By Kristen Selleck, MSW, National Training Director
Child welfare systems struggle with domestic violence cases for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is trying to balance child safety with good practice with parents. This struggle gets articulated in various ways; I’ve heard child welfare workers say “I understand that a victim doesn’t want to leave but my job is to protect her kid,” or “As a mother, I would never allow my child near someone violent,” or “I know this is a really dangerous case but I don’t want to revictimized the mom by removing her child.” All of these statements are on a spectrum of struggles in practice related to domestic violence and child maltreatment; all of these statements also demonstrate a struggle to clearly identify and address the risk to children.
When domestic violence is the concern for children’s safety and well-being, the source of the danger is the behavioral pattern of the domestic violence perpetrator. Child welfare’s foundational practice step in these cases is to identify the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children and then map those onto key aspects of the cases such as assessing child safety and well being, and building a partnership with the adult domestic violence survivor. Particularly as it relates the children, mapping can help clarify what is known and now known about the connection between the perpetrator’s behavior and the children’s safety. Mapping helps identify how behaviors, which target the adult survivor, might represent a safety concern for the children. For example, do his threats of physical violence to his partner regarding the end of the relationship represent a physical safety threat to the children? Similarly, mapping helps make the connection between the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior and behavioral and emotional issues with the children. For example, a clear description of the perpetrator’s escalating pattern over time might help explain an escalation in behavioral issues for a child. It’s hard to imagine good case practice in cases involving domestic violence without the mapping the perpetrator’s patterns.
Once the risk and safety concerns are identified, the next challenge for child welfare is to figure out how a child can be safeguarded from the perpetrator’s dangerous behaviors. While interventions to achieve child safety and well being need to focus on interventions with the perpetrator, they also need to include a strong partnership with the adult survivor. This partnership around safety planning is easier to develop when we use a “reasonable person” standard; we cannot ask a domestic violence survivor to do something impossible or something that actually increases danger to protect her children. Often child welfare has expected an adult survivor to give up everything in her life when it’s not clear that these steps would actually improve safety. Or child welfare has judged an adult survivor’s decisions based on presumption that she should’ve been able to predict an unexpected change or new escalation in her partner’s behavior. What can a “reasonable person” be expected to do in the face of fear, control and violence? This “reasonable person” standard allows us to work collaboratively with the non-offending parent to address the safety concerns.
In the end, child welfare’s bottom line is child safety- and it should be. That’s their mandate. If a perpetrator is so dangerous that no intervention with that person or safety plan with the family can protect the child, child welfare needs to be the final source of safety. This doesn’t always mean removal of children (although in some rare cases it should and can mean that), it can also mean child welfare using its community collaborations, legal authority and resources to support child safety.
I was recently told about a case in which a child welfare professional took steps to work with a family in an incredibly dangerous case and kept child safety as the ultimate goal. The case was deemed dangerous by the perpetrator’s severely violent and threatening behaviors towards the adult survivor and the children. A good assessment of his behaviors was done to determine this. These behaviors which were then mapped onto the adult survivor’s actions, which meant that it became clear that the adult survivor’s had been actively engaging in efforts to protect herself and the children. This mapping process allowed child welfare to clearly recognize that her efforts were targeted at reducing the perpetrator’s ability to harm the children. The mapping process also allowed child welfare to see the adult survivor as doing what was “reasonable” to promote the children’s safety and well being.
Based on their mapping of the perpetrator’s pattern and its support for a “reasonable person” standard, this child welfare worker advocated for the Housing Authority to move the family to a safe location, worked with criminal court to ensure interventions for the perpetrator, interviewed the perpetrator to assess his willingness to change his behaviors to keep his children safe, collaborated with victim advocates to aid the mother and connected the children to services that will aid them in their trauma. In this case, the perpetrator mapping and the “reasonable person” standard” enabled child welfare to stay focused on child safety as it worked with the adults.