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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 3
May 2003

North Carolina Formulates a New Response to Domestic Violence

When she talks about our ability to respond to domestic violence, Leslie Starsoneck doesn’t mince words.

“There is a lack of training professionals receive about domestic violence,” she says. “There is a lack of accountability, a sense of being overwhelmed by the complexity of this problem.”

In Starsoneck’s view, this is clearly unacceptable.

She is not alone in her thinking. When she addresses this subject, Starsoneck speaks not just as the Executive Director of the N.C. Council for Women and Domestic Violence Commission, but as a member of an interdisciplinary, statewide task force charged with assessing North Carolina’s response to families experiencing domestic violence.

This group, the Child Well-Being and Domestic Violence Task Force, convened in early 2002. Co-chaired by North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. and Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, the task force brought together advocates, policy makers, judges, law enforcement personnel, and citizens.

After a year of study, task force members concluded that the professionals working in a wide range of disciplines—including child welfare, the courts, law enforcement, and community agenices—could and should do more to ensure the safety and well-being of women and children exposed to domestic violence in North Carolina.

Guided by six principles, the task force divided itself into subcommittees charged with issuing recommendations in four areas: the courts and law enforcement, providers of community-based services, funding, and child protective services.

The task force’s final report, issued in February 2003, contains many legal, policy, and training recommendations. These include a suggestion that domestic violence protective order hearings routinely address the temporary custody of children, and a proposal that North Carolina adopt a statute criminalizing the act of seriously assaulting an adult in the presence of a child. This latter recommendation has already inspired bills to this effect in the N.C. Senate (Bill 868) and House (Bill 926).

Child Welfare Changes

The task force made specific recommendations for improving the way North Carolina’s child welfare system responds to domestic violence. This is not surprising, given the prevalence of domestic violence in families involved with child welfare. Research indicates that between 30% and 60% of families served by child welfare agencies also experience domestic violence (Edelson, 1999).

The N.C. Division of Social Services and individual child welfare agencies—like the professionals in other systems that serve families affected by battering—are already taking steps to implement these recommendations. The following summary provides a glimpse of the changes coming to child welfare, as well as a sense of when they will take effect.

Recommendation #1

Uniform policies and procedures should be implemented in all county departments of social services on domestic violence and child well-being.

To facilitate the implementation of this recommendation the task force developed a sample protocol that addresses the following components of children’s services:

Screening. Screening for domestic violence should be universal and should occur at intake, during assessment, and during interventions. Screening for domestic violence at intake should involve questions that allow us to assess/identify a pattern of domestic violence, the presence and role of children in domestic violence incidents, and factors that suggest a heightened risk for lethality.

Investigation. In domestic violence cases, DSS should interview all household members separately, beginning with the adult victim. Under MRS’s family assessment response, workers should meet with the family as a group to discuss other matters, but must discuss domestic violence issues individually.

Domestic violence should not warrant the automatic removal of children. Safety of the mother and children should be a key concern; information obtained from the woman should not be shared with the batterer.

Safety Planning. Safety planning should begin with the first contact with the non-offending parent. Provide the adult victim with information about local advocacy and support services. To learn about these resources, consult the N.C. Council for Women’s list of 113 state-funded domestic violence and sexual assault programs in North Carolina ( Most are local programs.

Assessing Risk and Lethality. Proceed with caution so as not to put the children or adult victim at greater risk.

Case Decision. Always clearly identify the perpetrator of domestic violence and explain the context of the abuse. Hold the perpetrator accountable. Do not blame or shame the non-offending parent. See sidebar for factors to consider when reaching a case decision.

Reaching a Case Decision

In families experiencing domestic violence, in North Carolina the following factors may indicate a need for substantiation or a determination that the family is in need of services:

  • Children have attempted to intervene in the domestic violence (whether injured or not)
  • There is an established pattern of domestic violence that is chronic or severe
  • Children exhibit extreme emotional, behavioral, or mental health needs as a result of living with domestic violence
  • Substance abuse and domestic violence coexist in the home
  • The non-offending parent is threatened or injured in the presence of the children
  • The non-offending parent has been hospitalized for injuries resulting from domestic violence

Case Planning and Management. The primary goals of case planning with the non-offending parent and children are to promote enhanced safety for the children and mother and to encourage perpetrators to take responsibility for their violence and for changing their behavior. The non-offending parent should not be held responsible for the perpetrator’s failure to follow through with requirements. Case plans should always include ways to hold the perpetrator accountable for stopping the violence. For safety reasons, the non-offending parent’s case plan should not be shared with the perpetrator.

