by David Mandel
On the eve of the national batterer intervention conference in Minneapolis this week, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between batterer intervention programs and the child welfare system. One of my serious fears as I began working with child welfare systems was that batterer accountability and intervention would be approached exclusively from a simplistic service oriented perspective. So one of the main focuses of the Safe and Together work has been on how child welfare thinks about, talks to, and develops plans to intervene with domestic violence perpetrators. I’ve focused on how perpetrator’s behavior is documented, and how their influence in the family is integrated into safety plans, our assessment of the survivor’s strengths and the treatment plans for children. The last thing I wanted was child welfare agencies assuming that if they added batterer intervention programs to their menu of services they were doing everything possible to hold batterers accountable.
That said I do think batterer intervention programs have a critical role to play in any child welfare system’s response to domestic violence. The following is an informal checklist for batterer intervention programs who might be interested in becoming more of a resource for their local child welfare agency:
What is your familiarity with mission, policy, practice of your local child welfare agency? Most professionals outside child welfare have very little understanding of what shapes child welfare processes and decision making. Learning about those factors will help a batterer intervention program become a better collaborative partners with children welfare.
How much does child welfare refer to your program? What does child welfare know about your program and what do you have to offer them to support their mission of child safety, permanency and well-being? It can helpful to review of your intake process, curriculum, and communication about progress and completion from the perspective of serving clients referred because of safety and risk concerns for children. This may point out places where you can enhance your program to address the ways batterer’s harm children directly and through their impact on the survivor.
What do you know about how child welfare agencies in your area do or do not address batterers? Most professionals outside the child welfare system have limited knowledge about how that systems works. Taking the time to understand how your local child welfare system does or doesn’t intervene with batterers will help you help them with their mission. One of the best things you can do is set a meeting with your local child welfare administrators to find out about their current case practice relative to batterers. (You may find it useful to ask about their practices with fathers as well.)
What do you know about how child welfare holds batterers accountable in other ways in addition to referring them to a BIP? Batterer intervention programs are first and foremost advocates for stopping batterers’ violence, not advocates for their own programs. Learning the child welfare system will help you recommend child welfare actions that hold batterers accountable but do not necessary involve a referral for treatment. Examples of other steps child welfare may take include recommending that he return the family car to the children’s mother or having him support his child’s mental health counseling.
Does your program address how a batterer’s pattern of coercive control towards his partner impacts the children in the home? For a long time, batterer intervention programs have had education sessions on how children are impacted by domestic violence.* This needs to be expanded to address how children are used as weapons, how batterers undermine their partners’ parenting and how coercive control tactics focused on the survivor impact the children. For example, we need to be talking about how isolating and controlling a partner may impact children’s access to extended family and participation in activities in the community.
How well prepared is your program to assess batterers as parents? What questions do you ask in your program assessment to determine a batterer’s parenting role and skills, co-parenting practices and his ability to support his children’s relationship with their mother? Batterer assessments for child welfare need a strong component regarding these and related areas.
Is your referral/intake process set up to gather specific information from child welfare about a batterer’s pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children? Since batterers thrive in an environment where there is limited information about their behavior patterns, a batterer intervention program needs to develop protocols for getting specific information from child welfare about a batterer’s pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children. Child welfare often invests a lot of time and energy compiling this data from various sources. Batterer accountability, in form of more informed evaluations and feedback, will benefit when this information is shared with batterer intervention programs.
Do your progress reports communicate specifics about a batterer’s participation including how much he acknowledges his behavior, how well he understands the impact on his family and steps he indicates he is taking to change? Effective batterer intervention programs seek to pro-actively share meaningful information with referral sources. A simple letter indicating completion can be a batterer’s ticket back into the home or unsupervised visits with his children. Progress and completion reports must provide more individualized, detailed information about a batterer’s involvement with their program particularly as it relates to children safety and well-being. (As always, batterer intervention reports should be understood as a small piece of any assessment of the batterer. They need to combined with information from survivors and their advocates, interviews with children and other collateral sources of information.)
Is your program prepared to highlight the limitations of your work and encourage child welfare to partner with the survivor and continue their own assessment of the batterer’s change (or lack of change)? This point is so important it is worth making twice. Batterer intervention programs have a responsibility to educate child welfare about how to most effectively utilize their program to promote the safety and well-being of children. This means clearly identifying that a batterer’s participation in a program does not guarantee behavior change. The importance of understanding this is one of the reasons why the Safe and Together model places such a strong emphasis on the skills and competencies of child welfare workers. As a consumer of the batterer intervention service (because the service is something that feeds into the child welfare decision making process), child welfare workers need 1) accurate, meaningful and timely information about a batterer’s participation in a program and 2) the skills to evaluate potential change. These skills include developing meaningful behavior change goals as part of case plan and interviewing the batterer, family members and others about batterer behavior change.
* For early article about potential curriculum modules on a program for batterers as fathers, click here. For examples of how some batterer intervention programs have been beefing up their educational components on fatherhood go to Family Violence Prevention Fund, Emerge, or Caring Dads.