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Child Protection in Families Experiencing Domestic Violence
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Bragg, H. Lien.|
|Year Published: 2003|
Enhancing Caseworker Safety and Support in Child Protection Cases Involving Domestic Violence
Given the involuntary nature of child protective services (CPS) intervention, every child protection case has the potential for unexpected confrontation. Cases involving domestic violence may pose additional risks of threats and violence for CPS caseworkers. As such, CPS caseworkers need to understand the specific situations that might prompt violent confrontations and learn ways to protect their own safety.
Safety Considerations for Caseworkers
In general, people experience apprehension when confronted by a violent situation or person. Domestic violence situations can potentially result in serious harm, injury, or death for anyone involved. Therefore, it is common for CPS caseworkers to have feelings of fear or discomfort when they receive a case involving domestic violence. Some caseworkers think they lack the necessary knowledge and experience to address the dynamics involved in domestic violence, while others may find that their own personal history or beliefs regarding abuse provoke feelings of distress or anger.
In addition to the above uncertainties, some CPS activities can incite a violent confrontation because they threaten the perpetrator's control and authority over the home and family members. Since violence is already a dynamic in many of these families, other members (such as teenagers or the adult victim) also may resort to violence when interacting with others, including caseworkers. Specific situations and child protection procedures that can increase risks to caseworkers, victims, and children include:
- Preparation by the victim to leave the relationship, seek shelter, initiate divorce proceedings, or obtain a restraining order.
- Receipt by the perpetrator of agency documentation with allegations of neglect or abuse or information about how CPS will continue to be involved with the family.
- Allegations made directly to the perpetrator regarding domestic violence or child maltreatment.
- Requests by the perpetrator for information regarding the victim and children's location.
- Activities involving the children's removal from the home.
- Pursuit of permanency planning goals of adoption and termination of parental rights.
- Release of the perpetrator from jail or confrontation with serious criminal charges and possible incarceration.132
Steps to Enhance Caseworker Safety
Perpetrators of domestic violence frequently engage in manipulative behavior to escape detection of and the consequences for their violent and abusive behaviors. When perpetrators sense that calculating tactics such as charming or colluding with the caseworker are not effective, they may resort to threatening behaviors to intimidate caseworkers into decreasing their involvement with the family. For example, the perpetrator may stare intently at the caseworker or act agitated by pacing the floor during an interview. Some perpetrators even make subtle threats to "make trouble" for caseworkers by calling their supervisor or warning them to "watch their back." Such actions should be documented in the case file. If CPS caseworkers are confronted by an aggressive abuser or are uncomfortable with a potentially hostile situation, they should consult with their supervisor or service provider to discuss ways in which they can protect themselves. Recommendations to enhance caseworker safety include:
- Conducting meetings or interviews with the perpetrator in the agency office or in a public place. If this is not possible, ask a coworker, supervisor, or law enforcement official to be present during any interaction with the abuser.
- Being aware of the surroundings when leaving the office or home and parking in a safe place.
- Notifying coworkers or a supervisor that a potentially dangerous client is visiting the office. Provide the time and place of the interview. If possible, try to have a building security officer nearby.
- Notifying coworkers or a supervisor of the exact location and expected time frame when visiting a perpetrator in the home.
- Ensuring accessible exits when meeting with the abuser.
- Attempting to avoid verbal confrontations or debates with the perpetrator as this may escalate the situation.
- Receiving training on working with perpetrators and conducting nonconfrontational interviews.
- Refraining from giving the perpetrator the sense that one is afraid. Caseworkers who feel threatened should try to de-escalate the situation by explaining that the perpetrator's anger is misplaced and CPS simply wants to help the family. Caseworkers should then immediately end the interview or visit.
- Informing the victim if their partner's anger has escalated, posing a risk to the victim or the children. Engage in safety planning to address possible harm to the victim, children, or caseworker.133
CPS agencies can provide additional resources that help caseworkers feel more comfortable and safe when they intervene in domestic violence cases. CPS administrators and supervisors can ensure that caseworkers have access to cellular telephones, pagers, trauma debriefings, and caseworker safety planning efforts. Enhanced building security, secure meeting space, and protocols requesting law enforcement assistance should also be provided to staff. Finally, CPS agencies can develop human resource policies that take a "zero tolerance" approach to violence by ensuring caseworkers receive agency assistance that is supportive and confidential.
The Role of the CPS Supervisor in Supporting Caseworkers
CPS supervisors may not have frequent or direct contact with families experiencing domestic violence, but they have an instrumental role in ensuring families have safe outcomes. Supervisors play a critical part in establishing an agency culture that prioritizes cases involving domestic violence. CPS supervisors can set a positive example by attending agency and community-based domestic violence trainings; participating on interagency committees and advisory boards; and advocating for domestic violence protocols, resources, and assistance for staff. Further, by staying current on salient issues involving overlapping domestic violence and child maltreatment, supervisors can assist caseworkers by remaining sensitive to the needs of these families and ensuring competent case practice.
Specific supervisory activities that can provide additional support to CPS caseworkers confronted with these complex and challenging cases include:
- Providing oversight and review of appropriate child welfare practices. Intake, assessment, case disposition, case review, removal, and case closure are critical decision-making points in the CPS process. Supervisors may need to provide additional guidance to caseworkers who are trying to make difficult decisions and recommendations that will not compromise the safety of victims and children. Specialized policies or protocols as well as additional training for cases involving domestic violence can serve as guides for supervisors and caseworkers. It is imperative that CPS managers are knowledgeable about and enforce compliance with specific agency procedures for domestic violence cases so they can help caseworkers integrate specialized case practice guidelines in their assessments and interventions. Supervisors should continue to monitor and enforce compliance with agency protocols as a means to determine caseworker capability with cases involving domestic violence.
- Supporting and encouraging collaborative relationships. Supervisors should encourage staff to partner with service providers and other community agencies that can offer additional consultation on domestic violence assessment and intervention. Supervisors also can encourage caseworkers to access domestic violence expertise and resources, which might be located internally in the form of specialized domestic violence staff that are available for guidance and assistance. Cross-training is another approach to foster collaboration between child welfare and domestic violence programs. CPS managers who support caseworker participation in cross-training opportunities demonstrate their commitment to promoting competence in achieving safe outcomes for violent families.
- Promoting caseworker safety. Supervisors ought to provide support for caseworkers who are intimidated or afraid of working with families experiencing domestic violence. It is important for CPS managers to demonstrate that they are available to discuss staff concerns and will help caseworkers alleviate their apprehension. Developing a caseworker safety plan, accompanying caseworkers on home visits, or allowing caseworkers to travel in pairs are several significant ways supervisors can enhance the safety of their staff. On an administrative level, supervisors can advocate that their staff have access to resources, such as cellular phones, pagers, and security assistance, which can increase the comfort levels of caseworkers responding to potentially volatile situations.134
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