By Kristen Selleck, MSW
National Training and Consultation Director
Child welfare workers regularly state that one of their frustrations with having domestic violence cases is that survivors “minimize.” It’s been my experience, however, that when those cases are described to me, workers often have actually learned quite a lot of information from the domestic violence survivors. So why label her as minimizing versus a more positive, strengths based interpretation? Workers may choose to use the term “minimizing” to describe a domestic violence survivor who discloses her partner’s behaviors but who cannot or will not end her relationship with the abuser. This frequent, quick and negative labeling of domestic violence survivors’ actions and statements is one of my major on-going concerns about the child welfare system practice in domestic violence cases. The reflexive interpretation of the decision to stay or withhold information as “minimizing” can interfere with the collaborative efforts to improve the safety and well being of the children.
Domestic violence survivors have various valid reasons for not disclosing their abuser’s behaviors when interviewed by child welfare workers. In some instances, it is simply unsafe for a survivor to disclose, particularly if the perpetrator has threatened to harm her or the children if she tells anyone what happens. In several cases I’ve worked on, perpetrators monitored the survivor’s disclosures through the use of cameras, recording devices or hiding in another room to listen. In other instances, survivors may not trust that the information she shares with child welfare will remain confidential or will not wind up coming back to penalize her. Survivors with past negative experiences with child welfare may also choose not to disclose their experiences to their workers, even when workers have the best intentions. Child welfare, however, rarely recognizes survivors’ inability or unwillingness to disclose as measures taken to ensure the safety of themselves and their children; instead, child welfare misinterprets this as minimizing.
When a domestic violence survivor refuses to disclose some or even all of the abuse she’s endured we, as a field, often blame her or deem her noncompliant. The impact this negative assessment has on our ability to partner with her may be profound. When a survivor does not trust child welfare or feels that she is being judged, she is less likely to tell child welfare about additional information related to the safety and well-being of children. She is less likely to bring up new or additional concerns that could directly impact child welfare’s ability to assess the children’s safety. This breakdown in communication often leaves child welfare groping to understand the situation in the home. This can lead to incorrect assumptions and poor case planning decisions which may create serious and potentially dangerous consequences for children and their family.
When workers misinterpret a survivor’s inability or unwillingness to disclose to child welfare, there can be repercussions on many levels.
Because in domestic violence cases the stakes around safety are so high, and because it is so consistent a practice, I’m making a practice-related suggestion: Child welfare should not use the term “minimizing” in reference to domestic violence survivors’ comments about abuse perpetrated against them. Instead, child welfare workers may consider the following alternatives:
By changing how we talk about and document domestic violence cases, we have a better opportunity to continue efforts to work with survivors as allies in our work to promote the safety and well-being of their children.