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Efforts by Child Welfare Agencies to Address Domestic Violence: The Experiences of Five Communities

Publication Date
Feb 28, 1997

Laudan Y. Aron and Krista K. Olson
The Urban Institute

March 1997

Executive Summary

Until recently, programs and policies for family violence or abuse have responded to two of its forms--child maltreatment and woman battering--through two different service systems, child protective services (CPS) and domestic violence programs. This separation is due, in part, to differences in when these service systems were established and how they developed over time. The child welfare system is by far the older, dating back to early in this century. Child welfare agencies have tended to view the mother's role in child abuse that was perpetrated by a male partner as "failure to protect" the child, rather than acknowledging that the child's safety might depend on addressing a situation that endangers both mother and child. Emergency shelters and other services for battered women first emerged in the mid- and late 1970s. Their focus has been on helping battered women. Services directed specifically toward the children who accompany their mothers into these shelters are very recent and remain limited in many communities. Relations between the two systems have at times been strained, since a primary focus on helping the mother and a primary focus on protecting the child have not always been seen as compatible. This need not be the case.

Child welfare agencies across the country are beginning to consider how families in their child protection caseload are affected by domestic violence and what they can do differently to serve such families more effectively. Agencies are reexamining their policies and procedures for training, investigation, assessment, case management, and other activities in light of this new thinking. This study documents how child welfare agencies in five communities are attempting to integrate domestic violence concerns into their services. By examining current and developing CPS practice around domestic violence, we highlight many of the challenges, advantages, and disadvantages of different strategies. Some of the lessons learned will apply to other communities in similar circumstances, others will not. One message is clear--the need for more information in this area is great and demand for it growing as more and more agency staff and directors appreciate the benefits of new approaches. Through this study we have attempted to fill some of this information gap.

Five communities were selected for this study because they were making changes within their child welfare agencies that went beyond simply training staff about domestic violence. In each of these communities, the primary impetus for innovation and linkage came from within the child welfare agency and was directed to its own case practice. Massachusetts and Michigan were included because of their relatively long history in this area.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Social Services (DSS) began meeting regularly with battered women's organizations in 1987 and hired its first in-house domestic violence advocate in 1990. Since then, DSS has developed and adopted a domestic violence protocol and established a domestic violence unit consisting of in-house domestic violence specialists who assist DSS social workers on specific cases and conduct extensive training.

Michigan incorporated a domestic violence component into its family preservation program, Families First, in 1993. In conjunction with the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the state developed and instituted a training curriculum for family preservation workers and created a program to provide family preservation services to at-risk families in battered women's shelters.

Three other sites were selected for study on the basis of various factors such as state versus local involvement in fostering linkages between child welfare and domestic violence agencies, the availability of additional funds and/or staff, the strength of the court system connection, and the presence of rural or other distinctive populations.

In San Diego County, California, the county child welfare agency--the Children's Services Bureau--and Adult Probation together established a separate administrative unit to handle all cases active in both departments. Cases in the unit include some of the county's most violent families, who are managed by a two-person social worker-probation officer team.

In Hilo, Hawaii, the East Hawaii CPS intake and investigative unit is concerned about domestic violence in its caseload and has established close relationships with the judiciary. East Hawaii has a semi-unified family court that allows the same judge to oversee all cases involving temporary restraining orders, divorce, juvenile justice, and child protection. This judge actively screens restraining order petitions for child abuse and neglect, and refers appropriate cases to CPS.

Oregon's State Office for Services to Children and Families (SCF) is attempting to change case practice throughout the state by cross-training child protection workers and domestic violence workers about the relationship between the two forms of abuse. Oregon also recently ran pilot programs that placed domestic violence advocates in two local SCF offices.

In Chapter I of this study we review the available literature on the overlap of domestic violence and child maltreatment and describe our site selection criteria and procedures. The next five chapters describe efforts to integrate domestic violence concerns into child welfare agency practice in each community visited. The following general themes can be distilled from our fieldwork:

Child welfare agencies have begun initiating changes from different organizational points within their agencies and have taken different approaches to changing case practice. Each starting point has advantages and disadvantages. Agencies need to think through which approach makes sense for them.

Child welfare agencies have experience acting to protect children but are breaking new ground when they attempt to address domestic violence. These agencies cannot make appropriate changes without major and continuing collaboration with community stakeholders who work with domestic violence victims and perpetrators and know the issues involved. There are complicated policy and practice issues that can only be handled appropriately if child welfare agencies work together with people specializing in domestic violence services. Chief among these issues is the need to refrain from actions that increase danger to mothers and their children.

Changes to child welfare agency practice around domestic violence will also benefit from collaborative policy development with police, civil and criminal courts, corrections (probation and parole), the schools, and local clinics and hospitals.

In the report's final chapter we summarize and integrate findings from the site visits and literature review. Reflecting the still early and developing state of the field, we review issues to consider and resolve. We do not provide a definitive resolution or "right" approach. The chapter looks at approaches to changing case practice within child welfare agencies including where within the agency to start; how to expand; issues of staff motivation, understanding, and commitment; and issues of resources and tools internal to the agency. We then turn to the community context and the need to coordinate with other agencies and service providers. In the case of organizations experienced in working with victims of domestic violence, such collaboration is essential for shaping changes in child welfare agency policy and practice. Other cross-agency collaborations are critical for ensuring that new approaches to the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment are successful, including approaches that leverage the investigative powers of the police or the enforcement powers of courts and corrections. The chapter concludes by reviewing several complex policy issues for child welfare agencies, including whether or not child protective services (or other mandated reporters) should screen families affected by domestic violence for child abuse and neglect; how to consider children who witness their mother's abuse; and what to do when actions to protect a child conflict with what is necessary to protect the mother. Many of these complexities reflect the challenges involved in balancing multiple goals: helping battered women help their children, holding perpetrators of domestic violence responsible for their actions, and working with batterers who continue to be involved in children's lives.