A working framework for defining and discussing domestic violence within the child welfare community

by David Mandel, MA, LPC


The Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women defines domestic violence in the following way:

“We define domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.  Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.” (

A standard and very useful definition, it highlights key aspects of domestic violence:

  • A pattern of abusive behavior that goes beyond physical violence and criminal acts
  • A focus on power and control as a central goal of the behavior pattern
  • It occurs within the context of an intimate relationship
  • It reflects the impact of these behaviors on the adult domestic violence survivor.
  • It has the virtue of being gender and sexual orientation neutral which allows it to cover domestic violence in same sex couples. It also addresses those rare scenarios where a female partner is engaging in a pattern of coercive control against a male partner.

This definition is similar to one used by agencies and individuals across the world to highlight the pervasive and serious nature of violence against women.  This understanding of the abusive behavior pattern is exactly what we refer to in the Safe and Together model when we identify “patterns of coercive control” as being one of the five Critical Components that need to be identified as foundation for best practice.

Starting from this foundational understanding of domestic violence, my colleagues and I have worked to support child welfare agencies and communities in using the Safe and Together model.  Central to our work has been our effort to best frame the issue of domestic violence for our audience.   While the connection between domestic violence and child safety and well being, is intuitively obvious on one level, in practice child welfare faces both bureaucratic and conceptual barriers in linking domestic violence and child maltreatment.  Part of the value the Safe and Together model approach is that it aids the child welfare community in breaking down many of these conceptual barriers to improve practice.

One of the areas that we’ve focused on is how the problem of domestic violence is defined and discussed.   In our discussions we’ve found it very important to highlight the two following major points:


1)  Domestic violence is a choice or series of choices made a by person to act in ways that are abusive, violent and/or controlling towards their family members.

This language and focus highlights that there is a person who is responsible for the violence and its consequences. This is of particular importance when discussing domestic violence and children because the language that is often used in discussing cases ends up obscuring the specific responsibility of the perpetrator e.g. “the couple has a history of domestic violence,” “mother and father engaged in domestic violence,” or the “children have been exposed to domestic violence.”     So instead of using a passive construction (“the children have been exposed”) or construction that implies shared responsibility for the abuse (“the couple has engaged in domestic violence”), we have chosen to use an approach that involves an active construction which highlights the actor and his responsibility and their consequences, not just the actions.  (“Father has engaged in pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children that has involved attempted strangulation of mother while she was pregnant; threatening to kidnap their child if the mother left him; and physically assaulting mother in the presence of their child.”)


By widening the focus of the discussion to include both the acts of domestic violence and the actor, we accomplish a number of different things simultaneously. The language itself helps create accountability for behavior because it “names” the person responsible for the harm to the child and the family. Domestic violence isn’t like the weather-it doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of a choice or series of choices by a person, who is often in a caregiver role with children.   When we write and talk about domestic violence and children, our language should reflect this relationship and reality.  And in doing so we:

a) Increase the accuracy and clarity of our assessments

b) Change the way we talk to family members and collaterals

c) Paint a clearer picture of our concerns in our documentation and court papers d) Draw the clearest possible line between the perpetrator’s behavior and the adverse impact on children.

By themselves, the above items are all valuable goals. Additionally, the language change and the practice shifts they engender take on heightened significance in a child welfare system that holds mothers and fathers to such differing standards around parenting.  Language that doesn’t highlight the personal responsibility and choices of a father who batters is likely to boomerang back against the mother who is the domestic violence survivor because we are in the habit of holding mothers generally responsible for the basic needs, day to day care and well being of children.  We move closer to our goal of batterer accountability, especially as it relates to children, when we use language that highlights the choices he makes and puts those decisions in the context of his role as caregiver, legal guardian and/or parent.


2)  The next shift in focus involves highlighting the perpetrator’s pattern as being the source of the problem versus the relationship as the source of the problem.

A lot of work has been done in the domestic violence field to dispel the myth that domestic violence is the product of relationship dysfunction. Instead, advocates and others have persuasively and accurately argued that domestic violence is about power and control exerted by one person over another.   In saying this, we are articulating clearly that domestic violence is the responsibility of the perpetrator of the violence and abuse.


Still we often think of the relationship between the adults as the defining characteristic of the domestic violence.  In the OVW definition this is suggested in the phrase: “is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”   With this language we end up implying that the partnership defines the boundaries of the domestic violence. Acknowledging the relationship aspect of domestic violence is critical to understanding how and why this behavior is so different from stranger assault or anger management issues. Acknowledging the relationship aspect also helps explain key dynamics of domestic violence such as the entrapment, isolation from community and the role children play in the on-going nature of the abuse.  At the same time, if we unconsciously default to the relationship as the exclusive lens for viewing domestic violence, it can build in certain filters and biases that can hamper our assessment capacities and may direct us towards blaming domestic violence survivors for the behavior of their abuser.

