It is one of the toughest challenges in the difficult field of child welfare — protecting children in homes where there is domestic violence while not punishing a non-abusive parent for being a victim.
A recent Globe story reported that in Massachusetts, advocates say the Department of Children and Families too often blames victims. The story profiled a mother, Lisa, who DCF said neglected her child — a finding that hurt her ability to get a job — because she fled to a next-door apartment when her partner tried to attack her, briefly leaving her sleeping baby alone.
While DCF’s first obligation is to protect the child, there are options that do not punish a parent who survived domestic violence. Studies show one of the best ways to ensure a child’s resilience in a home with domestic violence is to ensure they have a strong positive bond with the non-offending parent. DCF’s policies should reflect that goal, and the agency should work to strengthen, not sever, the bond between a child and a non-abusive parent.
“The knee-jerk reaction to assume that a survivor of domestic violence is in some way neglectful of their child is a harmful practice,” said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director at Jane Doe Inc., a coalition of domestic violence service organizations.
Nationally and in Massachusetts, about one-fifth of child maltreatment cases involve allegations of domestic violence. The issue is not new. In a 2004 landmark US Appeals Court case, a group of mothers successfully sued New York’s child welfare organization for deeming that the women neglected their children by exposing them to domestic violence perpetrated against the mothers.
Since then, according to an article in the journal Child Maltreatment, the most common standard used by states is that there needs to be “harm or the threat of harm” to the child for the agency to substantiate maltreatment, not just the witnessing of domestic violence.
Experts say child protection agencies also must be clear on who is the abuser. David Mandel, executive director of the Safe and Together Institute, an international training and consulting organization focused on domestic violence, said historically, child welfare organizations held victims, mostly mothers, responsible for “failure to protect” their child from violence by their partners. “What we train globally is to use a perpetrator-based approach, which builds everything off the idea that it’s a perpetrator’s choice and behavior that’s causing harm to the partner, the child, the family functioning,” Mandel said.
For example, Mandel said if a mother fled her child’s abusive father and became homeless, a caseworker or judge might award the child’s father custody because his living situation is more stable. Mandel suggested the system should instead pressure the child’s father to move out of the family home or provide money for the mother and child to live on. “The system should say to the dad, ‘you created the harm, how do you repair it?’ ” Mandel said.
Similar situations arise if an abusive parent is harassing their former partner and children at the children’s home. Sometimes, advocates say, the parent being harassed is deemed to have endangered the children if they let the abuser in. A perpetrator-focused approach could instead help the custodial parent obtain a restraining order so the harasser is penalized for going to the home.
According to the Child Maltreatment article by Wayne State University assistant professor Bryan Victor, 15 states have child welfare policies that prohibit victims from being held accountable for failing to protect their children based on their own victimization. Some policies are unconditional; others carry conditions, such as a parent can be held accountable if they repeatedly return to an abuser or reject protective services.
Massachusetts does not have a blanket policy, but caseworkers are expected to consider a range of factors in each case, including information from people who know the family, the impact of violence on the child, and the impact on the non-abusive parent’s ability to care for the child. Caseworkers have internal guidelines requiring them to consider a list of factors related to the behavior of the offending parent and the non-offending parent in considering the level of risk.
“The best interventions involve partnering with the non-abusive parent to develop a safety plan and engage in specialized, supportive services to actively participate in their child’s healing process,” DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said. Grossman said relationships involving domestic violence differ in severity, and DCF relies on information from police, parents, children, doctors, and teachers “to make the best possible child safety decisions.”
DCF has a specialized domestic violence unit with a director and 10 social workers who consult on domestic violence-related cases and develop staff trainings. But this unit only touches a small portion of cases, and it is up to the caseworker and their manager whether to follow the consultants’ advice.
Domestic violence advocates say important parts of any policy should be listening to what a survivor needs to protect their child and providing resources. Rather than forcing someone to immediately leave an abusive partner to maintain custody, there might be cases in which DCF needs to spend time with the victim developing a plan for how they can leave safely and helping them find housing or employment. (DCF said it refers families to community resources like domestic violence programs, counselors, attorneys, and shelters.)
Attorney Rebecca Greening, who represents parents and children in DCF cases, said the agency too often issues mandates without asking the non-abusive parent what they need. “It’s often times not survivor-focused or led, it’s institution-focused and led,” Greening said. Greening said approaching a victim with the threat of removing their child rather than offering resources to navigate a situation will make survivors hesitant to ask for help.
There is no easy answer in many of these cases, and DCF workers need to approach cases on a case-by-case basis. But while some at DCF may tend to “err on the side of caution” to remove a child from a potentially violent situation, that too carries the potential for harm if a child is separated from a protective parent or a parent being abused is discouraged from seeking help.
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