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Family Team Meetings, Perpetrator Pattern-Based Approach and the Safe and Together™ Model

This post originally appeared as an article in the April 2016 Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services Differential Response Newsletter (attached to the bottom of this post). To learn more about Ohio’s Differential Response contact Sonia Tillman at Sonia.Tillman@jfs.ohio.gov

By David Mandel, David Mandel & Associates

Family Team Meetings (FTMs) are one of the ways Ohio child protection workers attempt to join with families, their kin and their community to prevent removals of children and to develop plans for the safe and speedy return of children who have been removed from their homes. Given the prevalence rate of domestic violence on the child welfare caseload (Public Health Agency Canada, 2010), even in cases referred for other issues like substance abuse, it is important that FTM facilitators and others involved in the process understand domestic violence-informed practice. At its core this means knowing how to apply a perpetrator pattern-based approach which prioritizes:

• Being able to assess how the domestic violence perpetrator’s behavior pattern is impacting child and family functioning, e.g. how are those behaviors relevant to the health, safety and wellbeing of the family
• Partnering with the adult domestic violence survivor around their own efforts to promote child and family functioning, including physical safety of all family members, as well as emotional and financial wellbeing.

This is an approach that can be applied to all FTMs involving domestic violence whether there are joint meetings, separate meetings or the perpetrator is not involved in the FTM process at all. While it does not expressly rule it out in cases with domestic violence, the ODJFS’ Practice Manual for ProtectOHIO Family Team Meetings (Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, 2011) identifies domestic violence as a potential safety concern and a potential hindrance of the success of FTMs.

In Ohio, child protection agencies and communities have been trained in a perpetrator pattern- based approach through the Safe and Together™ Model. This training, and the practices associated with it, are an essential tool for FTM facilitators. Its principles of working to keep children safe and together with the non-offending parent, partnering with the domestic violence survivor, and safe and meaningful interventions with perpetrators is in strong alignment with the mission and purpose of Ohio’s FTM process. The following are some thoughts about applying the Safe and Together Model and its perpetrator pattern-based approach to the Family Team Meeting (FTM) process.

FTM facilitators should always use a perpetrator pattern-based approach to the formulation of the issue of domestic violence as the reason for the referral, or as a concern for child and family functioning. Domestic violence may be relevant to planning for an FTM because it was the most recent allegation, part of the case history, or was discovered as part of the ongoing assessment. In any of these situations, any reference to domestic violence in the referral process should use the Safe and Together Model Critical Components, with their focus on patterns of coercive control, actions taken to harm the child and impact of the domestic violence perpetrator’s behaviors on the child. This approach can help ensure that the focus on the domestic violence in FTM includes 1) holding the perpetrator responsible for his impact on the family 2) reducing the likelihood of victim blaming by the perpetrator (if present), professionals or family members during the FTM and 3) increasing the likelihood that connections will be made between the perpetrator’s behavior and overall child and family functioning. An example of a perpetrator pattern-based concern statement in a referral might be:

Father has a pattern of negatively impacting family functioning through physical violence directed against mother in the presence of the children. This physical violence (including the most recent arrest when he punched her in the head three times, giving her headaches for three days and a black eye; threw her down on the ground and kicked her in the stomach) has led to multiple moves of the children, disrupting their academic attendance (oldest child has missed 22 days of school this year because of family disruptions related to his father’s violence). Father is also regularly verbally abusive to the mother and the older two children (not his children). The oldest child steps in to defend his mother verbally and once physically. The older two children express that they are afraid that he will hurt their mother when he gets angry. They indicated he has never physically hurt or disciplined them. The family is less financially stable than one year ago because both parents have lost their jobs because of father’s violence and arrests. Mother was kicked out of her substance abuse program 3 months ago when father threatened another client (male) in the parking lot. Since then she has relapsed. Now she is three weeks sober. In the past he has taken their child to his parent’s house and not returned for weeks at a time, saying “he’s never going to let her see her son ever again.” His parents, when interviewed, expressed no concerns about his violence but only concerns about her substance abuse.

When domestic violence is a factor in a FTM, the facilitator, through the referral and the preparation conversations with the participants, should have the ability to answer the following question going into the FTM: “What has been the negative impact of the domestic violence perpetrator’s pattern of behavior on child and family functioning?”

