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Washington Forum | 03/08/2010
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In the Best Interest of Children

By Margaret Hobart

All children deserve to be safe in their own home. When we are worried about a child, we call on Child Protective Services (CPS) for help. We count on child welfare workers to intervene and to keep that child safe. And, we count on the agency they work for to give them the training and tools they need to do this well. Children's lives depend on it.

This month, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) took an important step forward in helping their social workers keep children safe. They introduced a new practice guide that gives practical tips on how to intervene when domestic violence occurs alongside child abuse or neglect. DSHS created the guide in partnership with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence and child abuse or neglect often occurs in the same home. A recent study found domestic violence present in 47 percent of DSHSs moderate to high risk child protection cases. For these families, addressing domestic violence is a necessary step in creating a safe home for the child. Take the following example:

A domestic violence abuser is assaulting their intimate partner. The couple's child tries to intervene. The abuser pushes the child into a table, causing a fall and bruising. The next day the child's teacher notices the injuries and calls CPS. The domestic violence victim kicks the abuser out of the house. However, the victim does not make enough money to move to a new apartment, and the abuser keeps coming around. Neither the adult victim nor the child is safe, even though the abuser is out of the home.

DSHS's new practice guide helps workers address this type of situation. It instructs them to protect children by working with the adult victim to figure out what they need to be safe from the abuser. This is critical because a child will not be truly safe if violence towards their parent continues. The guide also has workers focus on the abuser and the need for them to change their behavior or face consequences.

The intent of DSHS's new practice guide is to ensure that domestic violence will not be overlooked, thus avoiding tragic consequences. With its implementation, all families will be screened for domestic violence several times throughout the life of a case.

Child welfare social workers will now have the tools to act on what research and experience tell us is true -- that child abusers are often domestic violence perpetrators; adult victims and children are frequently struggling to cope with the same person's violence; and domestic violence victims need support and resources to break free from violence.

In the previous example, the practice guide will encourage the case worker to accurately identify the domestic violence that preceded the harm to the child, and accurately identify the domestic violence abuser as the source of that harm. Knowing this, they will work with the adult victim to figure out what is needed to stay safe. Together they may see the need for increased security at home. The worker may help get the resources needed to change the locks at the apartment. They may also speak directly to the abuser, warn that the abusive behavior is not okay, discuss the negative effects of domestic violence on children, and require that person to enroll in a domestic violence perpetrator treatment program.

If the victim thinks getting a protection order will help keep the abuser away, the case worker may help with this process. They could document DSHS's concerns about the child's safety for the judge, so that custody and visitation orders can take into account both the child's and the adult victim's safety, and the ways in which they are interrelated.

Child abuse and domestic violence are complex issues with no simple answers, but DSHS's new domestic violence practice guide is a key part of the solution. Based on the best available knowledge about effective interventions, its implementation is an important step for Washington. It represents hope that every child in our state will be safe in their own home.

Hobart is the Children's Justice Project Coordinator at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and co-author of the Department of Social and Health Service's 'Social Worker's Practice Guide to Domestic Violence.'

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