11 Apr Partnering with Survivors is Central to Keeping Children Safe
Keeping The Children Safe and Together with the Survivor
A meaningful child welfare response to domestic violence needs to come from the perspective of keeping the children safe. I’ve heard many child welfare workers say “I am empathetic to the survivor and I don’t want to re-victimize her but…my bottom line is the safety and well-being of the kids”. Any training that influences the practice of child welfare in domestic violence cases needs to embrace this reality. Statute, policy and culture all point in the same direction. Our communities and legislators have made it clear that child welfare is charged to intervene in families to protect children from their abusive or neglectful parents.
Acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of child welfare’s role in protecting our children forms a critical starting point of the Safe & Together Model. So, when the question about how to relate to the adult survivor of domestic violence arises, the Safe & Together Model starts with the principle:
#1: Keeping children safe and together with the survivor (non-offending parent) is ideal from the perspective of the children.
Most survivors play an active role in promoting the physical safety and well-being of their children. They also actively make efforts to stabilize the home and routine. And, they help their children heal from what the perpetrator has done Any child-centered intervention needs to have this principle as a value guiding decision making.
Partnering with the Adult Survivor of Domestic Violence is Child Centered
To put this first principle in to practice, the next two principles provide further direction:
#2: A successful partnership with the non-offending parent is one of the best ways to keep the children safe.
#3: Child welfare’s willingness and ability to partner with survivors is directly related to their ability to define survivors as “active” in protecting their children
A broader definition of “active” promotes collaborative safety planning that is based on the specific experience of the survivor.
Expanding the Yardstick to measure protective capacity
The development of meaningful partnerships with domestic violence survivors hinges on child welfare’s ability to expand the yardstick used to measure protective capacity. We’ve defined protective survivors as the ones who either 1) leave/end the relationship 2) pursue a civil protection order and/or 3) call law enforcement. Survivors who aren’t willing or able to pursue these options are assessed as:
- Making bad choices
- Having poor judgment
- Not understanding the impact of the domestic violence on their children
- Picking the perpetrator over the children
All of these definitions boil down to a notion that the survivor has “failed to protect” the children.
What’s wrong with the current yardstick?
So what’s wrong with this yardstick to measure the protective capacity of the non-offending parent (domestic violence survivor)?
First, it wrongly focuses on living arrangements and relationship status instead of the perpetrator’s tactics and access to the children.
Most domestic violence perpetrators continue to see to their children, even when a relationship ends, after an arrest or as part of civil court proceedings. Our focus should be on how a perpetrator is harming or using the children as our measurement of child safety versus whether the parents remain living together or in a relationship.
Second, it ignores everything that a non-offending parent is doing to actively reduce the impact of the domestic violence on her children.
This includes talking to them about safety, helping them process their feelings, providing nurturance and stability and developing plans that may shield them from significant portions of the abuse. Much ignorance in this area derives from our double-standards regarding mothers and fathers.
Third, it assumes that the non-offending parent is in control of the violence versus the perpetrator.
This is seen in safety or case plans developed by child welfare that ask the survivor to “not engage in any more violence.”
The impact on keeping the children safe
The yardstick is flawed because it is based on inaccurate assumptions which place unnecessary barriers to collaboration between child welfare and survivors. These myths result in missed opportunities to partner with non-offending parents (survivors) who are sincerely and actively invested in the safety and well-being of their children. This in turn may lead to poor case planning and inefficiency as the child welfare system invests energy in developing and enforcing its own strategies for safety. And since these strategies are being developed without the input of the person most knowledgeable about the perpetrator’s behavior, they are often unnecessarily aggressive and disruptive to the family, trap the non-offending parent between the child welfare system and the perpetrator, and fail to meet the needs of the children.
Take our e-course on Partnering with the Adult Survivor
Listen to the Partnered with a Survivor Podcast
Download our Friends & Family Ally Guide
*Throughout this blog I will use the term “survivor” and “non-offending parent” interchangeably. When domestic violence is the focus of a child welfare intervention it is important to articulate that the survivor is the non-offending parent (except when they engage in their own specific abusive or neglectful behaviors). Inappropriately labeling a domestic violence survivor as a perpetrator of child abuse and/or neglect can create an unnecessary obstacle to collaborative safety planning, and push the survivor and perpetrator into an avoidable alliance against child protection. It can shift the focus off of the domestic violence perpetrator and offer him another potential tool for gaining power over the survivor and impeding her efforts to protect the children.