“Worker fear can result in victim-blaming and in under or over-estimating the level of danger, which affects the safety of both victims/survivors and workers: ‘We become angry at her for ‘not making the right choices’ so we don’t have to deal with our fear’.”
-from Invisible Practices participant

By David Mandel, Executive Director

Addressing workers’ emotional and physical safety concerns must be at the forefront of efforts for child welfare agencies that want to become domestic violence-informed. From the inception of the Safe & Together Model’s perpetrator pattern-based approach, worker safety has always been part of the approach, and currently, worker safety is one of the main topics covered in our Supervisor Training.

Ignorance of perpetrators’ patterns hinders workers’ safety

In case consultations that shaped the development of the Model, it was a concern when child welfare workers couldn’t describe whether a domestic violence perpetrator had a history of assaultive or threatening behaviors to persons outside the family. It was a rare worker who could answer questions about aggressive behavior directed at professionals, e.g. social workers and police. Similarly, workers frequently lacked knowledge of whether the perpetrator had threatened or assaulted family and friends who attempted to intervene to help the adult and child survivors.  Few workers even considered this information might be meaningful to them. While this gap in knowledge is a subset of the wider problem of an overall lack knowledge of perpetrators’ patterns, it was and is a glaring omission from a worker safety perspective. Child welfare workers are amongst the human services professionals who are most at risk for workplace violence which includes both physical and psychological violence.[1] Since domestic violence is one of the most common case factors they face, it is reasonable to assume that domestic violence cases are one of the main sources of dangers to social workers.  Similar to law enforcement, who identified domestic violence as one of the factors most associated with officer fatalities, child welfare assessments of patterns of violent behavior needs to be one of the central strategies for managing domestic violence interventions as safely as possible.[2]

Worker safety is a supervisory issue

Worker safety issues surface in different ways. Supervisors and managers may struggle with how best to support a worker who is expressing fears about working with a particular violent perpetrator. Workers need assistance in reflecting on how their own personal and professional history might impact their professional attitudes and behavior. Many workers have been impacted by domestic violence as child or an adult.  The following is a brief example from a case consultation:

“I met with a new worker who, just before going on his first home visit to meet with an identified domestic violence perpetrator, shared with me that his father had been abusive. He expressed his concern that in meeting with this client, he (the social worker) might “go over the table at him” or freeze up. Because he was able to share with me these fears around “fight, flight or freeze,” I was able to support him in bringing these concerns to his supervisor. I encouraged him to request that his supervisor accompany him on the home visit.” (David Mandel)

In another instance, the linkage between addressing workers’ safety concerns and greater engagement with perpetrators was clear. An Australian team of child welfare workers, who received guidance on planning for safety during an interview with a resistant perpetrator, were able to be more assertively and effectively him. Discussions of field work personal safety strategies  have been a regular part of Safe & Together Model trainings.  These strategies were often complex and sophisticated. They encompassed a variety of areas including timing of visits to reduce risk; the selection of what to wear in the field, e.g. shoes that were easy to move in; informing supervisors of their movements; and ensuring their mobile phones are fully charged. An exploration of this wide diversity of their own safety strategies often allowed them to better understand the full range of safety efforts made by domestic violence survivors.

Unaddressed worker safety fears may increase victim blame and perpetrator manipulation

There is a likely correlation between workers’ safety concerns related to domestic violence perpetrators and a “failure to protect” approach that places the focus of the intervention on the adult survivors’ decisions. If workers have unidentified and unaddressed fears surrounding working with domestic violence perpetrators, then it is more likely they will

  • center their family engagement and case planning on the domestic violence survivor who is usually female,
  • expect the survivor to take drastic, potentially dangerous steps to avoid removal of her children,
  • remove children when other options may exist to keep them safe in their own home and community,
  • have no or limited engagement with the perpetrator,
  • have little to no documentation of the perpetrator’s attitudes about his behavior and its impact on his partner and the children; and
  • do little to no service planning related to the perpetrator’s behavior change.

Beyond avoidance, unaddressed worker safety concerns can manifest as collusive or placating behavior. For example, workers may be more likely to avoid engagement with a perpetrator about his behavior.[3] This can lead to case plans that focus on “safer” issues like substance abuse or mental health issues and avoid a direct focus on violence and abuse.

Avoidance associated with worker safety concerns can also create opportunities for the perpetrator to manipulate the system. For example, in the U.S. context, parents have the right to “reasonable efforts” to prevent removal and/or reunify with their children. Perpetrators, who never have had visits from child welfare workers, can make a claim during court hearings that he was never given “reasonable efforts”. This will allow him present himself late in the court case, complete required services, and get the children placed back with him. This can occur even  while he is sabotaging her achievement of her case plan goals and when his behavior was central to the reason the children were removed in the first place.

“It’s really important to recognise that workers’ fears about perpetrators show up in subtle and not so subtle ways. Workers may not try all avenues to locate perpetrators because of fear for their own or survivors’ safety, or not see the point in engaging him as they don’t think it will achieve anything.” – Invisible Practices participant[4]

Unaddressed safety issues, that manifest of worker avoidance of the perpetrator, may lead the survivor to think that professionals are just as scared as she is. This can cause her to lose faith that outside intervention will make her and the children’s situation better.

