|Children and women first? Voices from the front lines of domestic violence on the impact of child welfare reporting (VfC)||| Print ||
|Voices for Children - Reports|
Children and women first? Voices from the front lines of domestic violence on the impact of child welfare reporting
Exposure to domestic violence is the leading cause of child abuse in Ontario.1 In 2003, for example, an estimated 18,518 children were often silent witnesses to bouts of physical abuse occurring between their parents or caregivers-an increase of 319 percent from 1998 child welfare reports, the last time figures were researched provincially. While children of all ages are affected, children under the age of seven make up almost two-thirds of these cases. Evidence is mounting that these children experience a wide range of behavioural and emotional problems.
In 2000, the Ontario government made changes to the Child and Family Services Act designed to better protect children. Beyond this, various systems such as police and child welfare have made policy and practice changes intended to better address the risks to children. Are children now better off? Voices for Children asked the authors of a recent study to address this important question.
In recent times, our understanding of child abuse has broadened to recognize that children exposed to domestic violence are also at risk for emotional and/or physical harm. Police, for example, now routinely contact child welfare if children are in a home where domestic violence is identified. Shelters, schools and other community agencies now report their concerns about children witnessing domestic violence, so much so that the number of reported cases has skyrocketed. But have the best interests of children been protected? Are more stringent reporting guidelines ensuring that children who have been exposed to domestic violence are actually being helped? Or are mothers less likely to report domestic violence because they are afraid their children will be taken away from them? And what about the police, doctors, shelter workers and children's aid society (CAS) workers and others who are charged with helping to protect and support these children? Are they properly equipped and trained to carry out their roles?
Funded by the United Way of Greater Toronto, Child Development Institute and the University of Toronto conducted a qualitative study to shed light on the impact of these changes.2 By conducting key informant interviews and focus groups and by analyzing service data, the study drew on the perspectives of mothers, children, and the helping professionals who serve them. The good news is, the study found that many women and their children are getting help where they would not have under the old system.
But the study also shows how inconsistently women and children are being supported across the various sectors including women's shelters, child welfare agencies, police services, health care, and the legal system. Due to differing obligations and responsibilities among varying professionals, mothers, for example, are given conflicting information and advice. This only adds to the challenges they are already experiencing. While policy changes have had the positive effect of raising awareness among various service providers, many report that they are still not equipped to manage the complex nature of domestic violence cases. In fact, most agree that further coordination is still urgently needed across the sectors to ensure mothers and their children receive the support they need to avoid becoming re-victimized.
In this report, we examine these issues and findings, with a special focus on children-the all too often silent witnesses to domestic violence and the intended beneficiaries of reporting changes.
What impact does domestic violence have on mothers and children?
While woman abuse has long been acknowledged as a troubling social phenomenon, children who are exposed to domestic violence are its more recently recognized victims. Women abused by their intimate partners face significant health and mental health risks: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, risk for suicide, substance abuse, social isolation and physical injury are among the documented effects.3 Abused women report low self-esteem and loss of confidence in parenting.4 Other impacts include decreased socio-economic status, periods of homelessness and having to deal with financial instability on a daily basis.5 In sum, when compared to non-abused women, the research shows that abused women suffer more from negative mental health, psychological, and circumstantial effects.6
A mother trying to cope in an abusive relationship faces extraordinary challenges. Daily survival and trying to find new ways to stop the violence or escape it, can consume a great deal of energy and focus. Research shows that it may take her several attempts to leave the relationship.7 Research also suggests that by leaving, she may actually be putting herself and her children in more danger.8 Adding to her fears, she may face economic barriers, emotional dependency or religious prohibitions.9 For example, divorce may not be sanctioned by her family. Her decision to leave the relationship may mean losing the help she depends on from family members to care for her children. Research shows that if she leaves, there is a greater likelihood she will lose custody of her children because men who abuse their partners are more likely to fight for custody and they are less likely to pay child support.10
And, what about the children? Evidence is mounting that children exposed to domestic violence often exhibit a range of behavioural, cognitive and emotional problems when compared to their peers. "Acting out" behaviours may include: aggression, temper tantrums, bullying, and cruelty to animals. "Internalized behaviours" may include: headaches, anxiety, sleep disturbances, social withdrawal, and depression.11 In the long run, this exposure may increase a child's risk of becoming violent or being victimized by someone else's violence.12 It is widely accepted by helping professionals that childhood exposure to domestic violence is damaging to children.
