CAPTA, a perpetrator pattern-based approach and domestic violence informed child welfare systems

By David Mandel, MA, LPC

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 one: Collaboration and a perpetrator pattern-based approach

CAPTA emphasizes the collaboration between child welfare agencies and domestic violence services in its sections on research, technical assistance, training and innovation, basic state grants, community based prevention grants and in its FVPSA section. While the idea of collaboration between domestic violence advocates and child welfare is embraced by most, the practice can seem daunting at times because of prior histories between the two systems.  Issues around confidentiality, and misunderstandings from both fields about the other’s work, mission, and limitations are just a few of the stumbling blocks to success that have prevented prior efforts at collaboration from reaching their full potential. The renewed focus on collaboration created by CAPTA offers an opportunity to bring fresh thinking and approaches to the challenges that have impeded these two systems from working together to help families.

One of the major barriers to successful collaboration rests in the core conceptualization of the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment. In the past, child welfare practiced as if the primary reason that children exposed to domestic violence were abused or neglected was the adult survivor’s “failure to protect,” not the perpetrator’s choice to abuse.  It is this approach that has been central to the historic “domestic violence destructive” child welfare policies and practices, and tensions between child welfare and domestic violence advocates. The factors shaping this approach are complex and multi-faceted. Paradoxically, prior efforts at collaboration between domestic violence advocates and child welfare may have, unintentionally, reinforced this paradigm.

In earlier collaboration efforts, while the concept of batterer accountability was an acknowledged principle of those efforts, child welfare and domestic violence advocates often kept the focus of their conversations on the adult survivor and her choices, not on the domestic violence perpetrator and his choices.  This collusion was not conscious but derived from institutional and cultural forces.  Child welfare agencies, and their community partners, until a few years ago, focused almost of all of their work on mothers and children.  For their part, domestic violence advocates have primarily provided services and advocacy for female domestic violence survivors and their children.  Neither field had the experience nor the mandate to develop basic social work practices and strategies directed at intervening with the perpetrator.  So while polices and statutes have been gender neutral, the practice on the ground has been highly gendered.  For example, very few child welfare workers receive training and specific clinical supervision around interviewing and engaging violent and abusive men.   And even in the jurisdictions where there has been collaboration between domestic violence advocates and child welfare, domestic violence training almost never focuses on providing child welfare with these skills.  The focus of domestic violence advocates has been, most often, on shared case planning with the female adult and her children. Organizationally domestic violence advocates have historically not been structured to provide the skills based training on perpetrators needed to truly transform child welfare practice in domestic violence cases.

These institutional forces have been reinforced by that fact that “we still hold drastically different societal standards for men and for women as parents.  High expectations for women as parents and low expectations for men as fathers plays as significant, if often unidentified role, in child welfare policy, practice and service delivery.” (Safe and Together Model Suite of Tools and Interventions: An in-depth look: Gender responsive, gender and sexual orientation neutral, fact based approach to assessment blog post) This double standard has contributed to the shared focus on the mother, which drives the “failure-to-protect” approach, and the inability of collaborations to produce meaningful perpetrator focused policies and practices.  It is not too much of a simplification to say that mothers have been held responsible for everything, good and bad, that happens to children, and that collaborations between child welfare and domestic violence advocates have, inadvertently, reflected and reinforced this perspective.

Therefore, meaningful and transformative collaboration, as envisioned by CAPTA, requires a shift on the part of both advocates and child welfare to change their thinking to a paradigm that factors in the influence and impact of domestic violence perpetrator’s behavior pattern on family functioning. This shift in thinking on the part of both advocates and child welfare professionals will accelerate the transition of the child welfare system from a “failure to protect” approach to a perpetrator pattern-based approach. A perpetrator pattern-based approach offers a shared language, and way to identifying common goals that are focused on the perpetrator, not just the adult survivor.  A perpetrator pattern-based approach also identifies the perpetrator as the sole source of the domestic violence related child safety and risk concerns and translates the concept of perpetrator accountability into day–to-day practice tools.

A perpetrator pattern-based approach forms a collaborative framework compatible with both child welfare and domestic violence agencies’ mission, and philosophies.  It offers a clear, powerful, comprehensive and accurate methodology for assessing the impact of domestic violence on children. This assessment paves the way for perpetrator focused case plans and strong partnerships between child welfare, and domestic violence survivors and their advocates. For advocates, a perpetrator pattern-based approach also offers an alternative to describing the barriers that a survivor faces to leaving—an approach that often back-fired when it heighten child welfare’s sense that she was unable to protect the children.  The associated focus on a strong articulation of the adult survivor’s day-to-day efforts to protect the children makes this approach very attractive to advocates.  In these ways, it ensures that increased attention to the issue of domestic violence and greater emphasis on collaboration will not lead to revictimization of the adult survivor and greater harm to adult and child survivors (two features of a domestic violence destructive child welfare system).

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