Voices of the sector: How child protection and family violence works together
This article features in the May 2018 edition of DVRCV Advocate.
The Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended co-locating a specialist family violence worker within Child Protection to support workers to consider family violence as part of their risk assessment. The first question this posed in people's minds was, how will Child Protection and family violence workers collaborate using different frameworks? We interviewed Britt (Child Protection) and Krysia (specialist family violence support) to ask how they collaborated on a case in this way, and made sure women and children were supported and the perpetrator was held to account in the one family.
THE CASE STUDY
A father was perpetrating family violence for a number of years. Child Protection assessed the mother as responsible for harm by failing to protect the three children from their father's violence. The perpetrator was excluded from the address by an intervention order (IO) but Child Protection determined it wasn't safe for the mother and kids to stay as she wasn't on the lease. She was distressed because Child Protection told her to take the children to her mother's house or they'd be removed. They moved in with the children's grandmother in an overcrowded house, isolated and destitute. The children showed emotional behavioural concerns resulting from the instability of being moving and their father's presence / absence in their life.
The perpetrator didn't breach the order while the victim survivor was at her mother's house. Safety had been established. The mother and children returned to the family home as there were adequate supports in the community, ongoing Child Protection monitoring and liaison with police to ensure IO breaches were reported and pursued in a criminal manner. The woman engaged in services and reported feeling more empowered, financially stable and able to pay the rent without his support, which she'd identified as a reason for returning to the relationship in the past. The perpetrator took responsibility for his actions by participating in the Caring Dads program.
My role was to provide Child Protection with specialist advice about family violence dynamics: how it presents, the impacts and navigating the service system. I'm a Berry Street worker who was placed at Child Protection four days a week to meet with workers and support their work with families. Family violence informed practice understands family violence as a pattern of coercive control that permeates through every aspect of their life and holding that framework in being mindful in how you speak with the woman, present matters to court and speak with your manager. The priority is on the children and the protective parent staying together with as little disruption as possible.
How did you learn about children and children's risk?
I learned about it in my social work degree and student placement in Child Protection. Since then I've learned on the job and through professional development and conferences. We frame the perpetrator's pattern of behaviour as a parenting choice rather than an intimate partner relationship choice.
How did you understand the Child Protection response?
Child Protection acts in an urgent space. Cumulative harm is a relatively recent concern for Child Protection, yet it is one of the most impactful harms on a child. The threat or presence of physical violence is seriously concerning, but the cumulative effect of family violence on the child's cognition, social abilities and bodily functions are almost indescribable to a Magistrate.
Did the role shift your practice?
It changed the way I present information to Child Protection. Now I understand what they're looking for and I'm explicit about how we view the risk and support the woman. I also explain Child Protection to women differently; the steps, systems and decision making can reduce some of the fear their children will be removed.
Where was the tension in this case?
The tensions in this case were similar to those across many situations where our services work together. Unlike Child Protection, family violence services are voluntary; if a woman chooses to disengage, we respect her choice. Child Protection practitioners often wonder why we don't try harder to reach a woman but she'll engage in the service when she feels it's appropriate because she's the expert in her life. In this case, the Children's Court ordered the woman to engage with a family violence service, making it mandatory.
One key practice shift that needs to transfer into policy is that working with the parent is good for the children. Child Protection work for the children and we work for the mother and the children together. The protective parent is absolutely the best person to look after their children; working with the adult in their life is just as important as working with the children. The Family Law Court often place too much value on a violent parent's right to see their children rather than the negative impact that seeing a violent parent has on a child.
What conversations did you have together?
A key part of my role was developing a shared understanding. As mentioned, family violence services are voluntary, Child Protection is statutory. We work differently but the two services have empathy for how each operates and why.
In this instance, I looked into different housing options and told Britt what was available; I supported her to frame the woman's strengths to her managers. I found that Child Protection held a view that the victim survivor could breach her own order by being around the perpetrator but the responsibility falls on him. Britt worked with management on their views of the woman's safety, strengths and who was responsible for the risk.
How did you avoid collusive practices with perpetrators?
I supported Britt in how to avoid collusion in the way that she spoke with the perpetrator, the opportunities she gave him and how to hold him accountable, particularly in framing the court report.
When you speak with a perpetrator there needs to be an explicit purpose. You mustn't provide him with information that can escalate the woman's risk so you always hold the woman and children in the forefront of your mind.
When I first started working in Child Protection, my knowledge of family violence came from my social work degree, training in previous roles and external organisations. Child Protection is set up to combat child abuse and neglect, not family violence, but we're starting to see a paradigm shift.
How did you understand it?
I had a good understanding of family violence theory but not how to incorporate it into Child Protection practice, especially when holding the perpetrator accountable. Child Protection cases often charge the woman with responsibility for mitigating the risk, rather than holding the perpetrator accountable for his actions.
Who did you engage with?
My engagement with Krysia came from her explaining the new role and the benefits. This family was in a difficult situation. Child Protection didn't have clear policies on how to work with family violence, so I consulted her to find out about services the mother could access to gain stability and how to hold the perpetrator accountable.
What did you do?
In Child Protection the onus is really on the woman to find services herself; Krysia's role supported me to explore the range of services for the woman.
The biggest barrier was that mum wanted to return home but Child Protection didn't want that until safety requirements were in place. She was in limbo with a stable house that was deemed unsafe and an inability to transfer the lease into her name.
We couldn't resolve those barriers without Child Protection changing their assessment. Part of the evidence we presented to support the change in assessment was highlighting mum's strengths, her proactivity and fantastic care of the kids despite their experience of family violence, which she had no control over.
Did working with Krysia shift your practice in Child Protection?
It encouraged a strengths-based, feminist approach even while working in Child Protection. It also supported me to become more confident in challenging my superiors when it came to decision-making. In a statutory role you're expected to be an expert, but this role supported me to become a more collaborative practitioner.
Where was the point of tension?
Child Protection uses the best interests of the child case practice model which clashes with the feminist framework specialist family violence services use.
In this case, Child Protection decided the children would be safe at their grandmother's house because they were less likely to witness family violence, but they were completely unstable; sleeping in the lounge room with their mother, far from their school and isolated.
Also, the perpetrator took no responsibility for his use of violence and yet the Children's Court ordered him to have contact with the children once a week, privileging his right to contact with the child despite the best interests of the child. Juggling those two frameworks was a tension.
What conversations did you have together?
We did a lot of reflection on holding the perpetrator accountable. He wasn't criminally charged for breaches so the legal system was unable to hold him accountable. Men's behaviour change is only useful if he takes responsibility for his actions. We talked about how the Child Protection interview can be an opportunity to put in the groundwork and get that change to happen.
How did you avoid collusive practices with perpetrators?
Consulting with Krysia and working within the feminist framework prevented me from buying into his violence-supporting narrative. Without that, an interview can offer him an opportunity to perpetrate further abuse by painting the woman as a bad parent. He started to take some responsibility after having contact with his children for a few weeks. The men's behaviour change program reported working with him to make meaningful links between his use of violence and the impact on the children.
What is the benefit of Child Protection working with a family violence specialist?
It was really beneficial having Krysia located in Child Protection; she made a bridge between the statutory entity and the community services.