Should exposure to domestic violence be classified as "child maltreatment"?
There is less agreement, however, about whether the negative effects should be necessarily defined as "child maltreatment" and therefore subject to child welfare intervention. Although there is anecdotal evidence that there are very few cases where children are removed from their homes on the basis of exposure to domestic violence alone-usually there are other forms of maltreatment happening at the same time-mothers often perceive that exposure to domestic violence alone will precipitate removal. The concern for mothers and many of the advocates who support them, is that mothers now not only have to cope with the impact of abuse on themselves, but they also have to worry about how child welfare will assess their ability to protect their children.
What are young people saying?
The young people who participated in the research were not directly affected by the recent changes to reporting policies. Instead, they spoke about their experiences of growing up with domestic violence (and other forms of abuse and family challenges) and of having been taken into the care of child welfare prior to the changes (which means removal was not based on domestic violence alone but rather may have been based on several factors). The youth participants identified the following effects of living in a home with domestic violence:
Overall, the youth participants believe that children need to be protected from exposure to violence in the home and welcome the idea of child welfare involvement for this purpose. In reflecting on their own situations, having to leave their families was still difficult-many would have preferred to be able to stay in the home if the violence could have been prevented or interrupted. Sadly, most participants expressed the sentiment that it would be too difficult for children's aid to ‘fix their broken families.' The youth also expressed concerns and made suggestions for changes:
While the research may not be definitive on categorizing a child's exposure to domestic violence as "child maltreatment," it is clear that as witnesses to their mothers' abuse, children can experience lasting behavioural, cognitive and emotional trauma. Unfortunately, when the system intervenes it isn't always as effective as it should be for the families, or even the professionals who are working within it.
What are mothers saying?
Mothers who are being abused by their partners have a great deal to say about their experiences of attempting to secure help for themselves and their children. They discover, often by surprise, that child welfare now has a role to play in this process. Mothers report the following:
Most mothers did not expect that calling the police would result in child welfare involvement although a few women stated that the police let them know during the call that a CAS worker would be in touch with them.
A number of women spoke positively about the ‘parent support workers' who assisted them with their parenting skills and worked with them beyond the investigation stage. Perhaps this longer, practical assistance made a difference in how child welfare intervention was experienced in some cases. The women would have liked a longer-term relationship with these workers but the services offered were time limited. Child welfare workers who seemed to be in touch with the difficulties facing an abused woman in her decision to leave were seen as the most helpful. These workers had a good understanding of the mother's concerns including: uprooting themselves and their children, fear for their lives and their children's, risk of isolation from their cultural and religious communities, lack of financial resources, stigma and shame. However, why some workers have this ability to tune-in while others do not remains unclear.
Children are fundamentally dependent on the safety and well-being of their mothers. Clearly, more children who are being exposed to violence in the home are being considered for protective intervention under the new system. However, many professionals and support workers within the system are concerned that the drastic increase in the number of cases has also been detrimental to the quality of the help they are receiving.
What are the helping professionals saying?
Most helping professionals agree that recognizing that children exposed to domestic violence could be at risk for emotional harm is a positive step in child welfare policy and practice. Identifying this potential risk to children allows children to receive help that may have otherwise been overlooked. The practice of requiring children who have been exposed to domestic violence be referred to child welfare may reap additional benefits because it educates many professionals about the potential impact of children living under these circumstances.
While these are positive steps, professionals also have concerns. Overall, the duty to report a child's exposure to domestic violence has changed the way professionals communicate with their clients. Professionals and advocates working in services for abused women (including ethno-specific agencies), shelters, legal services, advocacy services, health care services and children's services tend to express concerns on two levels:
What is improving?
Examples of inter-sectoral and inter-agency collaborations are now beginning to be developed and implemented to ease tensions and increase communication between various sectors. The "Collaboration Agreement for the Children's Aid Societies and Violence Against Women Agencies of Toronto" (April, 2004) is one example. Specialists are also being identified and made available in child welfare settings such as the piloted program "Getting Connected."
