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:
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:
“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:
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.