By Kristen Selleck, MSW
National Training and Consultation Director
In recent trainings, several participants from both child welfare and domestic violence agencies discussed the issue of blaming the victim. Several advocates talked about their dislike of child welfare workers’ practice of blaming victims for perpetrators’ behaviors. Several child welfare workers talked about their fear that they could not keep children safe without focusing on the adult victim. I understand and empathize with these concerns on both sides. I also know that when these conversations stall on the dueling perspectives of domestic violence survivors, the perpetrator of the violence is no longer being held responsible for being the actual source of the danger to the children and survivor. One way to look at this dynamic is that it has become the habit of domestic violence advocates and child welfare professionals to collude around ignoring the perpetrator and focusing on (and fighting over) the survivor. There is a remedy, however, for this habit: create new dialog between advocates and child welfare where 1) the perpetrator’s behavior pattern and the need to intervene with him for the sake of child safety is central and 2) an emphasis is placed on how domestic violence victims are supporting the needs of children who witness domestic violence.
Child welfare has habitually held domestic violence survivors responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them. In statute and policy, terms like “failure to protect” are common. In practice, victims are routinely asked to take steps to end their partner’s abusive behaviors (something over which victims have no control). Despite this habit, children are not kept safer by blaming domestic violence victims. There is no child protective strategy in which blaming the victim has been successful as an intervention for maintaining the children’s safety. In fact, there is a better likelihood that child welfare endangers children by “blaming the victim” because victims may be less likely to report their partner’s behaviors or other concerns about the children’s safety to child welfare if they believe they will be punished by the system. When child welfare workers inaccurately believe that they need to be “hard” on survivors to protect children, they are missing an opportunity to support victims, build on existing safety plans and partner with victims in ways that can truly protect children. In order for child welfare workers to reach their mission of protecting children, child welfare workers need to move beyond focusing on victims and begin looking carefully at the risk perpetrators pose to children and the specific needs of children in their cases. In addition, a new practice habit that child welfare can adopt immediately is communication with advocates and other community providers to learn about batterers’ behaviors and the strengths and protective efforts of domestic violence victims.
While child welfare has had its “failure to protect” paradigm, domestic violence advocates have been rightly angry at how the system penalizes their clients for their partners’ behavioral choices. However, advocates have, instead of collaborating with child welfare, at times fostered adversarial relationships with child welfare using this point of tension as the excuse. Just as children will not be safer because child welfare blames victims, children are not kept safe nor are victims going to receive better treatment in the child welfare system when domestic violence advocates only focus on their discontent with child welfare blaming the victim. Child welfare does not have a statutory obligation to simply avoid revictimizing or blaming domestic violence victims; it’s simply not their mission. Advocates have the opportunity to learn about child welfare’s mission and practices and work within that system to better serve victims. This includes learning about what drives child welfare decision making and what information and approaches help improve the child welfare response to families. With this understanding, advocates can better communicate their frustrations in a way that supports the needs of victims and their children by talking about how children may be harmed by focusing on victims rather than the behavioral choices of domestic violence perpetrators.
It has been clear to me in various trainings I’ve given that this issue of victim blaming consistently comes up and just as consistently interferes with all of us meeting our missions. Collaboration and cross-systems communication is an avenue for addressing this important issue. It will require, however, that professionals in the domestic violence and child welfare fields come together without the influence of historical tension, without bias and truly discuss concerns about how children are endangered by batterers’ behaviors. To come together as professions, domestic violence advocates and child welfare workers need to be able to talk more concretely about their shared goals of ending the violence and protecting children. Focusing on this commonality rather than focusing on tensions will be beneficial to both professions and to families. Concrete steps in this direction may include: a) having meetings to discuss survivors’ strengths and protective capacities; b) having a shared understanding of each professions’ mission and practice guidelines; c) cross-systems training; and d) having conversations focused on perpetrators’ behaviors and the needs of children. The Safe and Together model’s critical components can provide a structured framework for interdisciplinary discussions between advocates and child welfare professionals.
As long as both professions focus primarily on the adult victim, the safety and well-being needs of children will not be at the heart of the conversation and therefore children will not be as safe as they can be. Advocates and child welfare professions can improve their collective efforts to keep children safe and support domestic violence survivors by focusing on domestic violence perpetrators’ behaviors and the needs of children.