Patterns Matter

By Kristen Selleck, National Training Directors

Recently at a training with a group of child welfare workers, administrators, supervisors and domestic violence advocates, the importance of perpetrators’ patterns of behaviors was clearly demonstrated in a practical and useable manner for child welfare work. A child protection investigator talked about a case that clearly would not have been seen as “serious” or particularly harmful to children on the surface of the allegations.  However, the worker did a fantastic assessment of the perpetrator and his behavior patterns and uncovered an incredible danger to children that needed to be addressed.

This particular example, like so many others, starts with limited information. A referral was made to child welfare because of an arrest of the perpetrator after one of the children called and said he was hitting their mother. The perpetrator did not allow the mother or the children to be interviewed separately from him so gathering information was challenging. Despite that, the investigator looked at prior criminal records, spoke to relatives, received medical and educational records and pieced together the story to the best of her ability. Were there still gaps in the information? Of course there were. However, the diligence with which the investigator researched the history and focused on the perpetrator’s pattern allowed for important information to be revealed.

Despite the efforts of the perpetrator to impede the investigation, the worker was still able to identify a serious pattern of behavior that was impacting the children. This included the following: learning about how the perpetrator scapegoated one child, learning about how the perpetrator punished the child who called law enforcement, assessing the perpetrator’s interference with the children’s medical and mental health care, the perpetrator’s use of family and friends to hide his children from the mother and from child welfare and threats the perpetrator had made to harm the children, the mother and past partners.  This investigator approached the case from a broad understanding of the pathways by which domestic violence perpetrators harm children. The investigator looked 1) beyond the incident to see patterns, 2) expanded beyond an adult focused definition of domestic violence to include a broader understanding of how perpetrators might involve the children, and 3) looked beyond physical violence and trauma to neglect issues. These are areas child welfare needs to be exploring as they look beyond incidents of physical violence to better understand how children are harmed. This investigator was able to give a clear and full understanding of the perpetrator’s considerable risk to the children by looking at behaviors and patterns beyond the initial referral.

As the initial referral did not differentiate this dangerous case from so many others, if the investigator had not had the capacity and context of why it’s so important to look for a pattern, the case could have easily missed the dangerousness for the children. These children were being exposed to various forms of abuse and, when the investigator was able to use this knowledge to get a court order to speak alone with the children, they were able to disclose that the perpetrator had physically abused them as well. Patterns help us see larger contexts for harm to children and when child welfare uses patterns to form their assessments, case practice becomes easier, clearer and certainly safer for children.


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