When is it Really Safe? (Part One: Assessing Physical Safety for Children)

By Kristen Selleck, MSW

National Training and Consultation Director

In a recent training, a child protection worker asked me how we know children are really safe when domestic violence has occurred in the home.  It’s such a simple and yet incredibly important question; unfortunately there is no easy answer. Because of the complexities, we’ve decided to do a blog series about children’s safety. This is the first entry specific to physical safety of children. Please look back in the future for information on emotional safety, assessing safety in the context of Differential Response and others.

In order to assess safety, it’s important to first assess the risk in a home. Every batterer represents a different level of risk so without knowing how dangerous a perpetrator is, it’s hard to know how safe the children will be. This is also important to know even if the perpetrator is out of the home because the children will not necessarily be safer because perpetrators will continue to harm children and be abusive regardless of the status of the relationship.

For the purposes of this blog I’m focusing on physical safety though there are various other issues related to emotional safety, child development and health that are important to consider as well. In order to assess if the children are physically safe in their homes, the following are some of the factors we need to assess to determine if the children are at risk of being physically harmed:

  • Whether or not the batterer has ever physically or sexually abused the children;
  • Whether or not the children have intervened to stop the violence increasing the likelihood that they’ll be physically hurt;
  • Whether or not the perpetrator has made to harm children or to take children away from the survivor;
  • Whether or not the domestic violence perpetrator is exercising coercive control in a manner that seriously interferes with the basic needs of the child being met such as denying child essential medical care or deprivation of food.

This assessment should take into account history and changing circumstances that might point to on-going or escalating danger such as severe violence directed at the adult survivor, recent court order denying access to the children, the presence of weapons and/or substance abuse or mental health issues as potentially aggravating factors.

Child welfare needs to balance the risk batterers pose to children with the protective capacity of survivors to ensure that child welfare decisions are balanced and are grounded fully in the actual safety needs of the children in the specific case at hand.

Assessing protective factors that increase safety for children can be a difficult task on its own. A child welfare worker can look into the following (though it is not limited to these questions) to assess that protective capacity regardless of if the perpetrator is in or out of the home:

  1. What has the survivor identified as helpful to protecting the children?
  2. Are there plans in place (places the kids can stay or go during escalation, plans for the kids to be out of the room or to be able to call 911 or another plan) that the children are aware of?
  3. Has the survivor identified people that are aware of the abuse who can help care for the children when there’s a concern about escalating abuse?
  4. Do the children and adult survivor have access to phones, cars, services or other safe resources?
  5. What have the children identified their experiences and fears and what helps them feel safer?

When child welfare is faced with decisions about determining the imminent safety of children, it’s hard at times to know what level of risk we’re comfortable and what we’re not. But when we have a clear sense of a batterers’ risk and we know about the protective capacity of the survivor to counteract that risk, we have a better idea of how to shape our decisions to protect children.

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