By consciously emphasizing the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior as the focus of any attempt to understand the risk and safety concerns for the family, we once again accomplish a number of things simultaneously:

a) We widen our lens to include the perpetrator’s behavior in other relationships and other situations.  When we are interested in assessing dangerousness and safety, we shouldn’t just care about his behavior towards his current partner. Among other things, we should also want to know about any abusive behavior in other relationships and any violence with non-family members. Maybe he has participated in gang related activities.  Maybe he’s been arrested for violating court orders granted to protect another woman. This kind of information is likely to help our assessment of risk and safety for his current partner and children;


b) It becomes easier to avoid incorrectly using relationship status or living arrangements as proxies for risk and safety assessment.  In many cases, child safety discussions can boil down to two questions: “Is she going to stay with him or not?” and “Is he still living in the home?”    These types of questions assume that the end of the relationship or a change of address automatically equals enhanced child safety and well being.  Anyone familiar with domestic violence perpetrator behavior patterns knows this is a false, unrealistic and potentially dangerous assumption. By consciously focusing on the perpetrator’s patterns, it becomes habitual to explore how his pattern is changing, e.g. With the involvement of child protection, is he becoming more or less dangerous? What’s his parenting like when he sees the children during visits? How is father influencing the children’s behaviors with mother even though he is no longer in the home? This focus on his behavior pattern versus relationship status or living arrangement will lead to better assessments and case planning.


c) It’s easier to support integrating his behavior toward the adult survivor with his behavior towards the children.  Part of the conceptual challenge for child welfare systems is that domestic violence has primarily been defined as an adult-to-adult issue. This definition has made it harder to identify and describe the full range of behaviors that domestic violence perpetrators engage in particularly those that involve, impact or target the children in the family.   Instead of a focus on the adult-to-adult relationship, a focus on the perpetrator’s pattern allows to us to weave together a much more holistic and accurate picture of the perpetrator’s behaviors and their impact on the entire family.  (For example, we want to be able to point to how his jealousy towards his partner may have led to his children having less time with friends. We want to connect mother’s increased entrapment with his expectation of the children being home schooled because he doesn’t trust anyone else to raise his children. His obsessive jealousy and his distrust of outsiders is part of his pattern of thinking and acting.)


d) A fourth benefit of a focus on the perpetrator’s pattern is that it helps restrain tendencies towards victim blaming that come with a relationship-based lens.  At its extreme manifestation I’ve heard child welfare workers say “They are no longer together so domestic violence is no longer a factor for the children.”  This thinking can be associated, subtly or not so subtly, with all sorts of victim blaming which manifest in statements like “if the victim would have the (substitute any of the following: guts, courage, insight, commitment to her children) then she would leave the relationship or get away from him.”  The implication is that by ending the relationship she ends the danger particularly as it relates to the children. As domestic violence survivors and their advocates know too well, the ending of the relationship far from guarantees an end to the perpetrator’s pattern of abuse and harassment especially since an end of the relationship almost always gives him regular unsupervised access to the children, and through the children, on-going, court sanctioned access to the adult survivor.

So for your consideration is the following working framework for defining and discussing domestic violence with the child welfare community and others:

Domestic violence perpetrators, in the context of the child welfare system, are parents and/or caregivers who engage in a pattern of coercive control against one or more intimate partners. This pattern of behavior may continue after the end of a relationship, or when the couple no longer lives together. The perpetrator’s actions often directly involve, target and impact any children in the family.

This definition reflects how we now begin our Safe and Together model trainings.  In the past, like many domestic violence trainings, our trainings began by outlining the impact of domestic violence on adult and child survivors.  Now we start our trainings by highlighting the perpetrator’s choices and behavior pattern. By clearly identifying the person who is choosing to be violent, widening the lens beyond the relationship and weaving together behaviors directed towards the adult and child survivors, we provide a greater context for understanding survivor decision making and the impact the perpetrator’s behavior is having on the children and the entire family. Our experience is that this approach increases domestic violence perpetrator accountability, reduces victim blaming, and improves assessments and case plans regarding the safety and well being of children.    This framework produces identifiable and measureable changes in the ways workers talk to clients, document domestic violence in their case notes and how they approach their case plans.

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