current partner I decided it was time to get clean again,” says Margaret. “This time when I got pregnant with my wee girl it felt like I'd been given another chance.” She got help from Addaction’s Glasgow-based Early Years Service, continued doing recovery work – “I learnt a lot about myself.”

But many homeless women never get that chance. Though few people on the streets may talk about it, the statistics are striking. Almost two-thirds of homeless women interviewed by the EU-wide Women’s Rough Sleeper's project had children, the majority not living with them, though the women wished to be reconnected. Children had been taken away shortly after birth, put into care, fostered or adopted. This was a source of great distress to the women interviewed, many of whom said being without their children was the worst thing about being homeless.

The issues that had led them there were complex – like Margaret many were battling addictions, while 70 per cent said they had become homeless because of abuse from a partner.

Homeless charity St Mungo's says that almost half of its residents are mothers, many of whom have been traumatised by the loss of their children and struggle to cope with limited contact.

It's an issue that is also all too familiar for Vicky Jones, Project Manager for Women @ the Well, a charity that works with vulnerable homeless women including those in prostitution or who have been trafficked. She says that most of the women she works with have estranged children; some are on their fifth or sixth pregnancies. “And there's such a stigma about it,” she says. “It keeps women where they are because they are unable to talk about, not able to move on. If you have your children removed it has such a devastating effect.”

Of course, it’ a complex issue. As everyone is keen to point out, it’s the children who have to come first, and their need to be cared for properly will always rightly trump the need of a woman to have a relationship with that child.

Yet as Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Action for Children has pointed out, the two need not be exclusive – some one million children in the UK today are likely to go on to become homeless and become trapped in the same cycles of deprivation and neglect as their parent. And instead of sitting back and watching it happen, we need to working towards supporting parents.

From Vicky Jones’ perspective, what is needed is proper support. “Obviously children's needs have to be at the absolute centre of this because they cannot speak for themselves,” she says. “No-one would suggest otherwise. But I am quite shocked by how little support there is for women. When children are removed it is very possible that they will go into the care system, perhaps have a very difficult time and come out with some of the same problems their mothers had. It feels a bit like people are being condemned, not only the mothers, but the children are stigmatised too.

“There’s possibly no more depressing part of my job than being in a room at social services with a flip chart on the wall detailing everything that’s gone wrong in a person's life. It's not a good way to try to change people’s behaviour.

“Back in the day it was about keeping families together. Now it seems to be about getting them in a room to tell them off for not keeping to their action plan. We need more mother and baby units, places that are caring places that will support both mother and child.”

Christine McCauley, Early Years Services Manager for Addaction Scotland has seen that intensive approach work. A former social worker, she was attracted to her new role due to the low case load – it allows her to do whatever is required to help mothers and their young children, even if that's as simple as taking her along to the Toddler group she's never plucked up the courage to attend.

“A lot of the woman that I work with have a lot of trauma in their past,” she notes. “We work with them to help them understand the part that trauma plays in their substance misuse. It can be a coping mechanism.

“I feel very privileged to do this. I can really get to know the women

– I'm not just another worker. I can be like a friend, or a mother, I can sit and have a cup of coffee with a woman, go with her to a playgroup, do the type of things that no-one else has time to do.”

When Margaret outgrew Addaction's help she started voluntary work with elderly people before starting up a recovery night in the homeless unit where she was staying – as she says, she knows what people have been through. From that position of strength she fought for her two bedroom house, with its front door and garden, where she and her family now live.

She still has her battles – but she's getting there. "What I'd say to anyone who finds themselves in a position like I was, take all the help you're offered, take all you can get,” she says. “And fight for what you are entitled to.

“If you lose a child and you can't establish contact, try to move on, try to better yourself. Then maybe if you're child wants to make contact in the future, she'll be able to understand: 'My Ma was in a bad place then. But she's alright now.'"

• For help and advice contact Citizens Advice Bureau on 08444 111 444 or see:

• You can also find support organisations in our women's services in The List