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The language of child safety

By Kristen Selleck, MSW

National Training and Consultation Director

Professionals who work in the domestic violence and child welfare fields use language that others outside these fields may find unusual. Terms such as fatality, safety planning, imminency, order of protection, and many others are common in our conversations but are not always common for others outside our professions. Although professionals in both fields use the same terms, the words may have slightly different meanings whether you’re working in child welfare or if you’re working in the domestic violence field.   This was apparent to me during a recent training I facilitated that was attended by domestic violence advocates and child welfare staff.

Safety planning, for example, in the domestic violence field is about planning with a battered woman based on her experience and needs with her input. Within a framework of “woman defined advocacy,” domestic violence advocates work with their clients to strengthen plans the client has already enacted and provide her with information to broaden her options. Domestic violence advocates safety plan with clients who choose to stay with the batterer and those who choose to leave. Its hallmark is the collaboration between the advocate and the survivor that prioritizes the adult survivor’s right to make her decisions and the centrality of the wisdom gleaned from her experience of the batterer and her situation.

For child welfare workers, safety planning means something significantly different. Child welfare workers regularly use the term “safety planning” to mean the process for developing a plan for keeping children safe from the risk factors in the home. A safety plan for child welfare often involves a parent agreeing to engage in steps to ensure child safety. These steps could involve attending substance abuse treatment, leaving the home, or to ensuring a child is safely sleeping without hazards. Child welfare safety plans may include language about domestic violence but this will rarely be the only item written down as a task or goal for a parent.   Even when domestic violence is included in a child welfare safety plan, it is singularly focused on creating conditions related to the safety of the child.

Because of this difference, along with the many other terms that both professional fields use with slightly different meaning, domestic violence advocates and child welfare workers can believe they’re on the same page when they are not. This can lead to confusion and tensions between the fields. In the training I recently facilitated, advocates and child welfare staff had an open discussion about the barriers to their communication, including differences in the meaning of terms. It was a frank and important discussion to address and move past these barriers to improve communication. Throughout the training, the participants worked at defining their terms and using the Safe and Together model as  a framework and common language for collaborative conversations focused on the safety and well-being of children and their mothers. It is useful for domestic violence advocates to articulate the importance of child safety to working towards safety and empowerment for domestic violence survivors. It would also be helpful for child welfare to work towards the safety of adults as part of their safety planning for children.

With such alignment around ending violence and keeping children safe, domestic violence advocates and child welfare workers should be natural allies. There are, however, tensions at times between the fields. By talking openly about these tensions and finding common ground and common purpose (at times through a mutually understood language), I believe that domestic violence and child welfare fields working together will only improve the outcomes for families. In areas where there is good partnership between advocates and child welfare, I have seen extraordinary collaborative efforts that have led to safe outcomes for children while they can remain in the care of the non-offending parent.  I am also excited to see efforts to improve collaboration in various locations throughout the country as I believe it will only lead to improved outcomes for battered women and their children. This can be accomplished in various ways, but it is an important step for advocates and child welfare alike to learn about each other’s positions, missions and the language each field uses to discuss the safety of children and their mothers.

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