Case Closure. Before a case is considered for closure, the non-offending parent should be connected with a service provider in the community who will follow-up and provide ongoing support. Consider the safety of the non-offending parent as well as the children when closing the case.

Implementation. North Carolina’s county departments of social services began using a new screening/intake tools in June 2003. These tools, which are officially known as the “Strengths-based, Structured Intake,” were developed in connection with the Multiple Response System (MRS). These tools ensure agencies screen every report for domestic violence and substance abuse, both of which have been linked with child maltreatment.

Other recommendations are being incorporated into a new children’s services policy on domestic violence that will go into effect in fall 2003. According to Candice Britt, a children’s services policy consultant with the Division, in addition to guiding practice, the policy will be a teaching document. When published the new policy will be located at <>.

Recommendation #2

The Multiple Response System (MRS) model should be evaluated to measure its effectiveness, including in cases where violence is threatened or committed against a parent and children, prior to expansion.

As detailed in previous issues of Practice Notes, MRS is a new approach to child welfare being piloted in ten North Carolina counties. In keeping with many of the task force’s policy recommendations, the MRS approach takes domestic violence into account at all stages of child welfare.

Under MRS, all reports are screened for domestic violence, and families are assessed for this issue throughout their work with the agency. To ensure the safety of the children and the adult victim, MRS also prescribes interviewing family members separately on the topic of domestic violence, and it requires agencies to deviate from the traditional model of child and family team meetings (see Practice Notes vol. 8, no. 2) to ensure the adult victim and children are protected from the batterer.

Anecdotal reports suggest the MRS approach to families experiencing domestic violence works well. According to one Mecklenburg social worker, “Especially with the family assessment approach, we get more information and better cooperation than we did before MRS.”

Implementation. It is anticipated MRS will become the standard approach to child welfare in North Carolina in 2005. MRS will be evaluated before, during, and after this expansion.

Recommendation #3

Every county DSS should have access to a CPS/domestic violence consultant.

In large part this recommendation stems from the benefits experienced by Mecklenburg County, the only county in North Carolina with a full-time child welfare/domestic violence liaison employed by a DSS. The person in this position trains social workers and related systems’ employees and assesses clients for issues related to domestic violence.

Implementation. In an effort to comply with this recommendation, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has applied for the funding needed to create a small Domestic Violence Liaison Unit. If funded this unit would be staffed by four regional consultants and a DV program manager; these positions would work closely with county DSS’s, the Division, the domestic violence community, and others around domestic violence issues.

Recommendation #4

Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) should be established between or among county DSS’s, domestic violence programs, law enforcement agencies, and others.

The task force believes MOUs are a means of ensuring a community’s response to domestic violence is coordinated. MOUs may also encourage county DSS’s and others to rely more on each other.

Implementation. For information about developing an MOU for responding to domestic violence, visit DV/CPS <>, a web site sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families. Colorado Springs, Colorado <> and San Diego, California <> are just two cities that have their MOUs on this topic available on the web.

Recommendation #5

A community collaboration model should be adopted when addressing domestic violence as it relates to children’s well-being.

The types of activities that communities should address when developing their collaborations include: the reporting of domestic violence and child maltreatment to law enforcement; emergency responses to support the safety of children; accessing safety shelter and advocacy services; improving the community’s capacity to respond to family violence; supporting legal interventions that hold the perpetrator accountable by working with community corrections; and coordinating legal representation for victims of domestic violence with legal aid, pro bono projects, and law school clinics.

In some places collaboration—especially between the child welfare and domestic violence communities—may seem like a tall order. Historically, differing mandates and perspectives on social problems have created a significant divide between these two groups. In the worst cases, domestic violence service providers have viewed child welfare workers as “baby snatchers,” while child welfare workers have seen domestic violence advocates as unconcerned about child safety.

Sybil Mann, Director of the Waynesville-based 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance, sees communication as the key to putting aside past disagreements. “We must talk to each other despite the past relationships between different agencies. Strained and adversarial though they may be, these conversations are a first and necessary step to helping the women and children we all care about.”

Recommendation #6

Pre-service, in-service, and cross-training.

To facilitate interagency collaboration and improve services to families struggling with domestic violence, the task force recommends (1) mandatory domestic violence training for all new and current DSS CPS social workers via pre-service and in-service training; (2) mandatory cross-training of DSS CPS social workers, domestic violence advocates, and guardians ad litem; (3) ongoing training for domestic violence consultants.

Implementation. The N.C. Division of Social Services and its partner agencies are developing a plan for implementing this recommendation. In addition, the Division currently offers a two-day course on the topic entitled, Domestic Violence: An Overview. For course times and locations visit the North Carolina Social Services Professional Development site <>.

References for this and other articles in this issue