Good assessment of the perpetrator’s pattern behavior and its impact goes beyond “Did the children see or hear the violence?”

by David Mandel, MA, LPC

The Safe and Together™ model’s critical components form the foundation of good assessment practice for domestic violence as a factor in cases involving children.  The first two critical components focus on the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and the actions taken to harm the children.  This means going beyond the common practice of starting and stopping our assessment with the most recent incident of physical violence.  The critical components direct us to take a comprehensive view of perpetrator behaviors. For example, it’s important to look at the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior across multiple relationships, not just the most recent one.   This can provide us with crucial information about dangerousness e.g. he was more violent with his last partner, and his parenting e.g. did he used his other children against his last partner?  It also provides a counterweight to the tendency to become fixated on a survivor’s history of abuse.   It’s the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children, not the survivor’s history of abuse, that is more foundational and directly relevant to our assessment of child safety and risk.

From a child welfare point of view, it is essential also to look at the perpetrator’s full range of violent controlling and abusive behavior in order to have the fullest possible understanding of the impact of those behaviors on the children.  Often the child welfare assessment of the relevance of perpetrator’s actions focuses exclusively on the following three points:   1) Did the children see the violence? 2) Did they hear the violence? and 3) Could they have been physically harmed by the violence?  While it’s clearly important to answer these questions, it’s equally important to understand that domestic violence perpetrators commonly engage in a wide range of behaviors that harm children, e.g. using them to spy against their own parent, emotionally manipulating them or interfering with their basic care.   Failing to identify the comprehensive nature of a perpetrator’s impact on children means we often fail to connect children’s symptoms, like aggressive behavior with siblings, with the perpetrator’s behaviors.  Also our underestimation of the perpetrator’s role in harming children often leads us to blaming the survivor, often the mother, for the children’s problems.  We assume she’s the one who has failed to get the children to therapy versus identifying how the perpetrator may have sabotaged the therapy through emotional manipulation of the child.

George Holden in his paper “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: Terminology and Taxonomy” (originally published in Clinical Children and Family Psychology Review, V.6, No. 3, September 20003) does an excellent job illuminating the pathways by which domestic violence perpetrators harm children.   Beyond pointing out that the terms “observed” and “witnessed” inaccurately describe the experience of children in relationship to the perpetrator’s behavior, he goes on to outline a 10 point taxonomy of exposure which describes the different ways perpetrators may harm children through their violent and abusive actions.  The types of exposure he identifies include prenatal exposure, intervention in the violence, being victimized directly, being forced to participate in the abuse, observing the immediate aftermath, and being impacted by the medium and long term aftermath. This is in addition to seeing, hearing and learning from others about the abuse.   Holden goes on to identify other variables that might impact the experience of children such as the types of violence, e.g. psychological versus physical and the relationship of the perpetrator to the children. He also goes in depth with the types of psychologically abusive behaviors a perpetrator may engage in. He concludes his paper by writing  that “If we are to understand how such exposure affects children, then we need a richer conceptualization and assessment of the nature of the exposure and the characteristics of the domestic violence.”   The first two critical components of the Safe and Together™ model provide the foundation for this richer and more comprehensive assessment framework.


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