What to do when…
Domestic Violence Informed Practice Tips

…Both people have been arrested?

When do parents or caregivers have been arrested for domestic violence, it is imperative you use a perpetrator pattern-based assessment lens to determine risk and safety issues related to the children. When there is a “dual arrest,” as these situations are sometimes referred to, it is easy to assume that both parents are violent and have a problem. This type of automatic assumption can skew your child safety and risk assessments. Use a perpetrator pattern-based approach to assessment instead of making assumptions. This means asking questions about each person’s pattern of behavior, in this relationship and other ones, not just looking at this incident or seeing this as a “dysfunctional” relationship. The following questions can help:

    • What was the specific violence or other behaviors each person was alleged to have committed?
    • What are each person’s prior histories of coercive control and actions taken to harm the children (in this relationship and others)?

Just like in any other case you want to gather information about each person from multiple sources of information including the CPS case record, police reports, interviews with the family and collaterals.

Gender expectations can also play a role here. We need to aware we may be more judgmental toward women who use violence. This can be amplified by our expectations of women as parents.

…Women are identified as the perpetrator?

Both men and women can be controlling and violent. Research leads us to believe that in many cases women’s and men’s use of violence in heterosexual relationship is different in some significant ways. Men’s use of violence against women is more likely to cause injury and to be associated with a broader pattern of coercive control. Why is this important to child welfare? Because violence that leads to injury is more likely to be traumatic for children. Violence that is associated with coercive control is more likely to negatively impact child and family functioning. When a woman is identified as being violent it is important to do the same behavior focused perpetrator pattern-based assessment on her as it would be to do on a man. You want to find out about severity, frequency, association with other behaviors of coercive control and impact on child and family functioning. These are some of the questions that can help:

    • Is her partner afraid of being overpowered or physically controlled or seriously injured by the woman?
    • Does the woman engage in wide range of controlling her behaviors that impact her partner’s daily life including employment, access to family and friends, ability to care for themselves and their children, or leaving the relationship?
    • Does the woman have a history of violent behavior in other settings, e.g., past relationships, on the street, at work, with relatives?
    • Does the woman’s partner have any vulnerabilities, e.g., developmental delays or medical conditions that might increase her ability to control him or her?

Gender expectations can also play a role here. We need to aware we may be more judgmental toward women who use violence. This can be amplified by our expectations of women as parents.

…There is a same sex couple with allegations of domestic violence.

Domestic violence occurs in same sex couples as well as heterosexual couples. In same sex couples a perpetrator pattern-based assessment can help determine who is the perpetrator and the harm he or she may creating for the children and family.  It is important to remember that adult survivors in same sex couples may have unique vulnerabilities, e.g. isolated from family of origin support because of their homophobia. Domestic violence perpetrators in same sex couples may also actively use homophobia, to actively attempt to control his or her partner, e.g., ”Go ahead and call the police. I’ll get queer bashed if I go to jail. Is that what you want?”  Same sex families may have a different kin structure than other families, e.g., a stronger network of friends. Gay, lesbian and transgendered people affected by their partner’s domestic violence behaviors will benefit from a worker’s awareness of these differences.

…Mom has been in multiple abusive relationships.

When the survivor has been victim in multiple abusive relationships here are some things to keep in mind:

    • It is just as important to talk to her about how each person who abused made that choice. Same is if she had been abused by one person, the survivor’s decisions and choices did not create the abuse. Each person who perpetrated against her made their own individual choice. It is important to communicate this to her.
    • Being domestic violence-informed means being trauma informed. Seek to understand the impact of each abusive relationship on the survivor’s functioning. Often being a trauma survivor increases vulnerabilities, e.g. being forced to move away from familiar neighborhoods and related to resources. Self medication via substances, aggressive behavior, loss of income, deterioration of support networks all may be the result of the abuse and/or attempts to cope with it.
    • Remember that a history of multiple traumas does not mean that the survivor has not made efforts to keep themselves safe or improve their situation. Do not assume that all the abusive relationships looked the same, e.g. the current partner may be a lot less abusive than the last. Be careful not to assume you know how she understands her own story.
    • Remember she may be trying to navigate safety planning for her children around more than one relationship,e.g. Worried that her abusive ex-partner will try to the children from her if he finds out about the open CPS case related to domestic violence with her new partner.
    • Partner with her regarding current safety and make sure that any work with her around trauma issues does not eclipse the need for safety planning.

…Mom has no issues except being a domestic violence survivor.

It is important to partner with her around her identified needs related to safety and family functioning. In some cases the adult survivor only needs support and not a referral for services. Information about services and options for police and court involvement can always be shared. It is important to remember that because someone is a domestic violence survivor, it doesn’t automatically mean she needs to be “treated” for a problem. Individual assessment is key. Burdening an adult survivor with services she does not need can make her more vulnerable.

…There is  a family court/custody case.

Perpetrators often can leverage family court proceedings to their advantage. It is important to recognize that most family courts will give perpetrators unsupervised access to their own children even when they have perpetrated severe violence against the survivor. The survivor’s concerns about this outcome need to be taken seriously.

…The domestic violence survivor has a substance issues.

