CAPTA, a perpetrator pattern-based approach and domestic violence informed child welfare systems: Part II: Identifying co-occurrence

By Kristen Selleck, MSW

In the beginning of May 2014, David Mandel & Associates will be presenting as part of a team at the 19th National Conference on Child Abuse & Neglect in New Orleans.  The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) will be hosting the Domestic Violence Institute: Strengthening Policy, Strengthening Families. This institute will guide participants through the challenges and opportunities represented by the domestic violence provisions in the current version of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). In anticipation of this event, in a series of blog posts, we will be discussing the intersection of CAPTA, domestic violence informed child welfare systems and a perpetrator pattern-based approach to the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment.  We hope you find this helpful and that you’ll post your comments as part of an on-going dialog regarding how to best help families.


The 2010 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) reauthorization, the guiding child abuse and neglect legislation for the United States, offers a clear articulation of the need for strengthening the child welfare response to the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment.

“Through CAPTA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is mandated to address the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment through:

  • dissemination of information on training resources, effective programs and best practices in the collaboration between CPS and domestic violence services,
  •  collecting information on the incidence and characteristics of child maltreatment cases where there is also domestic violence, and
  •  discretionary grants to promote and support linkages among services for abused children and their mothers and the development of effective collaborations. “

*Futures Without Violence Policy Brief, policy brief 1’11.pdf

Additionally, the CAPTA reauthorization supports programming for children in domestic violence shelters and coordination between domestic violence services through the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) portion of the legislation.   This means that both child welfare and domestic violence services are beginning encouraged, and funded, to work together more effectively.

If implemented correctly, these efforts can be useful in supporting movement of child welfare systems from domestic violence destructive to domestic violence proficiency. (See blog post on the Continuum of Domestic Violence Practice.)


Part two: Identifying the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment

To say that domestic violence is prevalent on a child welfare caseload is an understatement. Anyone who has worked in child welfare knows that not only are there cases referred because of domestic violence but also seemingly innumerable cases referred for another type of maltreatment (physical abuse, educational neglect, sexual abuse, medical neglect, or others) in which domestic violence is an issue affecting the family. And then there are the cases where we suspect domestic violence is an issue but have not been able to learn about it. These cases are challenging and CAPTA has prioritized identifying the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment.  Good practices and policies associated with screening for co-occurrence is a central feature of domestic violence-informed child welfare systems.

There are strategies for enhancing the way in which we identify and assess domestic violence in child welfare cases. The first step is to start from a perpetrator pattern-based focus. This is important because it supports child welfare workers in looking at clear facts and behaviors to assess how children are being harmed. Every domestic violence perpetrator is different; their behavioral patterns, their risk to children, their risk to adult survivors, and their risk to the safety of their child welfare worker all are unique from client to client. Looking at an individual’s pattern of behaviors helps child welfare workers make a determination if domestic violence is an issue in the first place, and assess how children are being harmed without relying on assumptions or practices that might lead to poorer outcomes for children and families.

One of these assumptions that steers child welfare away from screening, assessment and decision-making is the assumption that domestic violence as it relates to co-occurrence is a relationship-based issue.  Frequently, child welfare workers, exemplified in the question “Is she going to stay with him or not?”, use relationship status as proxy for whether the children are safe or not.   In reality, we’ve seen children harmed in cases where parents remain in a relationship; we’ve seen children harmed in cases where parents have been separated for years.  In some cases, the end of a relationship improves safety for the adult survivor and the children and in other instances it escalates the danger of physical and emotional harm, and other forms of control.   Moreover, separation and the end of relationship may, for the first time, offer the domestic violence perpetrator significant periods of unsupervised time to physically and emotionally harm the children. Relationship status, by itself, is not a good indicator of risk to children and should not be used to short circuit a comprehensive assessment of child risk and safety.

Child welfare must also abandon the practice of thinking of domestic violence as an adult or couple’s issue; it’s not, it’s a perpetrator pattern of behavior issue. The perpetrator’s pattern often includes direct and indirect harm to the children. Good practice identifying the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment includes routine practice at assessing how perpetrators of domestic violence harm their children physically, sexually, emotionally, psychologically, educationally, socially and in other ways.

Recently we did a Safe and Together model training in Florida where we practiced one of our new Practice Tools, Mapping Perpetrators’ Patterns. The mapping process is designed to support child welfare workers in starting from a description of the perpetrators’ patterns of behaviors and mapping that information onto various areas of case practice. We worked with frontline and supervisory staff and it was incredible to watch how this shift supported them in identifying what CAPTA is asking child welfare to identify. By focusing on perpetrators’ patterns of behaviors, the participants were able to better focus on specific examples of child maltreatment to identify potential risk and safety implications for children.

For example, if a case comes in for educational neglect because the parents have been unable to get their 9 year old to attend more than 35% of school days this year, the solution may seem obvious and clear: get the parents or another protective party to ensure the child will get to school. If however, that educational neglect case is also a domestic violence case, the identification of this co-occurring issue is incredibly important to ensuring a plan to get the children to school will work. Child welfare will need to know why the child isn’t going to school: is he afraid of leaving the survivor’s side? Is he not sleeping well because of the perpetrator using violence or yelling at night? Is he having nightmares? Does the perpetrator control the non-offending parent’s access to a car or leaving the home to get to a bus stop? Has the child had to switch schools repeatedly due to the perpetrator’s economic control or the family moving to escape the perpetrator’s stalking? The answers to these questions are imperative because without knowing how the perpetrator’s pattern is harming the child or impacting the child’s ability to get to school, the earlier mentioned intervention will likely not suffice. Identifying domestic violence perpetrators’ behaviors supports interventions and treatments that are more meaningful to the experience of children exposed to domestic violence.

Identification of co-occurring issues can help us better assess and practice with a clearer sense of risk to families. It can also help shape our understanding of non-offending parents’ needs and protective capacities. Using the “survivor strength” aspect of the Safe and Together model, we focus a lot on the “full spectrum of a non-offending parent’s efforts to promote the safety and well-being of the children.” Having a clear view of what domestic violence survivors do on a day to day basis provides with another factor to consider when screening for domestic violence and understanding a parent’s (an adult domestic violence survivor, in the context of a domestic violence case) strengths helps us identify safe interventions for children. If we think about the educational neglect example above, you can see how it would be important to identify the survivors’ strengths in order to build a meaningful plan. Those strengths and efforts, however, must be contextualized by the perpetrator’s behaviors.

The identification of co-occurring child maltreatment and domestic violence is essential characteristic of domestic violence-informed child welfare system. It is important to child welfare’s interventions and assessments, to collaborative relationships with families and community partners, and to our efforts to keep children safe and together with non-offending parents. I think that CAPTA has placed such importance on identifying co-occurring issues because we too commonly see the tragic outcomes of cases where there has been child maltreatment and another issue, such as domestic violence, occurring at the same time. We all want to avoid tragic outcomes and we certainly all want to do meaningful work to keep families safe.

To learn more about CAPTA, the Administration for Children and Families has a link to the law here.

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