I feel that I am putting all the responsibility for keeping the child safe on their mother when it is their father who has been violent. What can I do about this?
Don’t blame the victim for the violence they have experienced
It is important that you support the mother and child to understand that the violence is not their fault and that they have a right to be safe from violence. If you only work with the mother living with domestic violence instead of with the father perpetrating the violence, you are placing the burden on her to do all the work and make all the necessary changes. This denies the need for the person who has been violent to stop his abusive behaviour.
However, it is also important to bear in mind and help parents understand that both the mother and the father are responsible for parenting and keeping their child safe from harm, including witnessing violence.
Involve parents safely
Social workers are expected to work in partnership with both parents and to involve both in assessments, planning and meetings. You may need to work with mothers and fathers separately because of the domestic violence and to consider putting in place “split meetings” for child protection conferences or core groups if involving the father in the meeting would place the mother or child at risk.
By undertaking a holistic assessment, involving the father as well as the mother, you will be more able to identify if the father is a potential resource for his child and better assess the level of risk he may pose. This will inform your recommendations about what is needed to keep the child safe.
As there can be links between fathers’ domestic violence and their fathering, you may need to consider the impact of any potentially negative parenting practice by a father who perpetrates domestic violence.
Communicate with fathers directly
It is essential that a father who has been violent in the family home is made aware of any concerns you have about the safety and welfare of his child and what you say should be done to address these concerns. He should be told this directly by your department rather than there being an expectation that the child’s mother will pass on the information to him.
In some situations, mothers are left to tell fathers that Children’s Services have stated that they cannot have contact with their children. This not only puts the mother at further risk but it also fails to hold the father accountable for his actions and prevents him from learning what steps he might be able to take to change his behaviour.
Both parents need to know and understand what action your department may take if contact between the child and their father happens without their agreement where this has been identified as placing the child at risk of harm.
Mothers tell us that, sometimes, social workers say that if there are any further police call outs Children’s Services will get involved again at a more serious level, potentially removing children from home. Of course, parents need to understand how seriously domestic violence impacts on children and what steps social workers can take to protect children from harm. However, how this message is conveyed is crucial.
Mothers should not be put at further risk because they are too scared to call the police if they need to. Fathers should not be empowered to continue to be abusive because they know their partner feels unable to seek help due to fear that they will lose their children if they do so.
The most important thing is the safety of the mother and her child and so she should not be blamed for doing the right thing if she needs help from the police. If she doesn’t seek help this may be interpreted as placing herself and her child at risk. Be aware of this dilemma and try to make sure that she has access to specialist domestic violence services to help her.
What might help me work more effectively with fathers who are violent at home?
Some social workers may lack training, experience and confidence in working with perpetrators of domestic violence. You or your team can ask your manager for support/training if you feel you need it to help you enhance your skills and develop strategies for working with violent fathers. Managers should respond positively to such requests and consider how best to promote social workers’ professional development when working with perpetrators, as well as survivors, of domestic violence.
Resources and information
You may also find resources to assist you via British Association of Social Workers’ website, Fatherhood Istitute and Family Rights Group Frequently Asked Questions For Fathers.
Specialist perpetrator assessments and programmes
There are a number of accredited specialist domestic violence perpetrator programmes which provide very focussed interventions for men. These programmes have been found to reduce domestic violence, its effects and the risks to women and children.
Perpetrator programmes usually work collaboratively with a range of services and with multi-agency groups. They offer risk assessment and violence prevention services for men and support services for women partners and ex-partners. For more information about services offered by Respect and Domestic Violence Intervention Project see where to get further help.
You may want to consider signposting fathers, as well as mothers, to independent sources of advice and information such as Family Rights Group for legal advice.