Partnering with Survivors at the Core of Keeping Children Safe

by David Mandel

A meaningful child welfare response to domestic violence needs to be articulated from the perspective of the safety and well-being of  children.  I’ve heard many child welfare workers say “I am empathetic to the survivor* and I don’t want to re-victimize her but…my bottom line is the safety and well-being of those children.”  Any training or initiative that hopes to influence the practice of child welfare in domestic violence cases needs to accept and even embrace this reality.   Statute, policy and culture all point in the same direction.  Our communities and legislatures have made it clear that child welfare agencies have been given a trust—intervene in families to protect children from their abusive or neglectful parents.

Acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of child welfare’s role in protecting our children forms a critical starting point of the Safe and Together model.   So when the question arises about how to relate to the adult survivor of domestic violence, the Safe and Together model starts with the principle:

#1: Keeping children safe and together with the survivor ( non-offending parent) is ideal from the perspective of the children.

Given the active role that most survivor’s play in promoting the physical safety and well being of their children, the stabilizing and healing role that non-offending parents play in regards to the trauma caused by the perpetrator and the traumatic impact of removal, any child centered intervention needs to have as this principle as a value guiding decision making. Following this, the next two principles provide further direction:

#2: A successful partnership with the non-offending parents is one of the best ways to keep the children safe.

#3: How we define how domestic violence survivors are “active” in protecting their children is directly related to child welfare’s willingness and ability to development meaningful partnerships with the survivors. A broader definition of “active” promotes collaborative safety planning that is based on the specific experience of the survivor.

The development of meaningful partnerships between child welfare and domestic violence survivors around the safety and well-being strongly hinge on child welfare’s ability to expand the yardstick it uses to measure the protective capacity of the domestic violence survivor (or non-offending parent).    We’ve defined protective survivors as the ones who either 1) leave/end the relationship 2) pursue a civil stay away order and/or 3) call law enforcement. Survivors who aren’t willing or able to pursue these options are assessed as:

  • Making bad choices
  • Having poor judgment
  • Not understanding the impact of the domestic violence on their children
  • Picking the perpetrator over the children

All of which boil down to, in child welfare parlance, as “failing to protect.”
So what’s wrong with this yardstick to measure the protective capacity of the non-offending parent (domestic violence survivor)?

#1: It wrongly focuses on living arrangements and relationship status versus the domestic violence perpetrator’s tactics and access to the children. Most domestic violence perpetrators continue to have access to their children even when a relationship ends, after an arrest or as part of civil court proceedings.  Our focus should be on how a perpetrator is harming or using the children versus whether the parents remain living together or in relationship.

#2: It ignores everything that a non-offending parent is doing day to day to actively reduce the impact of the domestic violence on her children. This includes talking to them about safety, helping them process their feelings, providing nurturance and stability in teeth of the domestic violence perpetrator’s disruptive and destabilizing behavior patterns, and developing plans that may shield them from significant portions of the abuse.    Much of ignorance in this area derives from our double standards regarding mothers and fathers.

#3: It assumes that the non-offending parent is in control of the violence versus the perpetrator. This is best seen in safety or case plans that developed by child welfare that ask the survivor to “not engage in any more violence.”

The yardstick is flawed because it is based on inaccurate assumptions which place unnecessary barriers to collaboration between child welfare and survivors.The impact of these myths is missed opportunities to partner with non-offending parents (survivors) who are sincerely and actively invested in the safety and well-being of their children. This in turn may lead to poor case planning and inefficiency as the child  welfare systems invests energy in developing and enforcing its own strategies for safety. And since these strategies are being developed without the input of the person most knowledgeable about the perpetrator’s behavior, they are often unnecessarily aggressive and disruptive to the family, trap the non-offending parent between the child welfare system and the perpetrator, and fail to meet the needs of the children.

*Throughout this blog I will use the term “survivor” and “non-offending parent” interchangeably. When  domestic violence is the focus of a child welfare intervention it is important to articulate that the survivor is the non-offending parent (except when  they engage in their own specific abusive or neglectful behaviors).  Inappropriately  labeling a domestic violence survivor as a perpetrator of child abuse and/or neglect can create an unnecessary obstacle to collaborative safety planning, push the survivor and perpetrator into an avoidable alliance against child protection. It can shift the focus off the domestic violence perpetrator and offer him another potential tool for gaining power over the survivor and impeding her efforts to protect the children.

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