by David Mandel

One could argue that the child welfare system, the domestic violence movement, and the academic and clinical fields of family violence and child abuse are still struggling to define the intersection of domestic violence and the lives of children. This conversation often has been focused on defining, controlling, supporting, and sometimes punishing the adult domestic violence survivor, usually the mother. Simultaneously, in many ways, the collective efforts to address domestic violence and children has been based on an approach to the family where men as parents, therefore also men who are domestic violence perpetrators, are, for any practical purpose of policy and practice, invisible.

The significance of this cannot be overstated: we have been practicing child protection and community collaboration around the effects of fathers or male caregivers who have chosen to be violent with almost no meaningful effort to identify and address them as the source of the problems they are creating for their family. By effectively writing the person responsible out of the picture, we have limited our ability to develop meaningful interventions with that person and the families impacted by their behavior. It is reasonable to assume that attempts to intervene in families based on an approach that makes the actual source of the problem invisible are less likely to be effective than ones that have the right starting point.

What is the everyday evidence for this “invisibility of the perpetrator?” For starters, look at two of the most common starting points for talking about the intersection of domestic violence and children. When we talk about children and domestic violence, we talk about “children exposed to domestic violence” or “child witnesses to domestic violence.” In both instances, the actual perpetrator of the violence is invisible – not in the picture. One could argue that the phrases, appropriately, place the focus on the child victims of the violence, the ones who need help and support. This is important except that in addition to making the perpetrator invisible, the terms actually misdirect us away from accurate practice in domestic violence cases involving children. Domestic violence perpetrators do choose to expose their children to violence against the other parent. But they also involve children in the abuse itself through active demands that the children watch the abuse. They involve the children in the abuse by targeting them as a way to hurt and control their partner. They may directly physically, sexually or emotional abuse the children. They may target the children as part of controlling the entire household environment. Their violence and control of their partner may lead to loss of employment for either or both parents, forced moves, loss of connection with friends and families, educational disruptions, deportation, loss of family stability through incarceration and divorce.

In reality, domestic violence perpetrators’ choices to be violent and controlling often undermine child and family functioning through multiple pathways. So the terms “children exposed to domestic violence” and “child witnesses to domestic violence” obscure both the facts of the dynamics of the abuse and the responsibility of the person creating the harm. Both these things make it harder for us to respond effectively to the needs of these children and families.

Because the perpetrator is invisible and our terms obscure the true tactics of perpetrators, when we look at cases, what do we do see? A mother who is making poor relationship choices, or doesn’t understand the impact of the domestic violence on her children. We see a family with a list of issues like poverty, homelessness, and juvenile delinquent behavior that are disconnected from the issue of domestic violence. We see a woman who has been serially abused by multiple men and is viewed as a “trauma survivor” unable to parent. The last thing we are likely to see under the the old paradigm is a “father who continues to put his children at risk through his violence and abuse” or “a male caregiver who has negatively impacted child and family functioning through a pattern of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children.”

Through our work, we ask professionals in all the fields that touch the lives of families impacted by domestic violence perpetrators, “What would change in your day-to-day practice and in the overall field if you identified the problem as one of ‘fathers who choose to expose their children to their violence’ or ‘fathers who have a history of serially abusing the mothers of his children’?” “What would change in your field if you looked at the issue of domestic violence and children as one primarily associated with men’s parenting choices?” “What would happen to your day to day practice and our policy decisions, if you looked at the intersection of domestic violence and children through the lens of a perpetrator pattern-based approach?” It is by asking these questions that we can begin to move forward toward more domestic violence-informed practice in cases involving children.