By Beth Ann Morhardt, Safe & Together Institute Faculty
Sometimes, even when our highest level domestic violence-informed practice is established and consistent, we have cases where a perpetrating parent will not engage. We have offered multiple locations, times and dates for interviewing; followed up multiple times with him directly and with collateral contacts; and started each and every voicemail focused on parenting choices. Still, he makes the choice to evade and/or ignore our requests and the opportunity to support the needs of his children. It is frustrating and can feel like everything has stalled.
Yet, his physical and verbal presence is not required for us to continue to focus on the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and the harm it is causing the children. We can and must, in these situations, use our documentation to hold him accountable for the best interest of his children’s safety and well-being.
The documentation is most domestic violence-informed and strongest when it includes exact words of those involved, when at all possible. Not only do quotes provide exact words and experiences, they provide a focal point that is less about assessment and more about facts. When we use the literal experiences of those negatively impacted by the perpetrator pattern and/or the words of those who have directly observed these poor parenting choices, we move away from assessment that can be judged or dismissed and move closer to the personal accounts of those most harmed.
A prime example of this is the difference between, “This worker notices the child has learned to blame the victim from being exposed to Father’s assaults on Mother.” Instead, use the boy’s actual words: “My family would be fine if my mom would ‘Shut the F*ck Up when my Dad tells her to Shut the F*ck Up!’”
Both are accurate, yet the latter provides the child’s experience and stands alone with no need for assessment or interpretation. It is brief, powerful and allows for him to be heard in a way that does not force him to retell his story to multiple professionals. It also makes clear who is responsible for the harm being caused to the child by connecting his experience to the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control.
His children deserve better than a brief summary paragraph stating, “This social worker left multiple voicemails for Dad and sent two letters, but Father never responded.” Although factual and accurate, it falls short of clarifying his poor parenting choice of putting his needs and wants first. When he is unwilling or unable to choose their needs, we must document that specifically and with descriptive detail. One example of this is: “On August 1, 2018 this social worker left the following voicemail for Father: ‘This is Beth Ann Morhardt from the Safe & Together Institute. I am calling to speak with you about the important role you play in the lives of your children and how we can work together to do that in the safest and best way. Please call me back as soon as you are able.’” It is brief yet accurate and invites engagement instead of adversarial roles. If he does not engage, you can make another call in a few days, and along with the above information, introduce parenting choices by adding that you are hopeful he will make the “positive parenting choice” of engaging with you to support the needs of his children. Then document these messages with quotations and exact language. Whether or not he chooses to engage then, after a brief while, or not at all, our documentation continues to reflect our efforts – with an emphasis on what was communicated, not just that there was communication.
Other examples of relevant and important quotes can come from collateral sources. If an aunt/uncle/godparent states, “I will not allow him near my children because he is volatile and I have seen him be violent,” we are able to establish a broader pattern of coercive control. If a school or child care center reports, “Father is not allowed to pick up the children because he has threatened staff,” we do not have to rely on a direct interaction with him to indicate the concerns we have for his children.
I worked on a case that involved high levels of control and physical assault at the hands of Dad and his own mother called the child welfare social worker to report: “I believe he has done something to her,” when she was unable to reach Mom for several days. The power of fear of his behavior represented in her words provides key information about risk unlikely to be garnered in direct conversation with him. When we have the words of those most harmed and negatively impacted, we can use them, both to support their experiences and to bolster our domestic violence-informed practice.
Timelines are another powerful tool to use within documentation. There was a case involving a Dad who repeatedly called statutory child welfare with consistently false allegations against the mother of his children. The case worker and I both felt this was a piece of his pattern of abuse, yet we struggled to verify this. These parents were involved in a custody case. The mother had been stressed out by the number of motions filed by the father. He frequently complained to the worker that he was being mistreated by the court. One day, it occurred to me there may be a connection between his frustration with the court, what he saw as her getting her way, and his false claims of abuse and neglect. So, I investigated the filings and progress of the custody case. And there it was: multiple examples of controlling actions directed at the mother. They always followed a denial of a motion he had filed with the court.
Instead of describing this in a narrative, I compiled a concrete timeline indicating each motion filed, each dated denied, and the subsequent false claim called in to statutory child welfare within 24-48 hours of the court’s denial. The timeline stretched over a period of six months and when the worker shared the information with Dad, all reports stopped. When the worker shared the information with Mom, she cried with relief. Mom then asked for the documentation to use in her custody case. How we write about what we know matters for each and every child we work with and on behalf of.
This is the challenge I pose to each of you who work with kids: Every single time you work a case where domestic violence is the centering issue, ensure your written documentation includes a direct quote. Maybe it is the words of a Dad who tells you his partner is “useless trash,” or a victim survivor who recounts the time he told her, “I will bury you right here in the backyard,” or maybe the words of a grandmother who cries, “I think he has done something to her.” These experiences and words demonstrate a pattern of coercive control, and its impact on the victim/survivor, the children and often the extended family.
These experiences and words demonstrate what the care giving parent is forced to protect her children through and nurture them beyond. These words and experiences are what we must focus on and document if we are to have exemplary domestic violence-informed case practice and work to ensure their safety and well-being, whether or not the perpetrating parent chooses to engage.