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Is “Risk of Harm” Jargon That Obscures More Than It Helps?

by David Mandel, MA, LPC

In the course of my work I often come across the term “risk of harm” to describe the child safety and wellbeing concerns related to domestic violence. Sometimes this references potential vulnerability, e.g. the infant in the crib was at “risk of harm” when father threw the glass against the wall. This suggests danger averted while maintaining the potential for future harm. Sometimes it even refers to the potential for more violence to occur directly to the children or that there might be cumulative emotional harm to a child if they continue to be exposed to violence in the home.

I’m beginning to believe that this term is sometimes an obstacle to real assessment of impact of the perpetrator’s behavior on child and family functioning. In this way, it operates as catch-all jargon that might obscure the situation instead of deepening our understanding.  Instead of relying on jargon, we should be looking for evidence of domestic violence-informed assessment of the impact of domestic violence on children. Whether it’s a child welfare family assessment or a court ordered evaluation, this approach would include asking and seeking to answer questions like:

  • “What physical injuries have the children sustained because of the father’s behaviors?
  • What has changed in their functioning, emotional and behavioral, because of their father’s behavior?
  • What did this look like during or right after an incident of violence?
  • What have been the cumulative changes in their relationships in and outside the household?
  • Has the father’s behavior impacted their basic needs being met or their educational performance?”

Much of this information can be gleaned from family members by asking questions like “what changed in the day to day functioning of the family after John was arrested and put out of the house on the court order?”  Questions like these can even be adapted to cases where there is a young, pre-verbal child. For example, a worker can ask “How did father’s violence impact your feeding and daily routine with the baby? How did the household routine and functioning change after the incident of abuse?” By using questions like these we are more likely to learn how the perpetrator has impacted the child and family functioning and better respond to the needs of this particular family.

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