If the facilitator cannot answer this question, the FTM is less likely to achieve the specific outcomes associated with FTMs like diverting children from initial placements, decreasing length of time in placements or shortening case episodes. For example, the failure to use a perpetrator pattern-based approach may mean children are taken unnecessarily into care because the adult survivor is blamed for the perpetrator’s choices, deemed an unsafe parent and loses the children. It can also mean that children might be placed with kin who give the perpetrator the ability to control the children, use them against the adult survivor and negatively impact their family functioning. Imagine the same situation from above, but now see what it looks like when a “failure to protect” paradigm (which is associated with domestic violence destructive practice), instead of a perpetrator pattern –based approach, is applied to placement decision-making.

Mother has history of domestic violence relationships including the father of her youngest children. She has a trauma history and substance abuse relapses. The most recent referral was because her current boyfriend (father of the youngest child) assault her in front of the children, giving her a black eye. After he was arrested, she went to the police, denied the violence and tried to bail him out. She insists she wants to maintain the relationship even though interviews with the older children indicate they are scared of him and the youngest was in danger of being physically harmed during the last incident. In preparation for the FTM, father’s parents have stepped forward and want to be considered as a placement resource for the youngest child.

Why is this approach so problematic? Compared to the perpetrator pattern-based version here are some of the potential issues:

• It is unclear whether the referral is being made because of father’s violence or because the mother has a history of being a domestic violence victim and appears to want to maintain a relationship with the youngest child’s father.
• There is actually no description of the perpetrator’s behavior. (We don’t even know how he gave her a black eye—did he punch her, kick her, throw her into a doorknob, hit her with something? This is important information for a FTM facilitator to have.) Since there is no information about his behavior there is no real way to assess his impact on child and family functioning. What are the children scared he will do? How has his violence affected mother’s substance abuse and her recovery efforts?
• The lack of information about his pattern of behavior also means there is no information about his parenting, including discipline, co-parenting and support for the children’s physical and emotional needs. There is also no information that would help us assess whether placement with his parents would protect them from him. (Remember: Was this a referral about the mother’s relationship choices or about the danger he represents to the children in the household?)

So which write-up would help the FTM be more focused, organized and likely to produce a plan that would be helpful to the family?

Now it’s important to consider how a perpetrator pattern-based approach supports partnering with the adult survivor around the safety and wellbeing of all the family members. Imagine the reasons for the case and the referral to the FTM being explained to the mother each way (domestic violence destructive v. perpetrator pattern). Which way is more likely to make her feel like this was a process that was going to hold her partner accountable for his behavior? Which way is more likely to make her feel like her and the children’s reality is being reflected in the FTM process? Which way is more likely to make her feel safer in the run up to the FTM process and during the meeting?

In this particular situation, you could easily imagine that the domestic violence destructive approach might exacerbate her fear that he and his family would use the FTM to fulfill his threat to keep their son away from her. In that version, you could easily imagine the father aligning himself with the agency’s concerns about the mother and supporting a kin placement with his parents. In this domestic violence destructive scenario, the FTM process would actually be facilitating his control over the mother and potential unlimited access to negatively impact his child. (Remember: there is no or limited information about his parenting of the child, what he tells the child about his mother, e.g. blaming her for the violence.)

A perpetrator-pattern based approach also can support child protection and FTM facilitators in their decision about whether a joint FTM is best or separate FTMs are needed. Adult domestic violence survivors are more likely to openly discuss their needs and concerns with professionals who demonstrate an awareness and concern for her situation and explicitly express their view of the perpetrator being fully responsible for his own behavior and its impact on the family. It is the job of the professionals involved in FTMs to be able to ask her “What will make you feel safest in this situation?” and to explore the physical and emotional safety issues related to the FTM planning, meeting, and the follow up. Partnering with an adult survivor does not end after the meeting ends. It includes post FTM check-ins, with a focus on whether the perpetrator is attempting to interfere with the success of the plan.

To learn more about the Safe and Together Model, domestic violence-informed child welfare practice, and a perpetrator pattern-based approach, you can go to www.endingviolence.com or https://www.youtube.com/SafeandTogetherModel

Works Cited
Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. (2011). Practice Manual for ProtectOHIO Family Team Meetings. Columbus: ODJFS.
Public Health Agency Canada. (2010). Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2008: Major Findings. Ottawa: National Clearinghouse on Family Violence.

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