Organizations are failing to address workers safety concerns in domestic violence cases

Finally, unaddressed worker safety issues may interfere with our engagement of the perpetrator. In workplace environments where there is little to no support for bringing forward safety concerns, these fears will go unnamed and show up “symptomatically.” These “symptoms” may manifest as “inability” to find the perpetrator; complaints that the perpetrator is avoiding or not returning calls; choices to use time to meet with the mother and children repeatedly instead of meeting with the perpetrator; complaints about the survivors’ poor choices and being at fault for the continuing danger; and minimization of the importance or value of meeting with the perpetrator.

Talking it through with a supervisor occasionally, but only when it’s bad enough that I don’t expect them to laugh about it / tell me ‘it comes with the job.’ Quote from child welfare worker on the organisational cultural barrier to gaining supervisory support around client’s violent and intimidating behavior[5]

These “symptoms” cannot just be attributed to workers’ fears but need also to be connected to organizational and systemic issues that allow the underlying issue to remain undiagnosed.[6] These organizational and systems issues include lack of training and support to increase overall confidence working with men as parents; low expectations of workers around male engagement and responsibility; lack of training related to work with domestic violence perpetrators; organizational practices that fail to create clear policy and procedures for addressing safety concerns that would arise in domestic violence cases; and an overall lack of reflective supervision. These gaps make it more likely that safety concerns will be either over- or under-estimated. Both of these outcomes can have serious repercussions for the worker and/or the family.

“It was difficult to deliver an appropriate service when I was more concerned about my own safety then providing a safeguarding service to a child.” -A child welfare worker talking about the impact their own safety concerns have on keeping children safe[7]


3  factors influencing workers’ assessment of their own safety

In addition to organizational culture, workers’ assessment of their physical and emotional safety can be affected by a variety of other factors. These factors can be grouped into a three areas: a) their personal and professional experiences of violence and abuse; b) workers’ fears for their own psychological safety tied to their fears for the family’s physical safety; and c) fears for their own physical and emotional safety as result of the perpetrator’s actions toward them.

The first area refers to the impact of a worker’s prior experiences with violence which may influence their assessment of safety for themselves (and the family) in a current situation. If a worker has experienced assaultive or aggressive behavior directed toward them on another case or if this perpetrator reminds them of a family member of their own who was assaultive, then they may over or underestimate the danger to themselves in this case.

The second area refers to the fear for the family being hurt by the perpetrator because of  action or inaction on the part of the worker. In trainings and consultations, workers regularly expressed their fears that something they did or didn’t do might contribute to further harm to the family by the perpetrator. Their assessment of risk to the adult and child survivor was something they experienced very personally and often appeared to impact a workers’ sense of well-being. The sense of unsafety related to case decision making can be especially high in agencies where workers fear being blamed for children being hurt or killed.

“One worker who told me it was my fault she spent the weekend anxious about a family where she had partnered with the survivor to keep the children in their home. Her fear for the physical safety of this mother and her children was something that impacted her sense of psychological safety.” (David Mandel)

Agency policy (or lack thereof) can also impact workers’ psychological safety. Workers may can afraid that that information about the perpetrator, received from the survivor, may not be handled safely. This can have a negative impact on how the worker engages the family. Perpetrators may have access, through the court process or other administrative means, to documentation of the survivors’ safety plan. Worker, who worry that the redaction process will be managed poorly, may not ask specific questions about her plan, or choose not to write down the specifics. While this may protect the survivor from the perpetrator learning her plan, it may lead to unnecessarily punitive actions taken against the survivor, e.g. losing her children because there is insufficient evidence of her protective capacities. Agency’s need clearly defined processes to protect survivors’ safety plans from perpetrators. This not helps with managing the physical safety of the adult and child survivors but are also managing workers’ psychological fears.

Finally, there is the straightforward fear that the perpetrator may target them for physical and/or emotional abuse. Workers can worry that if they take certain actions the perpetrator will retaliate against them and/or their family for harm. Workers can feel this fear when a client with a history of violence starts asking them questions about their (the worker’s) children.  These fears can be particularly strong when the worker taking the following actions:  helping the adult and child survivors to leave the relationship or the home; the removal of a child from a perpetrator; or directly confronting the perpetrator around his behavior.  All of these fears, if left unaddressed, can influence the case trajectory and/or impact the worker’s well-being and performance.[8]

Intersectionalities and worker safety

One other very important area to consider when engaging in a discussion related to worker safety is the combination of a domestic violence perpetrator who also has a propensity for violence toward women in general, or people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientation or religion. Many domestic violence perpetrators are “family violence” only, and refrain from abusive behaviors to others outside the family. But others may have histories of racist statements or action, homophobia, overall misogynistic attitudes toward women or other forms of hate speech and actions. These factors make exacerbate worker safety concerns and cannot be ignored in any discussion of worker safety.

In Part II of this blog, learn about supervisory and organizational strategies to promote worker safety.

Learn more about our Supervisor Training

Read about domestic violence-informed organizational change and supervision

Order the “Worker Safety in Domestic Violence Cases” card

References

[1] Kim and M. Hopkins, “Child Welfare Workers’ Home Visit Risks and Safety Experiences in the USA.”

[2] Breul and Luongo, “Making It Safer: A Study of Law Enforcement Fatalities Between 2010-2016.”

[3] New Jersey Department of Children and Families, “New Jersey Department of Children and Families Policy Manual: Child Protection and Permanency: Domestic Violence.”

[4] Healey et al., Invisible Practices Intervention with Fathers Who Use Violence.

[5] Hunt et al., “‘If I feel like this, how does the child feel?”

[6] Hunt et al.

[7] Hunt et al.

[8] Hunt et al.

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