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A Domestic Violence-Informed Warning About Strengths-Based Child Welfare Work with Perpetrators

by David Mandel, MA, LPC

“…there is a real and likely danger that “positives” will lead to child protection and others being manipulated into supporting the perpetrator’s coercive control over the family and/or the degradation of the partnership potential with the survivor because the reality of his violence and its effects are being overlooked or minimized in favor of his “positives.” 

Recently, I was asked by one of our international partners:  “Are there perpetrator factors/strengths/resources that could be identified and validated by child protection as positive, whether during initial engagement at intake, investigation and assessment, or during ongoing intervention?”

The following is a version of the response I gave to their specific inquiry:

Given that many child protection systems are committed to a strengths-based approach to families, it is very important to be able to discuss how a perpetrator pattern-based approach intersects with a strengths-based approach.  Relevant to this question, the Safe and Together™ Model approach to child protection has a set of interlocking ingredients or characteristics:

  1. An essential requirement that the formulation of a worry or risk statement related to the domestic violence is specific about the behaviors of the perpetrator and how they negatively impact child and family functioning.
  2. High standards for men as parents. This simply means that all men’s choices and behaviors (not just violent men’s behaviors) are important and matter to child and family functioning. This universal concept supports the first item because it solidifies the intersection of domestic violence and children as being more than just immediate physical danger or trauma. This concept gives us the language to talk about  how the domestic violence perpetrator’s actions affect family ecology, the other person’s parenting, and in general, describe how the perpetrator’s behavior often has a cumulative and multiplicative negative effect on overall child and family functioning. His coercive control and violence creates an interlocking web of effects:
  • fear and trauma in multiple family members
  • disruption of normal day to day family functioning
  • interference with any potential treatment for fear and trauma
  • pressure on mother-child relationship
  • tension in father-child relationship and
  • disruption and pressure on family economics, social networks and housing

In domestic violence destructive or neglectful systems, these impacts are often overlooked, disconnected from the perpetrator’s behavior and choices and/or blamed on the mother (because of gender double standards around basic care of children).

3. The importance and relevance of the domestic violence perpetrator to the adult and child survivors of domestic violence.  I write more about this in a blog post but in essence, good domestic violence-informed practice isn’t dismissive of the significance of the perpetrator as partner and parent. While important with all families, this has particular relevance for culturally, racially and economically oppressed communities. Often, in these communities, men are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in the employment sector. Domestic violence destructive practice can play into this dynamic by treating domestic violence perpetrators as one dimensional. This means that he’s often regarded only as a violent offender who should be removed from the family without regard for his relevance to family functioning. It also means that the system does not prioritize creating resources and supports that provide him meaningful opportunities to become a more positive force in the life of his children.

With these thoughts as a backdrop, here are some specific thoughts about how to address the perpetrator’s related factors that might be positive. Positive factors may be cautiously considered within the context of a perpetrator pattern-based approach.

Rigorous domestic violence-informed practice requires the following:

