By Beth Ann Morhardt
Domestic Violence child protection work involves so many direct and complex issues connected to physical safety, it can be difficult to maintain focus on the experiences of the very little ones we have committed to protect and support.
I ask you to pause reading for a moment; take a deep breath; and ask yourself: When you talk about a domestic violence-focused case in a meeting, supervision or consultation, how often do you lead with actions taken to harm children or negative impact on children?
Although I am not a mind reader, experience tells me the answer to that question for most reading this, is rarely or never. Do not worry, you are not alone in that practice. You are in the company of some of the greatest case workers, supervisors and consultants I have had the honor of meeting, training and working with. We value children. We honor children. We commit our careers to their safety and well-being – often at great cost to our peace of mind and spirit. Yet, when we are faced with the intricacies of coercive control and the harm it causes adult and child victims/survivors, we can become so overly focused on the perpetrating parent who is causing the harm, or the caregiving parent who is being protective and nurturing, that we unintentionally lose sight of those with the least amount of power.
One of the most effective methods of counteracting this unintentional oversight is to use the children’s own words. When we build rapport and connect with children, we learn detailed and powerful truths about their experiences. Even children who have been told directly not to share details about the violence can provide us with important and definitive information connected to a pattern of coercive control, negative impact, protection and nurturance when they share their feelings. Using the children’s words bolsters documentation, and as you know, documentation can – and often does – shift the trajectory of cases. Case trajectory has enduring impact on the lives of the children involved. Their descriptions of experiences and expression of feelings can assist us in developing case plans and documentation that can support their best interests.
When a nine-year-old boy, was asked why he says his family needed help, he replied, “My family would be just fine if my Mom would shut the f*ck up when my Dad tells her to shut the f*ck up.” This is extremely important information that cannot go undocumented. When sisters share their experience being in the backyard, late at night with their Father, standing next to a hole in the ground listening to him say, “If you ever can’t find your Mother, come here and look because this is where I will bury her,” they deserve for us to do all we can to ensure their pain and fear are heard. These children, and many others, who live with the negative impact of perpetrator patterns of coercive control deserve to have their experiences heard. They deserve to have their words and experiences included in how their safety and well-being is addressed.
Disclosing their experiences, hopes, fears and/or feelings to us does not guarantee they want us to share them with the perpetrating parent. Often, this is due to fear, but not always. We must never assume we know the reason. Often, the reason they do not want the information shared may be as important as the information itself. When an eleven-year-old girl asked us not to tell her Dad what she said about him, we asked her why. In my professional arrogance, I knew she was afraid and wanted to be able to document her exact words so we could clearly demonstrate negative impact. Yet, fear was not her motivator. When asked why she did not want her words shared with her Dad, she said, “I love my Dad and if he knows I feel this way, he will be sad. I don’t want my Dad to be sad.” We thanked her for being brave and honest and let her know her Dad was lucky to have her as a daughter and love him like that. We meant it. We honored it and we learned from it. She later told the social worker we could tell him and when we did, it was clear he truly heard what she said, and he acknowledged he had no idea she felt that way. This exchange also gave us important information in regard to parental functioning and an opportunity to discuss the importance of more positive parenting choices.
Children’s words are also often a key piece to addressing safety concerns for them and the victim/survivor parent. On a home visit with a mom and her three children, the youngest one asked if we wanted to see her new backpack. She brought us in her room and pulled a pink and multi-colored suitcase from under her bed. She opened it and it was packed with clothes. When asked if she was going somewhere she said, “You never know around here when you are just going to have to leave.” She was five. We were able to share this with Mom and the older siblings and together they created a safety plan for leaving that worked for all of them. Documenting this brave little girl’s words also supported a shift in case plan and opened opportunities for all three children to be more open with both their worker and Mom.
Children have stories to tell. They have experiences that not only matter to them but can assist us in how we support their safety and well-being. When we are building rapport and connecting with children, we are also able to better partner with the victim/survivor parents. Knowing we value and support their children demonstrates our respect for them and that respect can strengthen partnering. When we create safety and case plans rooted in children’s experiences, then create behaviorally based action steps, we also maintain focus on the perpetrators’ patterns and the poor parenting choices encompassed within them. All of which assists us in doing our very best to ensure the safety and well-being of the very children we are dedicated to supporting. Using children’s voices is one of the most powerful tools we have to strengthen our own domestic violence informed practice.