07 Apr Now is Not the Time for Child Welfare to Lose Focus on Domestic Violence
Even before the crisis of COVID-19, it was well-known to child welfare systems that domestic violence dominates child welfare caseloads. In addition, domestic violence perpetration is closely associated with child death, serious injury and other forms of harm. Whether domestic violence is the sole issue on a case or in combination with substance abuse and/or mental health issues, it is a risk to child safety and well-being.
child Welfare Movement Towards Domestic Violence-Informed
Many agencies have been working toward becoming domestic violence-informed after recognizing the serious deficits in their response to domestic violence. “Failure to protect” approaches that hold survivors responsible for perpetrators’ behaviors have impeded child welfare’s ability to address domestic violence. Notably, holding survivors responsible for their partner’s behavior creates a barrier to partnering with survivors around the safety and wellbeing of children.
Many systems around the world are working to correct this problem by using a perpetrator pattern-based approach instead. When they do this, it results in: better partnerships with non-offending parents; more children safe in their own homes; more effective, child-centered interventions with perpetrators; and greater cross-system collaboration.
Now, These Changes are More Important Than Ever
Despite the current challenges to practice due to COVID-19, these changes to practice are more important than ever. Given the recent rise in domestic violence reports and the increased entrapment of survivors in homes with perpetrators, child welfare must keep domestic violence at the top of its list of priorities.
Reduced Face-To-Face Contact
One of the biggest areas of concern is that, in response to the current context, child welfare systems are modifying or adapting critical thresholds for intervention. This raises the question about where domestic violence as a risk and safety worry will fit into these new protocols. For example, in some places, there is a near-total ban on any face-to-face contact with clients. In many areas, exceptions are made because of the high risk to the child or the need for removal. However, other areas are still undertaking intake and assessment home visits. These are important decisions that need to be made with an eye toward considering the health and safety of staff, families and the community. It is necessary to prioritize resources and manage risks.
Child Welfare Must prioritize Domestic Violence
Given the data about increased domestic violence rates, child welfare systems must continue to prioritize domestic violence screening, assessment and interventions. Domestic abuse perpetrators continue leverage the context of COVID-19 has created to increase their abuse and control. For example, adult survivors and children are more isolated. Many families have experienced changes and additional challenges in accessing resources and services. And domestic violence perpetrators are using these factors to their advantage.
Key areas for child Welfare training
Child welfare staff need to be trained around new context for domestic violence if they are going to provide informed domestic violence practice. The following are some areas that are key to understand:
- how COVID-19 may make it harder to assess for domestic violence and coercive control
- how perpetrators might use COVID-19 and social isolation to increase their tactics
- how to integrate new COVID-19 specific questions into their assessments
- how to use core social work skills to continue to intervene with and support these families
We have put together critical information about all of these areas in our new resource: Safe & Together Model COVID-19 supplement to Mapping Tool and associated danger factors.
The Risk in Times of Crisis
Though child welfare systems have made huge progress in many areas over the years, there is a real risk that in times of crisis our systems resort to the well-worn path. In child welfare, this path is often the ‘failure to protect’ paradigm . When this paradigm is used, survivors, usually mothers, are blamed for the impact of domestic violence perpetrators’ abuse on their children.
Disproportionate Responsibility on Mothers
During a time when society is placing huge additional burdens on families to keep children physically and emotionally well, safe, sane, clean, educated and entertained, this additional burden on survivors can become unbearable. These additional responsibilities, along with the likely increased need to care for other relatives during the pandemic, is disproportionately placed on the females in the family. Additionally, changes in perpetrators’ patterns of abuse can result in a detrimental impact on the survivor’s parenting – from an increase in poor mental health and substance use to an interference with the day-to-day routine and how the family functions. This makes holding these responsibilities even more difficult.
The risk of Blaming Survivors to Child Welfare
Blaming survivors for problems in the family created by the perpetrator can make it even harder for child welfare to gather information and create new child safety plans. Child welfare needs to need to keep their commitment to partnering with adult survivors and intervening with perpetrators at the forefront. We need to make sure that coercive control and its wide-ranging impact on children’s wellbeing is kept front and center, especially when we are making decisions around risks to the child and contact with families.
How to Keep Domestic Violence a Priority During times of Crisis
A few things can help us in this task:
- Reviewing and updating agency response protocols to domestic violence as a factor
- Clearly outlining to staff when domestic violence perpetrators’ behaviours are an immediate child safety factor
- Communicating clearly to staff and families about how decisions are being made around face-to-face visits during the pandemic
- Ensuring that information about perpetrators’ patterns of coercive control are easily found within case files to minimise the burden on those undertaking screening
- Ensuring that the multiple ways in which perpetrators’ patterns link to significant risk to children are understood during discussions about contact with families
- Partnering with survivors with an understanding that their safety decisions may have changed in response to the escalation of the perpetrators’ choices to abuse and control
- Having behaviorally-focused and clearly articulated expectations of perpetrators
At a time when we are all working under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, child welfare can resist domestic abuse-destructive habits. We have seen the ways these systems have been creating opportunities to hold perpetrators accountable for their parenting choices. Additionally, they are making efforts to partner with survivors and validate the extraordinary efforts they are undertaking to protect their children while maintaining family functioning. And they’re doing all of this despite the multitude of risks they face.
To find out how practitioners are using Safe & Together to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, and for other COVID-19 related resources visit our resource page.
By Anna Mitchell and David Mandel
Learn more about the Safe & Together Institute HERE.