  • The five Safe and Together Model critical components must be thoroughly assessed, particularly the perpetrator’s pattern and its impact on child and family functioning in order for any exploration to be meaningful and potentially constructive.  Without this, there is a real and likely danger that “positives” will lead to child protection and others being manipulated into supporting the perpetrator’s coercive control over the family and/or the degradation of the partnership potential with the survivor because the reality of his violence and its effects are being overlooked or minimized in favor of his “positives.”  (This is why the perpetrator’s coercive control and actions taken to harm the children, not his strengths as a parent, are identified as two of the critical components.)
  • Any discussion of strengths and “positives” must 1) occur after the pattern and its impact on child and family functioning is thoroughly explored and 2) be framed around the worry about his violence and coercive control, e.g. “what specific strengths or resources does this father have that might support positive change around his violence and abuse?”  For example, the question isn’t “does he have a supportive network of kin?” The question is “Does he have a kin network that would support the goals of accountability for the harm he has caused, increasing family safety and stability and positive parenting?” We also want to be clear if he has demonstrated the ability to admit to his behavior, and take responsibility for it, e.g. “my violence wasn’t her fault.” (It is also very important to remember that no matter how thorough the assessment of his pattern of coercive control and actions to harm the children, there will almost always be behaviors that will remain “hidden.”  Therefore it is important to make the assessment on-going and to appreciate the inherent limitations.)
  • We must be extremely sensitive to how a perpetrator may actively manipulate or passively benefit from any “positives.” For example, a stable employment history is often seen by child protection professionals as “positive.”  In many domestic violence cases, his violence and control has caused her to lose her job, while he has been able to maintain his.  In a domestic violence neglectful assessment process, his employment would be seen as a strength and a source of stability for the children, and her employment instability would be disconnected from his violence and control.  Similarly, his lack of a documented history of mental health treatment will be seen as a “positive” especially when the other parent has a mental health problem history.  Untrained professionals may miss how his behavior may have caused or contributed to his partner’s needing mental health treatment for trauma, anxiety, depression or other common symptoms related to being a victim of violence. Instead of being seen as a strength, it may be more accurate to describe this as “Choosing not to get help for his problem with violence and coercive control while causing or exacerbating the mental health issues of others.”  Another example of how a portion of a pattern of coercive control might be misconstrued as a “positive” would be how he appears to have a supportive family network while she has little or no family supports. Since we know that domestic violence perpetrators often target a partner’s connections with others, he only “appears” to be the stronger parent when in reality his relative “strength” as a parent may be the result of his coercive control. Additionally, from a perpetrator pattern-based approach it’s not sufficient to identify the presence of his family network. The role of this network in enabling or supporting his coercive control must be evaluated as well.   
  • Overall, any “positives” must be evaluated and given weight proportionally and in specific relationship to the nature and level of worry created by the domestic violence perpetrator’s pattern of behavior.   Imagine talking about the fact that a serial killer has a job as a “positive.”  In this situation, at best it would be deemed an irrelevant factor or at worse it would be viewed as part of his negative profile, e.g. the ability to blend or “act normal” enabled him to get away with his crimes for so long.  Similarly, a domestic violence perpetrator may engage in a pattern of coercive control in his family and act differently with others. It would not support further constructive engagement with either the perpetrator or adult survivor to focus on his employment as a strength when it’s been her experience that his employment and financial stability have been used as weapons against her, e.g. “you can’t make it without me” or “I won’t give you a penny for the children if you leave me.”  His “positives,” especially when he presents very differently to others including professionals, are often associated, for the adult and child survivors, with feelings of “being crazy,” isolation, despair, entrapment and self blame. The failure of the professionals to understand this dynamic should be considered domestic violence destructive practice as it often contributes to increased danger and/or isolation from services. Instead, domestic violence-informed practitioners are able to explore with survivors how they experience a split between his “positives” and his abusive and controlling behaviors, and whether his “positives” contribute to his control and their entrapment.  As it relates to engagement of the perpetrator, domestic violence –informed practice requires the ability to contextualize any “positives” in relationship to his pattern of coercive control. For example, understanding that his close relationship with his children may be a product of marginalizing and undercutting his partner’s relationship with them through the use of violence and abuse.
  • Because domestic violence is usually an asymmetrical issue, meaning that in most situations there is a clearly defined perpetrator and clearly defined victim, we need to be comfortable with strengths or positives of each parent being viewed asymmetrically as well.  The adult survivor’s behaviors need to be evaluated in the context of the perpetrator’s violence, which means that in other circumstances, what might be viewed as a worry might be seen as a positive. For example, during a recent case consultation, a child protection worker shared that using the Perpetrator Pattern Mapping tool helped identify that the mother had punched through a glass window as part of protecting her child from her partner’s violence.  (She punched the glass window to get back into the house and back to her child after being locked out by the perpetrator.)  In a domestic violence destructive system, this might have been documented as “mutual” violence, e.g. “they were both violent” or as “the mother got violent in front of her child.” Instead, the worker assessed the actions as being part of the mother’s strong commitment to protecting her child from the danger of the perpetrator.  Not being being able to take an asymmetrical approach means child protection is in danger of following in the footsteps of domestic violence destructive or neglectful couples counseling practices which have sought to equalize out the responsibility for the perpetrator’s violence and misinterpreted adult survivors’ behaviors as pathological instead of protective or reasonable for the situation.

Overall, any “positives” must be evaluated and given weight proportionally and in specific relationship to the nature and level of worry created by the domestic violence perpetrator’s pattern of behavior.”

Whenever we talk about any perpetrator’s “positives” we must take this kind of cautionary and rigorous approach. Anything less is likely to contribute to domestic violence-destructive or neglectful outcomes for the adult and child survivors. If a child welfare system is not ready and able to take this stance, I recommend that it carefully review how it is applying a strengths-based approach to fathers who are domestic violence perpetrators.

While being written from a primarily cautionary perspective, I hope this has been helpful.   

The following can act as a checklist to help guide assessment of the quality and safety of strengths-based practice related to domestic violence perpetrators:  

  1. The perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children and its impact on child and family functioning must be fully explored before there is any exploration of “what is going well” with the perpetrator.
  2. Any item that might be considered as “Going well” with the perpetrator must be evaluated from the perspective of how they relate back to the domestic violence worry or risk statement:
  • Is this item “going well” for the perpetrator because of his abuse and control over his family, e.g. does he have a strong relationship with his children because they see him as the “stronger” or “better” parent because of his abuse toward their mother?
  • Does this “going well” item increase or strengthen his ability to control or entrap his partner and the children? (Two examples: Does his recovery from substances, without ever addressing his violence, give him an advantage over his partner related to placement? Are his family/community supports holding him accountable for his coercive control and its impact on child and family functioning or are they enabling his continued control and lack of accountability?)
  • How does this “going well” item specifically demonstrate an increase in the child’s “protection from harm” from the perpetrator?
  • How does this “going well” item demonstrate how the perpetrator is working to improve “enduring connections” to family, community and culture?
  • What has the perpetrator done, as it relates to his own behavior pattern, to improve the children’s safety, belonging and wellbeing?

For the last three items above it is very important that we are assessing for real change in his pattern of coercive control and violence which includes consistent, meaningful change from his baseline behavior that leads to real improvement in child and family functioning. Identifying “real change” must involve significant input from the adult and child survivors of the violence, as “real change” is defined primarily by their subjective experience of improved physical and emotional safety and wellbeing, self-determination, stability, nurturance and healing.  “Going well” in this area as it relates the perpetrator, means these improvements can be traced back to specific changes in behaviors and attitudes by the perpetrator. The absence of violence for a period of time is important but does not automatically signify real change. Nor is admission of behavior, remorse for behavior and/or attendance in a men’s behavior change (batterer intervention)  program the same as “real change.” Attendance in other types of programming, e.g. substance abuse programming and/or abstinence from substances need to similarly be contextualized back to the perpetrator’s pattern of violence and coercive control.  At best, these are precursors to, and necessary supports for, “real change” and should not be overvalued from the perspective of the domestic violence worry.

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