Research and clinical experience indicates that some domestic violence survivors also have substance abuse issues. For some, substance abuse issues may have existed before the current abusive relationship. For others, the substance abuse may have come about as a direct result of being abused and traumatized in the current relationship. In order to engage in both trauma and domestic violence-informed practice, it is important to explore what is the relationship between the perpetrator’s coercive control and the adult survivor’s substance abuse. Here are some questions that may help with that assessment process:

    • Does he try to prevent her going to a treatment program?
    • What changes about her substance abuse when he is not being abusive and/or not in the home?
    • Does he have a substance abuse problem as well which might impact her use, e.g. he is constantly bringing drugs into the home?
    • How has he reacted to her prior efforts to get sober, e.g., does he support or undermine those efforts?
    • Does he use her substance abuse as an excuse for his violence, e.g., telling her that it’s her drinking that makes him so angry that he hits her?
    • Does he use her substance abuse to manipulate the children, e.g., “Do you see what I have to deal with?”
    • Does the adult survivor report using substances as a way to deal with the emotional and mental impact of the abuse?


Partnering with adult survivors who abuse substances involves similar steps to working with any domestic violence survivor.
  1. It is imperative that she hears that she is not responsible for his choice to get abusive. This may be particularly impactful for substance abusing survivors because they may blame themselves in part for their partners violence out of shame over their substance abuse.
  2. Telling substance abuse survivors that even though they drink or do drugs they are not to blame for his choice to get violent may be a powerful step toward partnership. This doesn’t mean you don’t expect her to get help for her substance abuse. By explicitly validating her as not being responsible for his behavior, you can even make it easier for her to see the need to work on her substance abuse.
  3. You can even make it clear that when you work with him you will make it clear to him that his behavior is his responsibility.
  4. Also make sure that any planning for her engagement with services accounts for potential ways he may try to interference with those efforts, e.g., not coming home with the car when she needs to go to a meeting.

…Mom has been abusive to the children.

A domestic violence survivor can abuse and neglect her children. Situations where a mother is being abused and she is physically or emotionally abusive or neglectful to her child needs to be evaluated carefully.  The immediate safety of the child is paramount. Once that has been established, it is important to consider the following factors: Was her abuse of the child part of effort to protect the child from worse abuse from the perpetrator, e.g. a mother hitting her child for bad grades so the perpetrator doesn’t engage in worse violence?  Does she have a pattern of child abuse separate from being a domestic violence survivor, e.g. she abused her child prior to meeting her abusive partner? What role does trauma play in her behavior toward the child? Trauma survivors may respond to stress with aggression. Finally, did the perpetrator’s behaviors undermine the mother-child relationship leading to more stress and conflict?  While none of these factors justify the abuse, they can provide clues to what might help remediate the situation.

It is important to screen for domestic violence in all cases regardless of the referral reason.

…Domestic violence is not the reason for a referral but is suspected.

Many child welfare cases with domestic violence present as other issues such as substance abuse or mental health issues.  It is important to screen for domestic violence in all cases regardless of the referral reason. There can be many indicators of potential domestic violence that should automatically lead to further assessment. These include, but are not limited to,:

  • One of the parents has a history of prior domestic violence perpetrator in other relationships. This can include arrests, prior orders of protection and/or information from the CPS file on another family.
  • There are indicators of coercive control, e.g., not allowing the survivor to be interviewed alone, control by one partner of the finances, markers of jealousy or anger problems, and undue interference by one partner’s into different areas of the other person’s life.
  • Interviews and explorations of the family’s issues suggest that one, or more family members, is worried about the reaction of one of the parents.
  • When domestic violence is suspected and you want to proceed with further assessment, you must take steps to ensure safety and to maximize the potential for disclosure. See the earlier section on engagement for tips for preparing the interview a potential domestic violence survivor to increase the potential a productive disclosure.

…Domestic violence was identified in the past but is not part of the current referral.

Many families involved with child welfare cases have an identified history of domestic violence. Domestic violence-informed practice teaches us the importance of integrating this information into the assessment process. “Prior domestic violence” can refer to a number of different scenarios and each one dictates a slightly different course of action.

    • One of the parents was a domestic violence survivor in a previous relationship.
    • One of parents was a perpetrator of domestic violence in another relationship.
    • There is documented domestic violence between the parents in this current family.
    • This information gets captured in the SDM risk assessment and is considered one of the factors correlated with the likelihood of future maltreatment.

…Juvenile delinquency and domestic violence intersect.

Children with delinquency frequently have been impacted by domestic violence. Seek to understand the impact of any prior or current domestic violence on the child.

…Domestic violence and trafficking intersect.

Human trafficking and domestic violence can intersect in a few ways. In families where there is violence children may be traffic. Pimps or sex trafficking may be done by a survivor’s partner. He may pimp her out for money for drugs or to other people for different reasons. Women may be trafficked for domestic work or to be a partner and may get abused in those settings.  It is important to consider these intersections when working with families.

…What do you do when one parent murders the other? 

While very rare domestic violence homicide presents unique challenges to child protection. If it is a murder suicide the children have lost both parents and need support for that. This often involves traumatic grief. In these cases, the placement of the children needs to be assessed as family might have been part of the abuse. In cases where the perpetrator is still alive, he often will not automatically lose parental rights. Child protection can play an very important  role in assessment and interventions in these situations.

…We do one network meeting or two meetings related to family group conferences and safety mapping?

Do a domestic violence safety check to before making a decision on network meetings:

  • Which kin can be truly supportive
      • Can be from either family
      • Really needs to be assessed for true support for stopping violence, supporting safety
        • Example: Father’s sister being liaison to both families
          • Factors that make this work can help you understand what is important in all cases, e.g. good assessment of patterns

Next week we complete this piece with “What to do when…” for supervisors.