Voices & Viewpoints
Promoting Safety in Cases Involving Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment
Z. Ruby White Starr
Why doesn’t she leave? Don’t her choices demonstrate that she cares more about her abuser than her children? Maybe there is abuse, but should she get custody when she has her own problems?
It is not uncommon for CASA/GAL volunteers, social workers or even judges working with victims of domestic violence to hear these questions—or even ask them of themselves—when handling a dependency case involving “co-occurrence.” That is, when a child is abused or neglected in a family where domestic violence is also occurring. The prevalence and impact of co-occurrence on children are well documented. The American Psychological Association estimates that 40-70% of men who frequently abuse their partners also abuse their children. In addition to the potential for abuse or neglect, children may experience considerable distress—which can have long-term effects—from exposure to one parent’s abuse against the other.
Despite this widespread problem, the delivery of coordinated services in co-occurrence cases has been fragmented. Historically, adult domestic violence intervention efforts were viewed as separate from the goal of protecting maltreated children. Child welfare systems were responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect, while community agencies, law enforcement and the courts were left to deal with adult victims of domestic violence.
“We used to think of violence in isolation,” says Gwen Hurst-Anderson, executive director of the Nebraska CASA Association and a trainer on this topic. “Domestic and intimate partner violence was separate from dating violence, and those were separate from child abuse. What we realize now is that there are connections among all forms of family violence, and we need to address all forms in order to end all violence.”
Although three decades of research and practice point to the importance of protecting abused parents to ensure the safety of the child, service providers still grapple with how to respond most effectively. This article highlights efforts to address co-occurrence and draws attention to how CASA volunteers can better understand the needs of battered women, a batterer’s use of violence as well as the safety and resilience needs of children within a co-occurrence context.
Efforts to Respond to Co-Occurrence
Across the country, many efforts to protect children are now better informed by domestic violence principles; likewise, advocacy for adult domestic violence victims better addresses the impact on children. One such effort began in 1999, when the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) published Effective Interventions in Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice. Known commonly as the Greenbook, this resource helped child welfare and domestic violence service providers as well as courts to improve policies and practices, enhance coordination and better serve families in need. The Greenbook “Guiding Framework” stressed the importance of collaborative responses to co-occurrence that provide meaningful help, supports and services for families while holding violent perpetrators responsible for their behavior. Three core values characterize interventions designed to create safety, enhance well-being and provide stability for children and families:
From 2000 to 2007, the Greenbook served as a catalyst when the US Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice funded six demonstration sites across the country to implement the Greenbook’s recommendations. One of these sites, Grafton, NH, involved the CASA program as a key partner in the initiative. In Co-Occurrence of Child Abuse/Neglect and Domestic Violence: Guide for New Hampshire Court Appointed Special Advocates, Marcia Sink, president and CEO of CASA New Hampshire, wrote:
The importance of cross-training and education resonates for Susan Embry. Prior to becoming the program coordinator for the Youth Heartline CASA program in Taos, NM, she served as the community relations director for Community Against Violence, an agency providing crisis and early intervention services, community outreach and education on sexual and domestic violence. She believes that crossover skills in advocacy have a positive impact and helped to frame her understanding of domestic violence.
“Assisting victims is a process,” states Embry. “Victims need to feel safe first and then begin to understand what has happened to them and their children. They need assurance that they are not at fault for being victims and eventually trust enough to open themselves to the healing process. Help begins with baby steps and small victories, which form a new foundation and healthier ways of looking at their life choices.”
Embry believes that this philosophy of service provision dovetails perfectly with National CASA’s volunteer training curriculum in that it emphasizes building on the strengths of families and identifying resources that can help overcome barriers to reunification.
The Role of CASA Volunteers in Co-Occurrence Cases
Much remains to be done to address co-occurrence adequately, and CASA volunteers are instrumental in ensuring that there is a voice for the best interest of the child. The volunteer’s role is to serve as an objective gatherer and reporter of facts as well as to advocate in court for the child’s safety and permanence. This can be difficult in co-occurrence cases because multiple family members are at risk. Decisions about whether and how to intervene are complicated, and subtleties are difficult to detect. It is not the responsibility of advocates to do an assessment for domestic violence; however, they play an important role in bringing what they know to the attention of the court. The CASA volunteer can also make recommendations that reflect the unique safety issues in co-occurrence cases when they understand the risks and barriers experienced by adult victims, how a batterer’s use of violence affects his children and partners as well as the safety and resilience needs of children.
Balancing the Risk and Safety Needs of Adult Victims
One of the primary reasons adult victims stay in an abusive relationship is fear of the potential consequences of leaving. This is a valid concern since, despite beliefs to the contrary, separation may often increase the risk of violence due to the batterer’s heightened desire to regain power and control. When women are killed, it is most often as a result of their attempts to leave the relationship—not of staying in it. Another reason for staying is the lack of real options to keep their children safe. A lack of alternative housing or shelter, protection and support creates barriers to leaving. These barriers may be magnified by the following:
Ethnicity, language barriers, behavioral health, developmental needs, geographic location and economic status may also play a role. It should be noted, however, that many women do leave, often returning many times to their abuser as a result of not finding better alternatives, before making a final separation.
