Appropriate interventions depend on the age and developmental stage of the child. Basically, there are three goals: safety, emotional support, and social support.
Safety planning with children
- Talk with and support the non-offending parent
- For children under the age of four, direct safety planning is not usually recommended. Very young children do not yet have the cognitive skills to reliably anticipate danger or make decisions about which strategies to use. Older pre-school age children can think with you about how they have kept themselves safe when the situation feels dangerous and what they can do to stay safe.
- Relevant questions include: Where can they hide? Whom can they call? Is there a safe adult they can stay with? Do they know how to call 911?
- Non-abusive adults in the home and in the child's natural environment should be included in this planning if at all possible. The ability of the protective parent to discuss safety helps the child feel safe and emphasizes that the parent is also doing as much as possible to protect the child.
- Your basic knowledge about child development and about useful clinical responses to children under stress is as applicable in this situation as in others, such as children dealing with divorce or illness in the family.
- As with divorce situations, children's loyalty to both parents should be respected. It is very important to avoid demonizing the abusive parent. A child's fear of a parent does not preclude love and attachment.
- As with any upsetting experience, it is helpful for the child if someone listens and acknowledges their distress. However, it does not help to insist on a child's telling or retelling the story. Children are often reluctant to talk about abuse in their home, perhaps out of shame, loyalty, or fear of consequences.
- Drawings and/or play can help young children tell their story and express their feelings without having to be verbally explicit.
- It is often easier to enhance protective factors than to decrease the risk of violence. This means identifying adults, and sometimes friends of older children, who can be allies for the child in staying safe and in seeking physical and psychological refuge and comfort.
Intervening with Parents
- If you learn from a child about domestic violence in the home, you may wonder whether and how to talk with the parent(s). Your professional role, the child's age, the dangerousness of the violence and other factors will shape this decision. For instance, you may work in a school where a kindergarten teacher is concerned because of the violent play of a student, or you may be a therapist in a teen clinic where a client confides in you about violence in the home.
- These situations are ethically and clinically different. Generally, however, if you are going to talk with parents, the child should know about your concern and your decision. If you do talk with parents, it is important that the parents always be interviewed separately and that you first speak with the non-abusive parent.
- Difficult judgments abound when there are domestic violence issues. You may be in doubt about how to assess the level of dangerousness. You may be unsure about contacting parents because of confidentiality or other ethical issues. You may be concerned for your own safety. It is important to seek consultation in these situations. Your supervisor should be consulted first. A domestic violence program can also help you think through safety issues and assess risk.
- There may be a domestic violence specialist available through your agency. In addition, you can call a domestic violence hotline, the NASW ethics hotline, or consult with someone at the Department of Children and Families without revealing the identity of the family.
Domestic Violence and Child Protection
- When a child is the victim of abuse from a parent, you are mandated to report this to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Massachusetts. Mandated reporting is described more specifically in Unit 4.
- If the child is a witness, but not abused, you may be in doubt about filing a child abuse report. This is a decision that should be taken carefully, in consultation with supervisors, and potentially DCF. The goal is support and safety of the child and non-abusing parent. Please review the decision tree described in Unit 4.
- Reporting is not always the safer decision. Intervention with a family is likely to increase the chances of violence in the short run, as it threatens the control of the abusing parent. It is likely also to be perceived by the non-abusing parent as a threat to remove the child(ren).