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Preventing disclosures of abuse and neglect

By David Mandel

By now,  everyone is clear about  how damaging, counterproductive and dangerous it is when law enforcement officers tell a domestic violence violence survivor that any new reports of violence will lead to the arrest of both herself and her partner.  While this is not a sanctioned practiced, some domestic violence survivors report that this is what she was directly told or that it was implied through the interaction with law enforcement. For folks who aren’t clear about the downside to this practice:  it blames the survivor for the violence;  it adds, for the survivor, the threat of arrest and incarceration to the existing danger posed by the perpetrator; and makes the survivor more vulnerable because of the barrier it represents to help seeking.

There are parallels to this situation in child welfare. The following are similar actions:

  1. Asking a domestic violence survivor to sign a case plan that includes a condition of  “No further engagement in  violence in the home.”
  2. Workers directly stating or suggesting that if there is any more violence will summarily lead to more aggressive steps being taken, e.g. filing a petition or removal of a child.
  3. Not clarifying to a domestic violence survivor (and the perpetrator) the child welfare agency’s expectations and likely responses to new incidents of violence including the ways the agency could helpful and supportive to the survivor and her child if new violence was reported.

These actions, like those of law enforcement, can prevent disclosure of  new incidents of abuse and/or neglect;  increase the vulnerability of domestic violence survivors and their children; give perpetrators more power; decrease the flow of information on risk and safety factors to outsiders including child welfare; further isolate a survivor and her children from their support system; and ultimately impede the development of effective plans or timely interventions.

The interests of domestic violence survivors and child welfare are, in my opinion, highly consistent with one another.  Both the survivor and child welfare are interested in seeing the domestic violence stop and seeing the survivor’s child safe and well.  These common interests can form the basis of partnership and collaborative planning. And one of the principle steps to creating an effective partnership with the domestic violence survivor  removing barriers to that partnership while taking practice and policy positions that encourage collaboration.

A collaborative approach to domestic violence survivors is characterized by the following:

  1. Child welfare clearly explaining their approach to domestic violence issues to the survivor.  This approach starts with child welfare specifically articulating that it sees the perpetrator as responsible for causing the violence and being the source of the harm to the children. It is also includes stating that child welfare wants to partner with the survivor around the safety and well being of the children and intervene with the perpetrator to reduce is harmful impact on the family.
  2. Child welfare actively seeking to understand the domestic violence survivor’s strengths including the actions she takes on a daily basis to maintain her children’s  safety, stability and well being.  This includes understanding what she does to maintain their basic needs.
  3. The collaborative development of a safety plan for the children that fits with the perpetrator’s patterns, the survivor’s resources and can be documented by child welfare.
  4. Validation, by child welfare, of the survivor’s strengths (which does not preclude expressing concerns about the perpetrator’s danger to the survivor and the children or asking the survivor to agree to certain jointly identified steps to improve the safety and well being of the child.)
  5. Child welfare taking other active steps to be an ally and a support to the domestic violence survivor and her children.  This can include helping her with housing, other basic needs for herself and her children, helping overcome barriers to assistance and so on.

Domestic violence survivors are assessing outsiders through the lens:  “Are you going to make things better or worse for me and my children?  When child welfare takes the steps like the ones outlined above, they demonstrate to domestic violence survivors (and their advocates) that they understand her experience, that they won’t blame her for the perpetrator’s actions and that they will actively partner with her in practical, concrete and useful ways around the safety and well being of the children.   These steps can lead to more information about what is happening in the home and the development of more efficient, effective case plans.  This collaborative approach can ultimately pay huge dividends for child welfare and for families in the form of increased safety and well-being.

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