Understanding these variables provides a greater appreciation for battered women’s decision-making. Weighing the risks of leaving against the risks of staying is more complicated than simply choosing between her abuser and her children. In many cases, for example, the choice may be between abuse and homelessness for herself and her children.
“Adult and child victims need a tremendous amount of support,” says Megan Valdez, a CASA supervisor in Dallas, TX. “First and foremost, they need safety-promoting services such as shelter, transitional housing or a protective order. They may also need various forms of mainstream resources, such as food stamps, WIC, TANF, Medicaid and subsidized daycare. In addition to physical safety, they will need [services] to increase their emotional safety.”
CASA volunteers and other professionals are in a good position to limit unintentional collusion with perpetrators and further endangerment of battered women and their children. They can critically consider the nature of individual, familial, cultural, societal and institutional barriers as well as the complex mix of risks that leaving can bring to an adult victim and her children.
Understanding the Batterer’s Use of Violence
Batterers vary in the ways they are abusive toward their partners and children as well as in the ways they interact with others in their lives. In many cases, batterers can appear charming and in control outside of their homes, but within them they cause harm to their partners and children to gain control over their actions and decisions. A domestic violence perpetrator can harm children in the following ways:
Batterers may coerce their adult victims by threatening to report them to child protective services because they “allowed” the abuse to happen. Or batterers may warn victims that they will lose custody if they seek divorce. These are valid concerns for many women because an analysis of data suggests that in contested custody cases, men who use violence gain custody at the same or higher rate as those who do not. One reason for this could be the strength of the misconception that allegations of domestic violence or child abuse made within the context of a divorce are merely tactics to gain an advantage in the dispute.
The Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody reports a strong paradox in this regard. Adult victims may be held responsible for failing to protect their children from domestic violence during child protection interventions. But after leaving the relationship, adult victims may be considered “hostile” within the legal system if they attempt to protect the children by limiting batterer contact or demonstrate other protective behaviors.
“Always err on the side of safety” when assisting families experiencing domestic violence, recommends Hurst-Anderson of Nebraska CASA. “If visiting with a batterer, make sure you are not alone and that you position yourself near an exit. Believe what the victim says. You are only hearing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the terror they have experienced.”
Hurst-Anderson adds that providers often do not listen to children despite the fact that research overwhelmingly reveals that children state they need two things: safety and someone safe to talk to. “Both of those are things that CASA volunteers are qualified to ensure,” she says.
Promoting the Safety and Resilience Needs of Children
Each child is uniquely impacted by co-occurrence depending on the number, type and level of both risk and protective factors present. A key factor to their resilience is children’s relationships to their mothers. Research shows that the best way to protect and restore children is to keep the victim parent safe.
Because there is so much information on the potential for children to become victims, delinquents or adult offenders, it is easy to overlook research demonstrating that most children exposed to domestic violence do not demonstrate adverse impacts. Many in fact show even higher competence than children not exposed. For example, the study Turnings and Adaptations in Resilient Daughters of Battered Women (see “Resources”) examined the life histories of adult daughters of battered women who had gone on to achieve professional and personal success. Each described a life filled with frequent tension, unhappiness and fear, but the common protective factor in each of their lives was a supportive adult—most often the battered mother herself—who was able to mediate the damaging effects of a violent home. This study punctuates the importance of ensuring that children not be re-traumatized by unnecessary separation from the victim parent.
In The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics, Lund Bancroft stresses that children need the following in order to recover from domestic violence:
CASA volunteers can help meet these needs, build a foundation for resilience and provide relief in ways that contribute to children’s and adult victim’s basic needs.
“The most important thing CASAs can do is to be familiar with the dynamics of domestic violence and the batterer’s actions,” says Michelle Zinke, a former board president of Nebraska CASA who works as the training and resource coordinator for the Nebraska Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition. “Volunteers should seek to understand the complexities of the situation faced by the battered woman and her children.”
Zinke suggests that volunteers consider making recommendations to the court concerning batterer accountability. She says that courts should keep in mind the following:
Susan Embry of Taos adds, “An abuser weaves a fine web of control and intimidation all around his or her environment. CASA volunteers are in a perfect position to ask questions that bring accountability to the forefront. Advocates must always focus on ending the trauma for children. The goal is to establish a safe and permanent placement for children.”
Ensuring the best interest of the child, promoting resilience and creating safety for children living with domestic violence are inseparable from creating safety for their mothers and reducing the risk from the batterer. To create better outcomes for families, CASA volunteers should be part of a coordinated effort to address co-occurrence. However, merely improving identification of domestic violence without also increasing the community’s capacity to intervene can have negative consequences for the whole family. Many batterers can be helped to play a more positive role in the lives of their children. But creating better outcomes for families begins by focusing on the source of the risk to children exposed to domestic violence: the batterer. With a coordinated response to co-occurrence, children are protected from the damaging effects of domestic violence, adult victims get the help they need without losing custody of their children to the child protection system or their abusers, and batterers receive assistance to stop their violent and coercive behavior.