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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 3
May 2003

Talking about Domestic Violence

Practice Tips from a Child Welfare / Domestic Violence Liaison

No matter how much experience you have, talking with families about domestic violence is never easy. Just ask Morgan Cromwell, the Domestic Violence Social Worker for Mecklenburg County Department of Youth and Family Services.

As the only full-time child welfare/domestic violence liaison employed by a department of social services in North Carolina, it is her job to assess suspected batterers and their victims and to teach social workers to do the same. Despite years on the job and many years prior experience working with sexual assault and domestic violence victims, Cromwell is still challenged when the time comes to talk about this kind of abuse.

But she also knows that these tough conversations can be the gateway to healing and better times for women and their children. Here are her suggestions for how to have successful conversations about domestic violence.

Speaking to the Mother

Cromwell suggests child welfare workers follow these guidelines during conversations with victims of domestic violence:

  • Always interview the mother alone
  • Assure her you are concerned about her safety, as well as the safety of the children
  • Assure her you will not confront the batterer with information she shares
  • Emphasize to her that it is her decision about what to do about the abuse
  • Make it clear you understand the domestic violence is not her fault

What NOT to Say

When you are talking to a child or adult who is the victim of abuse, choosing the right words is very important. Why? Because inappropriate or inadequate verbal responses—even if they are not intended to be hurtful—can feel like a second victimization for the person you are talking to. This can make the initial victimization that much more difficult for this person to resolve. Examples of attitudes or questions that may re-victimize include:

  • Disbelief (“Are you sure this happened?”)
  • Blame (“What did you do to set him off?”)
  • Cultural insensitivity (“Isn’t this accepted in your culture?”)
  • Judgment (“How can you stay!?”)
  • Minimizing (“The pain will go away, things will get better”)

In addition, avoid ultimatums. Never use placement of the children in foster care as a weapon or leverage (“If you don’t leave him, we’ll have to remove your children.”) Instead, focus on how the violence affects her children and their safety. Emphasize the elimination of threats and violence (rather than leaving) when developing plans with families.

Source: Ganley & Schecheter, 1996; Cromwell, 2003

After you have expressed your concern and set the tone for your conversation, define domestic violence for her. Explain that the abuse is almost always more than physical. The power and control wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project can be a useful tool at this stage.

Begin your assessment with nonthreatening, general, open-ended questions. Cromwell suggests the following as an example: “All families argue. In fact, disagreements can be healthy as long as people don’t feel threatened or intimidated. Tell me about some good and bad things about your relationship with [HUSBAND/BOYFRIEND]. What do arguments between you and [HUSBAND/BOYFRIEND] look like? What is it like when things get ‘hot’? Is there any time when one person gets pushed or shoved?”

Avoid questions direct yes and no questions such as, “Have you been hit or beaten?”

If the mother denies or minimizes the domestic violence but the children have made clear and convincing descriptions of it, consider sharing the children’s descriptions with her.

However, use your judgement on this point—if you suspect that the child has colluded with the batterer or that the child will be put at risk if you share these statements, do not use them in your discussion with the mother.

Be careful about leaving information with the mother. Leaving behind pamphlets about domestic violence or other information that suggests the woman may be thinking of leaving could place her and the children in greater danger.

Conclude the discussion by thanking her for talking with you about this difficult topic. Express again your concern for her safety and the safety of her children: “A lot of our clients are exposed to domestic violence. We want to be aware of what’s going on in your family so we can help and support you.”

Speaking to the Batterer

Ensure your own safety. Interview the batterer in your environment, not his. This will give you a psychological advantage (remember, the violence is about his need for power and control) and it will make you physically safer.

Prior to the interview, make sure that others in the office know who you are interviewing and why, and that people understand and will follow your agency’s safety protocols (for more on this, see Practice Notes vol. 3, no. 2).

Recognize that the batterer may try to manipulate you or physically intimidate you. NEVER let him know you are scared of him. He may also attempt to “charm” you and your supervisor in an effort to identify himself as the victim and to convince you that he could never harm his partner.

Normalize the fact that you are discussing domestic violence. For example, you might say: “This is information we talk about with everyone. We’re not singling you out.”

Protect the victim and her children. Do not confront the suspected batterer with information obtained from the mother or children. Instead, use information contained in the CPS referral and other third party reports (e.g., police reports, hospital records, prior CPS referrals).

Allow the batterer to talk about himself. Batterers enjoy talking about themselves and receiving attention from others. By allowing him to speak freely, you may be able to obtain more information from him.

Interviewing Children

The questions below are only a guide. Rely on your discretion when interviewing children. Always take the child’s age, developmental level, and the current situation into account.

  1. Assess the Pattern of the Batterer’s Abusive Conduct.
    What happens when the adults fight? Does anyone hit, shove, push? Does anyone yell? Does anyone throw or break things?

  2. Assess the Impact of Domestic Violence on the Adult Victim. Has anyone gotten hurt or injured? Is your parent afraid? How do your parents act after a bad fight?

  3. Assess the Impact of the Violence on the Child.
    Have you been hurt by any of their fights? What do your brothers or sisters do during a fight? Are you ever afraid when your parents fight? How do you feel during a fight? How do you feel afterwards?

  4. Assess Children’s Protective Factors. Where do you go during their fights? Have you tried to stop a fight? What happened? In an emergency for your parent or yourself, what would you do? Whom do you call?

  5. Assess Lethality: Child’s Knowledge of the Danger.
    Has anyone needed to go to a doctor after a fight? Do the adults use guns or knives? Do you know where the gun is? Has anyone threatened to hurt someone? What did the person say?

Source: Ganley & Schechter, 1996

References for this and other articles in this issue