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Are we measuring safety or hope when we measure protective capacities?

by Kristen Selleck, MSW, National Training Director

I’ve been reading a lot about protective efforts and how we assess domestic violence survivors’ capacity for protecting their children. Different assessment tools look at different things, such as “Does the victim recognize threats?” or “Is the victim willing to make plans to protect the children?” These are important questions when we look at child safety and I believe in the value of child welfare’s assessment tools to help guide us in looking for both risks and protective factors. However, these assessment questions often beg a new question: How do we define these protective capacities?

I’ve read child welfare cases in which victims are actively very protective, including using a neighbor to take the children away from her partner’s violence, giving the child a cell phone to call 911, hiding the children in their rooms, placating the perpetrator, distracting the perpetrator from their complaints about the children and redirecting them onto themselves, sleeping with the children in case the perpetrator comes into the house and many other examples. These are active protective efforts made by victims of crimes to reduce the harm of those crimes on their children. It’s important for our child welfare systems to be able to look for these actions and assess and document them.

But what happens when a survivor does all of those things but isn’t willing to either end the relationship or end communication with the abusive partner? Do those actions then mean less? Does this mean that an active survivor who puts in clear plans to safeguard her children no longer “recognizes threats” because she still cares about or wants to be at some level involved with the perpetrator? My hope is that whomever is reading this can answer “No.” The reality, however, of reading many cases and talking to many child welfare workers is that even a very active and protective adult survivor can be deemed unable to be protective simply because of her relationship status.

When we assess protective capacities, we should be looking at the actions of adult survivors and not at their hopes. Many survivors hope that their perpetrator can change, can be a better partner or a better father. Many survivors want their perpetrator to be in the lives of their children for the sake of the children. This doesn’t mean that survivors are “not getting it” or not being protective, it means their actions are protective at the same time that their hopes are being articulated. Domestic violence perpetrators’ patterns are complex and the ways in which survivors experience those patterns is also complex. We can expect survivors to be conflicted, to maintain hopes and emotional connections to the people they love while at the same time feeling anxious or worried about the abuse.

In our assessment of protective capacities, we also need to be contextualizing them with the perpetrators’ pattern. For example, a survivor who was badly assaulted but protected the children, went to the hospital and gave a clear statement of the abuse to the police that led to her partner’s arrest might be seen as acting in a protective manner. However if that same survivor then asks the prosecutor to drop the charges, some might assess this as her no longer being protective or cooperative. What’s missing in this leap of assessment is the perpetrator: what do we know about what access the perpetrator had to the survivor between her reporting the assault and her asking the prosecutor to drop the charges? What do we know about promises the perpetrator made, threats the perpetrator made or comments about how the children will feel about their mother sending their father to jail? What do we know about the financial control the perpetrator has over the family and how, if prosecuted, the perpetrator will be able to financially support the family? Do we know how the perpetrator will talk to his children about his being prosecuted, whether or not the family will lose their housing or other resources, or if the perpetrator will lose his job? Giving context based clearly in the perpetrator’s pattern helps us understand how an adult survivor might both make a statement to the police and ask the charges to be dropped. The context helps us understand that both of those decisions were actions the survivor was engaging in to keep the family safe.

If we look to adult survivors to end relationships or contact with perpetrators as a measurement of their protectiveness, we’re basing our assessment not on behaviors but on feelings. We’re looking, honestly, for a false sense of safety in our assessments; we know that many survivors of domestic violence do end relationships and do end contact and then are harmed worse in the aftermath by their perpetrator. This means that when we look to survivors to show their commitment to ending a relationship, we as a system are failing to look at the larger risks to children beyond the relationship status. In fact, we as a child welfare system then fall back on making assessments based on hope, the same thing we’ve been critical of survivors for having; our hope may not be that the relationship heals but rather that the relationship ends and the perpetrator’s dangerousness will also disappear because of it. All of us want to do good practice and want to be guided in our assessment to ensure we fully understand survivors’ protective capacity. As a guide, to help us define what we’re looking for, we should solely focus on assessing the protective actions of survivors in order to ensure that neither the survivor and her children nor we in child welfare are mistaking a hope for safety.

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