Paying attention to worker safety in domestic violence cases
by Kristen Selleck, MSW, National Training and Consultation Director
Successful child welfare interventions with families experiencing domestic violence depends on child welfare staff feeling confident, competent, and comfortable in working with situations where violence is a possibility. As part of our Safe and Together model we discuss safety concerns and safety measures taken by child welfare workers during the course of their daily tasks.
For example, worker safety needs to be considered when engaging and interviewing a perpetrator. The assessment of worker’s safety begins with seeking all available knowledge about the batterer’s specific tactics (his use of violence, threats and his potential actions towards escalation) and risk factors (possession of weapon, criminal record, past attempts or acts of aggression towards police or child welfare among others) prior to interviewing domestic violence perpetrators. While we know that the vast majority of domestic violence perpetrators will pose no physical harm towards child welfare workers, it is important to recognize that, despite this low occurrence of incidents, many workers have fear and worry at times when interviewing perpetrators of domestic violence. These fears can be about their own safety or fears that the intervention will trigger harm to the family members.
When I was a domestic violence victim advocate, clients spoke about their instinctive awareness of a batterer’s escalation. Numerous clients could identify key signals that their abuser was working himself up towards choosing to be violent. Battered women’s instincts were important to their ability to safety plan. This is true for child welfare workers whose instincts are shaped and enhanced by their training, their supervision and their use of consultation.
I recently sat in on an interview of a domestic violence perpetrator by a child protective investigator in which the client was visibly agitated and fixated on the investigator’s ability (or lack thereof) to allow him to see his children despite the presence of a court order barring him from seeing his children. When the investigator appropriately explained her inability to change a judge’s order, the client became increasingly agitated and aggressive before finally stating that he wanted to harm someone. My instincts told me that the investigator and I were in physical danger and I repeatedly motioned to the investigator that we needed to end the interview. The investigator continued her interview until I stated that we had to leave. After we safely were out of the situation, I asked this investigator, for whom I have utmost respect, why she did not end the interview. She stated that she did not want her supervisor to be angry that she had not collected all of the information she was required to obtain.
Child welfare workers have incredibly difficult jobs with high levels of potential risk; much like firefighters walking into a burning building, child welfare workers walk into homes and situations that most people would turn away from. It is the job of a child welfare worker to go into volatile homes without armor, weaponry, badges or even hazardous duty pay. They face strict time frames and expectations of their duties and at times what falls by the wayside is their ability to take the time to trust their own instincts and walk away from a potentially dangerous situation. While workers understand this risk and do their jobs despite it, it is important to recognize the tension between meeting the needs of a job and maintaining one’s safety.
It is important for child welfare supervisors, managers and consultants to allow for ongoing conversations about their workers’ anxieties and worries. These conversations will increase the likelihood that workers will use their instincts and make decisions based on those instincts rather than on a blanket anxiety that doesn’t account for the specific risk posed by any particular domestic violence perpetrator.
Here are some tips for workers and their supervisors to think about related to assessing worker safety related to going into homes with domestic violence:
- Worker should seek out information on related to the perpetrator’s dangerousness from multiple sources including criminal record, child welfare case records, and interviews with family members and collaterals.
- It is especially useful for workers to ask the domestic violence survivor how she believes the perpetrator will respond to the presence of child welfare.
- It is helpful for workers to understand the warning signs of high-risk or dangerous situations including perpetrators who have a history of assaultive and/or threatening behaviors to non-family members. Especial attention should be paid to perpetrators who have history of assaultive and/or threatening behavior to law enforcement, child welfare and/or other authority figures.
- To actively seek out information regarding perpetrator access to or a history of weapon possession.
- Workers who are aware of potentially dangerous clients may feel more comfortable interviewing perpetrators in safe locations, such as courts, police departments or in the child welfare office.
- Child welfare staff should also have the opportunity to process their fears and concerns with their supervisors and learn about de-escalation tactics to assist them in their interviews with potentially dangerous domestic violence perpetrators.
- Cases involving high risk perpetrators can often benefit from being teamed with in a multi-disciplinary setting that includes law enforcement, child welfare and others.