Now is not the time for child welfare to lose focus on domestic violence
By Anna Mitchell and David Mandel
Even before the current crisis of COVID-19, it was well-known to child welfare systems that domestic violence perpetration is closely associated with child death, serious injury and other forms of harm. Domestic violence dominates child welfare caseloads, whether it is an issue alone or in combination with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. In recognition of the serious deficits in child welfare’s response to the intersection of domestic violence and child maltreatment, many agencies have been moving toward becoming domestic violence-informed.
“Failure to protect” approaches that hold survivors responsible for perpetrators’ behaviours have impeded child welfare’s ability to partner with survivors around the safety and wellbeing of children. In systems that are working to correct this problem by moving to a perpetrator pattern-based approach, the results appear to be: better partnerships with non-offending parents, more children safe in their own homes, increased child-centred interventions with perpetrators and greater cross-system collaboration.
Despite the current challenges to practice, these changes 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. 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.
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 high risk to the child or the need for removal, whilst others 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.
Given the data about increased domestic violence rates, child welfare systems must continue to prioritize domestic violence screening, assessment and interventions. Isolation of adult and child domestic abuse survivors, along with changes in family circumstances and challenges in resourcing and delivering services, creates fertile ground for domestic abuse perpetrators to continue and/or increase their abuse and control.
Staff need to be trained around:
- 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
There is, however, a real risk that in times of crisis our systems resort to the well-worn path – the ‘failure to protect’ paradigm where survivors, usually mothers, are blamed for the impact of domestic violence perpetrators’ abuse on their children. This is at 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 is a responsibility, along with the likely increase in need to care for other relatives during the pandemic, which is disproportionately placed on 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.
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. We need to keep our 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 centre when we are making decisions around risks to the child and contact with families. 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 behaviourally-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. Instead, we have seen the ways these systems are 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, 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.