Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Child Protective Services


Several communities around the United States are beginning to focus on the overlap between child abuse and domestic violence, as reported in Aron and Olson (1996).(2) In Oregon, analyses of child welfare case records reveals that the presence of battering of the mother is the best predictor of severe child abuse, and also of very long stays in out-of-home placement. Clearly child safety is compromised in households where there is battering toward the mother, and some child protection agencies are starting to contact domestic violence services to work on some of the issues involved. Of the communities in the present study, only San Diego has focused on this issue. San Diego has a special unit combining probation officers and child protective workers that seeks to reduce the risk to children in households where the man is on probation for felony battering.

In this report we can only touch on a few of the most critical issues that have arisen in these efforts, and have selected those that appear to have the greatest likelihood of also being issues for other expansions of the domestic violence network. These include: (1) the conflicting goals and requirements of child protection agencies and traditional domestic violence programs and how each can learn to appreciate the role of the other; (2) understanding of the characteristics of the typical woman involved with child protective services who also experiences domestic violence, and how these might differ from the characteristics of the women most frequently seen by traditional domestic violence programs; and (3) understanding of the ways in which the batterers in child protection cases may differ from the average batterer seen in batterer intervention programs.

There are many critical ways that the requirements under which child protection agencies operate differ from the procedures and assumptions of traditional domestic violence programs. Each needs to appreciate the pressures on the other if there is to be successful collaboration. Traditional domestic violence programs do not have to deal with the fathers of the children in families where battering occurs; child protection agencies do. Many traditional domestic violence programs turn away women with active chemical dependency or chronic mental illness problems; child protection agencies cannot do this. Traditional domestic violence agencies deal almost entirely with women who have voluntarily sought their services; child protection agencies usually deal with women who are being forced to confront neglect and abuse issues related to their children, and who may have no desire to leave their own batterers even for the sake of their children. Child protection agencies have a primary mission to assure the safety of the child; traditional domestic violence programs have a primary mission to empower the woman/mother and secure her safety from her abuser. Child protective services' determination that the mother "failed to protect" her children is seen by domestic violence workers as further blaming the victim, when the mother cannot protect herself either. In addition to all of these problems and issues, some evidence from batterer intervention program staff indicates that the men doing the battering in these complex partner-and-child abuse cases, when compared to the men typically seen by these programs, are significantly more dangerous, more violent in non-familial as well as familial contexts, less amenable to available intervention techniques, and more likely to show complete unconcern about the welfare of others.

Despite all of these initial differences and grounds for misperception and hostility, child protection and domestic violence workers in a growing number of communities are starting to develop ways to work together to address the issues of battering in child welfare caseloads. Domestic violence workers who have come to appreciate these differences sometimes reflect that close to the entire child protective services caseload consists of cases that look like "the hardest 1 percent of the women we have to deal with."

Child protection workers need to learn about the legal remedies that have been developed over the years to protect women from battering, so they have something to use in controlling the batterer other than the threat to remove the children from the home (which may not be an effective threat). They need to learn how to deal with batterers and not become victims of threats and intimidation themselves. They need to learn how to deal with battered women in ways that do not put them in the same controlling and intimidating relationship to the woman that the batterer maintains, while still working toward assuring the safety of the children. They can get help with all of these from traditional domestic violence providers.

At the same time, the traditional providers must learn to appreciate the very different job demands that face child protection workers, the fact that there are many, many women experiencing battering, sometimes very severe battering, who need help but are not ready or willing to accept the particular form of help that they themselves currently offer, and that they can make an important contribution if they help the child protection agencies work out policies and protocols that try to respect everyone's rights and interests. The opportunity in this area is having both child protection agencies and traditional domestic violence services working together in an on-going collaborative relationship that has already produced more help for more women in the communities where these efforts have begun. In the long run, such a relationship will be much more effective than having both sides perceiving each other as the enemy and blocking attempts to improve the ability of child protection agencies to recognize battering and take it into account as they try to develop safety plans for children.