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Creating successful child welfare domestic violence specialist positions

We often recommend that child welfare systems seeking to become domestic violence-informed, consider the creation of some sort of domestic violence specialist position. A child welfare domestic violence specialist provides domestic violence expertise to support good child welfare case practice in domestic violence cases. Their activities can range from in-office individual case consultations, participation in team meetings, modeling interviewing and engagement practice in field visits, to expert court testimony. These positions can be staffed by child welfare agency employees or outsourced to local domestic violence professionals. Co-located domestic violence advocates are the most common example of outsourced staff that can act as expert consultants to child welfare.

In addition to the challenge of finding staff familiar with both child welfare and domestic violence practice, one of the biggest challenges related to the successful implementation of a consultation model is defining which cases and which workers are the target of the consultations. Are the consultations just focused on cases that present initially as domestic violence or do they include cases that come in presenting with some other issue, e.g. substance abuse, but might have domestic violence in them as a factor? Is it the features of the case that determine the referral, e.g. Dangerousness, or are cases also referred because of a supervisor who thinks a worker needs support to improve their practice? Does the specialist just do individual case consultations or participate in team meetings where they might be able to identify domestic violence missed by others? How do you avoid overloading the specialist with inappropriate referrals because managers and supervisors are mandating consultations solely so they can say the agency consulted with the domestic violence specialist if something bad happens in the case?

It is impossible, due to the high prevalence of domestic violence in the child welfare caseload, for specialists to be involved in every case that contains domestic violence as an important factor. Therefore, finding the “right” mixture of case referral criteria can be challenging because the need is so high. When developing a domestic violence specialist position, systems need to grapple with whether the decision to consult on a case is determined on an ad hoc basis by individual staff or if there is a standardized criteria for when a consultation is recommended or required.

No matter what the criteria, in order to ensure maximum support for creating a domestic violence-informed system, the specialist position should be designed to support skill and practice development through a mixture of individual case consultation, participation in team meetings and small scale unit trainings. Individual case consultation is still part of the mixture of the specialist responsibilities but with a strong emphasis on coaching, mentoring, teaching and modeling. This mixture also means that some of the specialist’s time brings them into contact with workers who might not automatically seek them out. Participation in team meetings, like RED or case transfer conferences, where all types of cases are being reviewed allows the specialist to identify domestic violence concerns as a factor in cases where the worker and supervisor have not sought out a consultation. Similarly, brief unit trainings focused on specific skills or case examples allow the specialist to engage in “wholesale” versus “retail” skill development. By crafting the domestic violence specialist role in this manner, systems increase the likelihood that these experts will be agents of systems change as well as supports for successful outcomes for individual workers and families.

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