Changing a System from the Outside: Thoughts for Domestic Violence Advocates Wanting to Support and Encourage Domestic Violence Proficient Child Welfare Systems

by Kristen Selleck, MSW

National Training Director

With the growth of co-located child welfare domestic violence advocates across the country, (by one count approximately 25 states have some form of co-located child welfare domestic violence advocates), domestic violence advocates have more day to day direct contact with the child welfare system and opportunities to influence child welfare practice and even policy.  As outsiders to the child welfare system, it’s often challenging to determine the best way to make a difference on an individual case or with a policy.

In our work with both child welfare systems and domestic violence advocates around the country, some approaches seem to increase the likelihood of success for advocates and other outsiders seeking to help shift child welfare around domestic violence from domestic violence destructive practices to domestic violence proficiency.

Here are some thoughts about effective and meaning practices to support and encourage child welfare domestic violence proficiency:

  1. Avoid shaming the system and individual actors in that system. As an outsider it’s easy to believe that any system has it “wrong.” The reality is that all systems and most individuals want to do good work. It may not always appear that way to advocates, but it’s true. I have found many victim blaming statements made by child welfare workers  are driven by intense fears about the not only the safety of the children but also concern for the safety  and well being of the adult survivor. When we forget this and just assume other systems don’t care, we may get angry, frustrated or feel the need to shame them. Shaming doesn’t often support sustainable, meaningful change; shaming may increase resistance, guilt and only generate reluctant, token compliance. If we want to see real change, start by assuming systems want to do good work and recognize that our shared goal is greater safety and well being for children and families.
  2. Talk to individuals in that system using a framework or a lens that they understand and value. Child welfare staff understands and values child safety. The importance  of changing the way child welfare works with or for adults is not always immediately apparent unless you can clearly articulate how that change benefits their bottom line mission:  child safety and wellbeing. This means that some issues that are very important to advocates (including that child welfare should not revictimize the adult victim, that child welfare should defer to the expertise and decisions of survivors, or the belief that is wrong for  survivors to be mandated to services) may not be meaningful to child welfare without a context of how those issues impact child safety and wellbeing.
  3. Recognize what we don’t know. Systems are hard to understand when you don’t work in them and in all honesty, sometimes systems can be hard to understand when you do work in them. Case practice may be influenced by policies, practices, experiences and even tragedies that we are unfamiliar with   from an outside perspective. We should try to learn what we can and share our expertise in way that’s meaningful in the context of another system’s own mission, knowledge, resources and skills. For example, a domestic violence advocate has expertise about how victims’ safety plan and how to work within systems to support those clients; child welfare has an expertise in assessing child safety. An advocate would need to be comfortable sharing how her expertise benefits child welfare while understanding she may have to defer to their expertise on other matters at times.
  4. The corollary to the preceding item is: Learn everything we can. Systems are complex. We can better affect change when we know more about them, how they work and what they identify as their needs.
  5. If you’re going to ask a system to eliminate a certain practice, give them something to replace it with. How many times have we hoped that child welfare wouldn’t universally require victims to obtain an order of protection as a measurement that she’s attempting to keep her children safe? Those are reasonable hopes; in fact we know that those practices are domestic violence destructive child welfare practices and can severely endanger victims and their children. That said, we can’t ask a system to stop that practice unless we give them an alternative method of achieving their mission. An alternative may be or seem simple, but it needs to be clearly articulated as an alternative for it to be adopted. For example, instead of requiring victims to get orders of protection, make it a routine practice to inform her of orders that are available and ask if she thinks it will keep her and her children any safer or not. Then child welfare can document their efforts to work with victims and to learn about the real risk posed by perpetrators to child and adult victims alike.
  6. Maintain humility. These jobs are hard at a very basic level. Being an advocate, a child welfare worker, a police officer, an attorney or any number of other community professionals working with violence and abuse in families is difficult, frustrating and potentially traumatic. We may not always agree with the practices or policies of a system, but we can agree that no one took these positions to cause harm; they took these positions because they care. They want to do good work. They want to support families and safety and empowerment. Sometimes recognizing this commonality benefits the discourse of systems change.

So how does all of this look in practice? Here’s an example: It would be easy to believe that child welfare doesn’t “get” the experience of domestic violence survivors or want to do well by supporting survivors; the real challenge is that this has not been articulated to them through a child welfare framework. Why should it matter to child welfare if a victim feels revictimized by a system? On the surface of it, honestly, it shouldn’t matter at all. Until one realizes that when a victim feels revictimized she becomes reluctant to disclose further risks posed by her perpetrator when talking to child welfare. Child welfare then has to make decisions about the safety of children with limited or incomplete information about how in danger those children really are. This has potentially horrific outcomes. So, not revictimizing a domestic violence victim IS a child welfare issue, if it’s articulated through the lens of assessing child safety.

Systems change can occur and advocates are in a unique and wonderful position to do this work. My hope is that advocates can find successful strategies to help support the child welfare system improve practices in their domestic violence cases.

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