Trying to change child welfare’s response to domestic violence? Then support the supervisors!
by David Mandel
In the Q & A after a recent conference keynote, an administrator from a child welfare community provider agency posed the following to me: “We’ve trained all our staff in better identification of domestic violence and better case practice but we are not seeing the practice changes that we expected? What are we missing?” The question excited me because he was speaking directly to the central question of my work: How do we make sustainable real change in a child welfare system that has a historically poor overall track record in partnering with survivors and intervening with domestic violence perpetrators?
In my experience, lots of things can contribute to training non translating into consistent practice change. While the right policies and resources are obviously critically important, most recently I’ve centered my system change work on the role of child welfare supervisors. It is the supervisors through their directives and expectations that determine the focus and the quality of much of the social work practice. The supervisors are the ones giving workers written or verbal instructions to either “Go out there and get have her sign a safety agreement that she won’t let him back into the house” (usually not recommended) or “Go out there and engage her in a conversation about what will make her safer.” (better) The supervisors are the ones who review the information that comes from the worker and guides the case through their follow up questions. It really matters if the supervisors ask their workers questions like “What did you learn about the father’s pattern of coercive control?” or “How does the father interfere with or support mom’s parenting?” It is the supervisors who have the final say in most cases about who the child welfare agency is going to find or indicate for child abuse and/or neglect. And it is the supervisors who convey to new workers that it is good child welfare practice to have partnership with the domestic violence survivor as key objective.
Supervisors don’t operate in vacuum. What they do and say is highly influenced by their supervisors and their agency policy. But here is an important fact: much of what supervisors do is not a matter of policy but practice. And in many agencies supervisors do not get specific training on supervision in general and rarely do they get training on specifically supervising domestic violence issues. Why should we expect supervisors to do a good job with these cases, many of which are complex and high risk, with support and training? So in Connecticut I’ve spent the last year training supervisors and administrators on how to better supervise domestic violence cases. These trainings begin by having them identify their concerns about their workers practice in domestic violence cases. I then outline how to apply the Safe and Together model to supervisory practices including how to a) give better, more specific directives to workers, b) evaluate the quality of information a worker presents, and c) identify and address workers’ thinking errors.
A recent survey of supervisors and managers who participated in the training indicated that that some supervisors have made changes to their daily practice. These supervisors report that they are now asking more specific questions about coercive control and expecting workers to be more explicit in their descriptions of the batterer’s behavior. Some of the supervisors report that the changes in their practice have resulted in fewer removals of children from domestic violence survivors, less victim blaming and more batterer accountability. These changes are consistent with the Safe and Together model and what I had hoped to see when I developed the training. So for child welfare agencies who want to take the next step in improving their response to domestic violence cases, ask yourself “What can we do to improve the focus and quality of the supervision our workers get in domestic violence cases? What values and expectations are our supervisors transmitting to their workers through their questions and directives?”