Domestic Violence and the Child Welfare System
Series: Bulletins for Professionals|
Child Welfare Information Gateway |
|Year Published: 2009|
Responding to Domestic Violence
Although adult and child victims often are found in the same families, child welfare and domestic violence programs traditionally responded separately to victims. Because each system was focused primarily on the safety and protection of one victim, conflicts sometimes arose. For example, some child welfare advocates were concerned that domestic violence service providers were dismissing or ignoring the safety needs of children by focusing solely on the adult victim. Similarly, some domestic violence advocates felt child protective services caseworkers "re-victimized" adult victims by blaming them for the violence, removing their children, and/or charging them with "failure to protect." These conflicting responses arose from differences in the systems' philosophies, mandates, policies, and practices, which had been developed in isolation from one another. As a result, both systems sometimes failed to communicate and coordinate with one another, to the detriment of the families they were attempting to serve (Carter & Schechter, 1997).
In addition, some States have passed legislation that broadened the definition of child neglect to include children who witness domestic violence. Approximately 21 States and Puerto Rico now address in their statutes the issue of children who witness domestic violence in their homes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2008). However, some researchers feel that expanding the legal definition of child maltreatment may not be the most effective method to address the needs of children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Because effects of domestic violence vary from one child to another, child welfare professionals are cautioned against assuming that witnessing domestic violence, on its own, constitutes child maltreatment or warrants child protective services intervention (Edleson, 2004; Hughes, Graham-Bermann, & Gruber, 2001).
Despite their differences, child welfare advocates and domestic violence service providers share significant goals that can help bridge the gap between them. These include:
- Ending violence against adults and children
- Ensuring children's safety
- Protecting adult victims so their children are not harmed by violence
- Promoting parents' strengths
- Deferring child protection services intervention—as long as child safety is preserved—and referring adult and child victims to community-based services
Integrating Differential Response Into Domestic Violence Intervention
Some experts in the field assert that families and their children who show minimal evidence of harm resulting from exposure to domestic violence, and who have other protective factors present in their lives, may benefit more from voluntary services in the community (Edleson, 2006). An emerging child welfare practice—differential response—reflects this approach.
Differential response allows child welfare agencies to approach the issue of domestic violence in a family-centered, nonthreatening way. A modified differential response intervention helps ensure the safety and well-being of the children as well as the adult victim. It allows the child welfare agency to assess whether the family can be helped by the provision of services and supports outside of the context of the child welfare system and dependency courts.
This type of intervention requires that the social worker meet with the adult victim first, separate from the alleged abuser, to establish a safety plan for the adult victim and her children (Sawyer & Lohrbach, 2005b). The alleged abuser is then contacted, with a focus on concerns about the children being exposed to violence. Safety plans are developed with the adults with the intent of reducing the risk and/or recurrence of physical or emotional harm to the children. Families are referred to community-based agencies that can provide them with the assistance they need to address the violence, with the hope of preventing further governmental intervention (Sawyer & Lohrbach, 2005b).
While not every case is appropriate for differential response, this approach allows child welfare professionals to devise solutions outside the child welfare system that could help communities better define which cases are appropriate to address within that system. Olmstead County, Minnesota, initiated a countywide differential response system in 1999, called Critical Pathways for Child Protection Services. Its organizational design provides a choice of responses to a community member's concern about a child's safety and well-being. Olmstead County uses a team approach to review, evaluate, and direct cases accepted through screening and intake for consideration as valid reports of child maltreatment that require agency response (Sawyer & Lohrbach, 2005a).
A differential response approach maintains that protecting at-risk children should be the child welfare system's highest priority, but it also acknowledges the need for a rich network of community-based institutions offering additional support services to families. This "safety and resource-sensitive reasoned approach" (Edleson, 2004) also recognizes that not all children exposed to domestic violence will exhibit problems to an extent that requires clinical intervention. Children and families at low risk may benefit from voluntary community services instead of traditional child protection services. However, children who are at high risk or in imminent danger should be referred to the child welfare system for additional protective services. Each family's needs could be assessed using protocols and/or screening instruments that identify children at greatest risk of harm.
The National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice and Permanency Planning (Toussaint, 2006) suggests the following policies to align efforts of child abuse and domestic violence practitioners:
- Identify and assess domestic violence in all child welfare cases
- Provide services to families where domestic violence has been identified (even if child abuse has not been substantiated), including helping abused women protect themselves and their children using noncoercive, supportive, and empowering interventions whenever possible
- Hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for stopping the violent behavior in order to protect children
In recent years, increased awareness of the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse has compelled both child welfare systems and domestic violence programs to reevaluate their interventions with families experiencing both forms of violence. Many professionals now acknowledge that communities can serve families better by allocating resources to build partnerships among domestic violence service providers, child protective service providers, and an array of informal and formal systems within the community, and by offering a continuum of individualized services based on the levels of risk present (Edleson, 2004; Edleson, 1999).
National, State, and local initiatives are demonstrating that a collective ownership and intolerance for abuse against adults and children alike can form the foundation of a coordinated and comprehensive approach to ending child abuse and domestic violence. For example, an initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, coordinated broad-based community partnerships that included public child welfare agencies in four pilot communities. These initiatives quickly realized they needed to address domestic violence (along with other challenges facing vulnerable families) to be successful in their goal of creating a shared sense of responsibility for protecting abused and neglected children among community-based organizations and neighborhood residents (Rosewater & Goodmark, 2007).
Institutional and societal changes can begin to eliminate family violence only when service providers integrate their expertise, resources, and services into an expansive network. New practices are enhancing cross-system understanding and interactions between agencies and communities. Child welfare agencies and dependency courts are creating specialized positions for experts who understand and who can advocate for adult and child victims. New protocols are institutionalizing change and ensuring that child welfare workers and domestic violence advocates benefit from the lessons learned by their predecessors and colleagues.
A collaborative approach to working with families that experience the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment has a number of potential benefits: families receive more comprehensive and coordinated services, while avoiding redundant interviews and program requirements; agencies can effectively identify and provide appropriate services; caseworkers can minimize blaming of the adult victim, hold batterers accountable, and advocate on behalf of all family members (Banks, Dutch, & Wang, 2008). To improve collaboration within and among systems, and to engage new community partners in keeping families safe, organizations must have certain strategies. These include:
- Collaborative learning and practice as a prelude to new policies
- New strategies to address issues of race, culture, and gender
- Greater participation by survivor mothers and children
- Greater investment in community
- Differential responses for families based on risk
- Therapeutic and other services and supports for mothers and children
- Greater accountability for men who batter and greater attention to the roles they continue to play as fathers and providers
- Broad, meaningful engagement of men as allies in protecting children (Rosewater & Goodmark, 2007)