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Domestic Violence and Child Welfare: The work always starts with the children

by David Mandel

The dynamics of domestic violence pose a series of challenges to child welfare workers. What is the adverse impact of a batterer’s behavior when the children haven’t been physically harmed? How do we identify the presence of domestic violence in families when the presenting issue is something else like substance abuse or mental health issues? How do we work with families when the batterer remains in the home or identify how the batterer may still be impacting the children’s safety and well-being when he is not living in the home? What’s the best treatment plan for families experiencing domestic violence? How do we determine if the situation in the family has changed enough to close a case or reunify the children with one or both parents? And how do to all this while not increasing the safety concerns for the family or the worker?

Looking at domestic violence from the perspective of child welfare is slightly different than domestic violence work from other perspectives. While everyone from the police to court personnel to victim advocates share a common concern for the safety and well-being of the adult and child victims of batterer’s behavior, child welfare workers are the only ones in the system who have a statutory responsibility for the safety and well being of children. And it’s this unique responsibility that demands an approach to domestic violence issues that places the children at the center of the response.  By keeping the children’s perspective in focus, we can better tackle the challenges these cases represent to child welfare workers.

In Children Who See Too Much, Betsy McAlister Groves clearly and thoughtfully lays out what children need when they have been exposed to batterer’s violence. She says that children need 1) a supportive and nurturing parent/caregiver, 2) safety for themselves and their loved ones and 3) an opportunity to express themselves about what has happened to them.  By keeping focused on how batterer’s behavior creates adverse impact for some children and what children need once they have experienced violence in the home, we can more effectively shape our responses to meet the needs of children exposed to batterer’s behavior.  For example, knowing a supportive and nurturing parent is particularly important to children exposed to batterer’s behavior, we can ask assessment questions like “which parent is working towards keeping the children’s environment stable?” or “what is each parent doing to meet the developmental needs of their children?” In many families with domestic violence it is the non-offending parent or domestic violence survivor, not the batterer, who is taking day to day care of the children’s needs. And in many instances they are doing this despite the violence, assaults on their parenting and without significant support of the children’s other parent.

We can also use this same thought process to document the batterer’s limitations as a parent, and outline a case plan for him.   For example, can the children talk to the batterer about the violence that he has perpetrated against them or their mother? While in many cases it will be obvious that the batterer is not willing or able to accept responsibility for his behavior, we would still need to be clear about our expectations for him. These would include being able to tell his children that he was wrong for his behavior and to listen to their feelings about what he did. Even when the batterer does not appear capable of this behavior it is crucial that the social worker document this limitation, articulate it as one of the batterer’s goals and transmit this expectation to any service provider who is working with the batterer. In this way we develop a measure that is useful in promoting success and documenting failure.

Finally children’s stability and well being is tied to the safety of those that they care about including siblings, the non-offending parent and sometimes even the batterer. Children, who are in families where batterers have created instability, fear and physical harm, do better when they are safe and together with their siblings and the non-offending parent. And while there can be some exceptions to this ideal e.g. the domestic violence survivor also physically abuses the children or is significantly compromised as parent by mental health or substance issues, the domestic violence survivor is often the parent who is providing the children with essential emotional support, nurturance and safety in the face of the batterer’s choice to be abusive. To be as effective as possible with these families, our assessment needs to look at the full spectrum of the survivor’s efforts to promote the safety and well being of the children. In identifying these efforts we can document strengths, validate to them to the survivor which can help her feel empowered in the face of the batterer’s emotional abuse and develop a plan that builds on those strengths.

For further information you can visit Children Witness to Violence Project at http://www.childwitnesstoviolence.org.

*This originally appeared as part of a newsletter I write for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families entitled Domestic Violence Matters. That newsletter is circulated to the entire Department as part of its best practice response to domestic violence. To read more about Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families Domestic Violence Consultation Initiative click here.

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