" You Don't Need Nobody Else Knocking You Down"
For survivors of intimate partner violence, the very act of seeking help from a domestic violence (DV) shelter can incur enormous costs. One such cost involves what this study calls “parenting surveillance:” that is, DV advocates can observe, monitor, evaluate, and sometimes control survivors’ parenting—activities given added weight through their mandated reporter role. Although parenting surveillance has long been a feature of state intervention into family life, particularly for low-income women of color, it is largely unexplored in the DV shelter system. This is a striking gap for several reasons: First, most DV programs are committed to supporting survivors’ autonomy and empowerment, seemingly at odds with surveillance. Second, shelter surveillance may echo abusive dynamics from which survivors are attempting to escape. Third, survivors consistently cite fears of losing control of their parenting as a barrier to help-seeking. It is critical to understand the extent to which parenting surveillance prevents programs from achieving their own goals, potentially harming survivors, and obstructing their ability to seek help. Using a community-based participatory research approach, this qualitative-descriptive study aimed to explore survivor-mothers’ experiences of parenting surveillance among 12 residents of four shelters. Qualitative content analysis of the data that drew upon constant comparison techniques yielded six clusters: survivor-mothers (1) want and find support in their programs; (2) experience and witness parenting surveillance; (3) describe negative psychological responses to surveillance; (4) report varying effects on parenting and help-seeking related to surveillance; (5) cope with and resist surveillance; and (6) offer recommendations for improvements to DV shelters. Results suggest that although surveillance is a structural phenomenon, survivors perceived and experienced it differentially, based on their own identities and prior experiences, and the nature of their relationships with advocates. For advocates, ameliorating the damaging effects of surveillance involves both pragmatic and relational shifts grounded in empathy for survivor-mothers’ subjective experience of parenting in the context of their histories, identities, strengths, and vulnerabilities.