As well, a number of services are making strides in implementing internal policies to guide the work of their staff:
These are all important, if not piecemeal steps in moving towards an integrated and effective system that will help women and their children. But, as many helping professionals have pointed out, a larger and more seamless picture must emerge that is built on a ‘team approach' that connects all sectors.
Towards the end of 2005, representatives from the violence against women sector, child welfare, police, health care and legal system met for a full day symposium to review the study's findings and identify areas where further improvements could be made.
Sector representatives agreed that service delivery is enhanced when:
Taking the first step to disclose violence is difficult enough, but many women find it even more intimidating to continue the process when faced with a variety of services to contact. Professionals across many of the sectors believe it is important to create more effective pathways for women and their children to obtain help. The participants agreed that improvements are necessary in the following areas:
Can we say after five years that the policy and practice changes are working to "promote the best interests, protection and well-being of children?" Are more stringent reporting guidelines helping to protect children exposed to domestic violence? Or are mothers less likely to report domestic violence because they are afraid their children will be taken away from them? Certainly everyone agrees that because of reporting changes more children and mothers are receiving help. But at the same time, some mothers and their children have been "re-victimized" in a system that while working diligently to protect, is also overwhelmed by caseloads, lack of training, and the challenges of coordinating efforts across different agencies and sectors. Young people, in particular, speak poignantly about interventions they desperately need and appreciate, but which sometimes cause them further pain and anxiety.
Yet in spite of differing approaches across the sectors, service providers are growing more aware of the serious impact of domestic violence on children who are exposed to it. More and more, workers are also using a collaborative and systematic approach to overcome their service challenges. Increasingly, the sectors share a desire to move beyond longstanding myths about child welfare intervention and understand each other better. They recognize that child welfare reporting plays an important role in ensuring children get the protection they need.
It is also clear that awareness and education is already working to create positive change-ensuring that mothers being abused and children being exposed to that abuse will be able to better trust that the help they seek to stop the violence and heal the wounds will actually turn out to do just that.
References, Resources & Links
Alaggia, R. & Maiter, S. (in press). Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: Issues for Immigrant and Refugee Families. In Alaggia, R. & Vine, C. (Eds.) Cruel but not Unusual: Violence in Canadian Families. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Angelique Jenney, M.S.W. is Director of Family Violence Services for Child Development Institute in Toronto. She has over 10 years experience engaging both victims and perpetrators of family violence in treatment and prevention services within the community, criminal justice, and mental health sectors. Her work with diverse populations and communities has allowed her to address specific issues of engagement in delivering services using non-traditional models and intervention strategies. Her current research and practice interests are in addressing the impact of family violence on children and developing interventions for caregivers.
Ramona Alaggia, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. She has been principal investigator and co-investigator on studies involving various forms of child and adult victimization, victims' experiences in the justice system, the impact of child welfare policies in cases of domestic violence and evaluation of family-based interventions. Her work has also included investigating the impact of immigration on families and child welfare practices with newcomer families. Dr. Alaggia's current study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council examines the ways in which women disclose intimate partner violence, their help seeking actions, factors that promote or inhibit disclosure, and deterrents to receiving appropriate supports.
Josephine Mazzuca, PhD completed her doctoral work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies. Her research experience includes studies on anti-racism education, high school dropouts, girlhood aggression as well as currently domestic violence. She is the co-author of both a Ministry of Education report and a published book on the topic of Black high school students. For seven years she served as the lead researcher on the Canadian Gallup Poll investigating public opinion on topics including politics, social issues and international relations. Also in her role at the Gallup Organization she was a senior consultant directing studies on workplace culture.
Melissa Redmond, M.S.W. (PhD Candidate) completed a Liberal Arts degree at Concordia University. After graduation and two years working on a diagnostic tool for memory-impaired seniors, she obtained her degrees in civil and common law and an MSW at McGill University. Melissa spent ten years as a social worker in diverse settings that included child protection agencies, an immigration research centre, immigrant services, a storefront community organization as well as a non-profit organization focused on HIV/AIDS awareness, youth advocacy and homelessness. Her current interests are child protection, gender equity, and the theoretical debate over citizenship, stakeholders, and clientelism.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 March 2012 14:26|