How do I balance my statutory role in protecting children with responding appropriately to the complex needs of mothers affected by domestic violence?
Acknowledge the complexity
Working with families where there is domestic violence is very complicated, for the families themselves and also for the professionals working with them. Social workers with statutory responsibility for protecting children can struggle with these issues and may sometimes feel that their focus on the child’s welfare prevents them from being able to respond to the mother’s needs too.
Protecting mothers protects children
However, being child-focused and aware of how damaging living with domestic violence can be for a child does not mean that you have to ignore or neglect the needs of the child’s mother. In many cases, addressing the mother’s needs will support her to care for and keep her child safer too. As a social worker, you are committed to promoting the child’s best interests; helping their mother to be as safe and secure as possible, and ensuring that her practical and emotional needs are also met, is likely to be in the child’s best interests. She may be the most effective resource for protecting her child.
It is a key principle of the Children Act 1989 that the best place for a child to be brought up is with their own family, provided it is safe, with reasonable support from the State when needed. Therefore, providing support which helps the mother and child to be safe and stay together, where this in the child’s best interests, is good practice.
Think advice, advocacy and specialist support
Do encourage the mother to access advice and information. Specialist advice can help her feel listened to, be given information about what the law says and what procedures should be followed and help her to consider her options and make realistic choices. She may benefit from speaking to a specialist Family Rights Group adviser or from contacting a solicitor for legal advice.
Remember too that government guidance (Working Together 2015) strongly recognises that parents should be given information about advocacy services and allowed to bring an advocate to child protection meetings. Be aware that the more vulnerable a mother is and the more serious the child protection measures your department is considering, then the stronger the argument that you should provide advocacy to help her participate more effectively from an informed position.
Research shows that advocacy can really help families work in partnership with social workers especially where advocates are professionally trained and have good knowledge of child care law. Be positive in your approach to advocacy as it may result in better and more informed participation and help keep the child safe.
For more information about this see FRG advice sheet on advocacy for families.
Whilst you may not be able to provide all the support that the mother needs, you may be able to assist and encourage her to access specialist services where she can get the right help. She may need your encouragement or practical help, though, to take up services so do think holistically about how you can work alongside her to support her through the process. See where to get further help.
Social workers must maintain their focus on the child’s developmental timescale and comply with statutory and judicial timeframes for assessment and court proceedings. This can cause a dilemma when the mother (and perhaps the father) needs more time and ongoing support to address the concerns or maintain changes and where decisions need to be made for the child’s future.
Plans made may impact on the child throughout their life so you will need to ensure that the family has been offered support to resolve the issues where possible. It is also important to consider providing continued support to enable the mother and child to remain together, as well as exploring alternative care options within the family as early as possible, perhaps through the use of a family group conference (unless this would be too risky).
Where a mother has lost care of her child because of domestic violence it is still very important to consider offering her follow up support to maintain her continued relationship/involvement with that child and to safely care for any future child she may have.
I am assessing a family where there has been serious domestic violence but the mother is minimising our concerns - what can I do?
Minimising or denying domestic violence may be a starting point for many mothers when they first have social work involvement because of concerns for their children but it does not have to be the end point. It is important for a child that their mother is able to reflect on how they and their child are (or may be) affected/harmed by domestic violence and how they can be supported to keep their child safe.
Why might she minimise the concerns?
When planning your assessment, it may be helpful to think about all the competing issues this mother has to contend with. She may feel ashamed because of the nature of the abuse she has suffered, she may be worried about how this will impact on her role within her wider family and community and she may be intently focused on managing the situation in such a way that she keeps safe and that the violence does not increase. These are just some of the possible reasons why she feels she cannot disclose what is happening, or at least not at first.
Her main fear, as for many parents when social workers are involved, is probably that her child will be removed from her care, especially if she tells you the extent of what is going on.
She may not view what is happening as domestic violence. She may need time and specialist support to develop her understanding of domestic violence and to be able to make informed choices to address the concerns. See where to get further help. Unfortunately, sometimes the timescale for the mother to make changes may not be the same as for her child and in those situations the child’s needs must come first.
How can I help her move forward?
By recognising the factors that may be impacting on the woman’s ability to be open about the violence she has suffered and hearing from her about her understanding of the situation, you may be able to build up a relationship which will promote a more open discussion about the situation. You may be able to allay some of her worries in less serious cases. Where the concerns for the child’s welfare are very significant you can tell her honestly what action may be taken and in what circumstances and most importantly what she can do to stop this.
You could also proactively encourage her to attend a specialist domestic violence service so that she can speak freely to the professionals there, learn more about domestic violence and about how to keep herself and her child safe and be supported to do so.