By Kristen Selleck, MSW
National Training and Consultation Director
In a recent training, a child protection worker asked me how we know children are really safe when domestic violence has occurred in the home. It’s such a simple and yet incredibly important question; unfortunately there is no easy answer. Because of the complexities, we’ve decided to do a blog series about children’s safety. This is the first entry specific to physical safety of children. Please look back in the future for information on emotional safety, assessing safety in the context of Differential Response and others.
In order to assess safety, it’s important to first assess the risk in a home. Every batterer represents a different level of risk so without knowing how dangerous a perpetrator is, it’s hard to know how safe the children will be. This is also important to know even if the perpetrator is out of the home because the children will not necessarily be safer because perpetrators will continue to harm children and be abusive regardless of the status of the relationship.
For the purposes of this blog I’m focusing on physical safety though there are various other issues related to emotional safety, child development and health that are important to consider as well. In order to assess if the children are physically safe in their homes, the following are some of the factors we need to assess to determine if the children are at risk of being physically harmed:
This assessment should take into account history and changing circumstances that might point to on-going or escalating danger such as severe violence directed at the adult survivor, recent court order denying access to the children, the presence of weapons and/or substance abuse or mental health issues as potentially aggravating factors.
Child welfare needs to balance the risk batterers pose to children with the protective capacity of survivors to ensure that child welfare decisions are balanced and are grounded fully in the actual safety needs of the children in the specific case at hand.
Assessing protective factors that increase safety for children can be a difficult task on its own. A child welfare worker can look into the following (though it is not limited to these questions) to assess that protective capacity regardless of if the perpetrator is in or out of the home:
When child welfare is faced with decisions about determining the imminent safety of children, it’s hard at times to know what level of risk we’re comfortable and what we’re not. But when we have a clear sense of a batterers’ risk and we know about the protective capacity of the survivor to counteract that risk, we have a better idea of how to shape our decisions to protect children.