National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Site Visits Report . Practice Components


The following section describes how the domestic violence protocols and family conferencing were put into practice.

Domestic Violence Policy and Practice

At the time of the initial CPS report, or at any point during the life of a case, if there is a possibility of domestic violence, the social worker assesses whether there is a risk to child safety. During the investigation phase, or when domestic violence appears to be a factor, the social worker is required to develop safety plans specific to the victim of domestic violence and the child for their use during any future incidents. Social workers record and document the factors that contributed to the risk of harm to the child. Adult caretakers and children are referred to First Step, a local domestic violence agency and women’s shelter, for assessment and recommended treatment in all cases where domestic violence is identified as a safety risk to the child.

If the risk of harm to the child is high and the parent is unable or unwilling to assure the child’s safety by correcting the risk factors or arranging for an alternative safe living arrangement, the department will file a petition requesting court-ordered intervention, which may include custody. In addition, a petition may be filed if the risk of harm to the child is at least moderate after 6 months of services to attempt to correct the risk factors. The petition clearly delineates efforts the victim of domestic violence makes to protect the children and any lack of effort or the cooperation by the perpetrator.

In cases of domestic violence where no child abuse or neglect has occurred the case is referred to First Step. Typically, First Step asks the family’s permission to report the outcome of their services to DSS. Policies and practices to treat domestic violence include such interventions and services as shelters; case management; referrals for jobs, housing, alcohol treatment, and clinical services; assistance by law enforcement; and referrals for legal services. During the referral process, the case is kept open by DSS. Workers provide case management services and confer with First Step.

The approach used with offenders is the nationally recognized Duluth model which consists of 31 psycho-educational group sessions.1 Participation in the program is either voluntary, through DSS referral, or court-ordered. The program attempts to keep the family together, if possible. If, after 6 months, there is still a risk of child maltreatment, the case is referred to court for review.

DSS also uses an intermediate step for domestic violence cases — Action Meetings. These are essentially family group conferences with professional staff. The conveners are cautious regarding the role of the offender during these meetings.

Potential barriers to implementation were identified. Some workers reported that addressing domestic violence is not a legitimate role for CPS. Some workers believed that removal of the child from the home is the only safe solution in the short term. Others were reluctant to involve the offender in the assessment and in the ongoing treatment of the family. In addition, some workers pointed out that families often require pro bono legal services that are difficult to find in Catawba County, especially when the cases involve child custody disputes.

Family Conferencing

Catawba County uses the term family conferencing, or family group conferencing, to describe their adaptation of this process. Staff members use two models — Community Action Teams or Action Meetings and Family Group Decisionmaking. These models are based upon family-centered practices that recognize the strengths of the family and encourage their involvement in developing creative solutions to problems.

The meetings are voluntary, facilitated by a neutral third party, and the referring social worker is open to family options. The Action Team Meeting can be held at any time, but it usually is held after CPS substantiation of child abuse or neglect. It is not part of the investigation. In general, the technique is used at pivotal points in a case, such as the identification of the need for substance abuse treatment or possible placement into out-of-home care. The intervention is used for approximately 25 percent of substantiated cases and for almost one-half of ongoing treatment cases.

The Family Group Decisionmaking model was implemented through North Carolina State University’s Social Work program and was directed by Dr. Joan Pennell. The criteria for this model require:

  • A clear purpose;
  • More family members than professionals attending the conference;
  • Thorough preparation of family and other attendees for the meeting;
  • Private time for the family to discuss and create a plan to address clearly defined issues; and
  • An emphasis on respecting family rituals and traditions.

The purpose of Community Action meetings is primarily to divert children from DSS custody. Family Group Decisionmaking is used to promote case planning and decisionmaking with the participation of family members. An important distinction between the two is that during Family Group Decisionmaking, CPS or other professional staff leave the meeting and the family makes decisions without professional support, presence, or oversight. Considerations for allowing families to meet alone include the size of the family and amount of available support. The professionals guide, but do not direct, the process. The facilitator of the meeting is not part of the case, i.e., not the ongoing worker or supervisor. However, there is always an individual present to represent and interpret department policy and who approves any decisions that cost money. The presence of a supervisor at the meeting lends authority to the proceedings.

There is no specialized family conferencing unit. Treatment workers were trained to use the intervention. DSS found that although family conferencing was labor intensive, the benefits outweighed the costs of recidivism and out-of-home care.

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