On Friday, 17th November a record number of practitioners joined with the AASW/PeakCare Child Protection practice group to tackle the question Who is the client? Reflecting on the complexity of child protection and family support practice in the context of the intersection with domestic and family violence. Seven expert presenters offered their expertise and insights with regard to child protection, family support and the domestic and family violence nexus.

Background:

In her presentation Rachel Shelton articulated the key issues that led to this conversation. Rachel is a Domestic Violence Specialist with the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, Micah Projects. Rachel is employed as an embedded Domestic Violence Specialist within Family and Child Connect (FACC) which includes a partnership of organisations including: Mercy Community Services, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service and Kurbingui Youth Development Ltd. Rachel’s role involves merging domestic violence best practice with child protection and family support theories and practice. The issues Rachel noted clearly outline the reasons for this forum:

Historically, domestic violence agencies have placed the focus on the survivor of violence as the primary client. It was viewed that children cannot be safe unless the survivor is assisted with the skills to recognise risk and educated about the impact of violence on children whilst supported to stay safe. Workers were not necessarily aware of or skilled in responding to children in the families. Also, they may have had limited inter-professional or interagency links with the child and family sector.

Life at home for children experiencing or witnessing domestic and family violence can be frightening and highly unpredictable. Within the context of domestic and family violence, children are often fearful and hyper-vigilant about when the next incident may happen. It can be extremely traumatic as the violence is perpetrated by someone they trust. Rachel also noted that exposure to domestic violence is now recognised as a child protection issue and the risk of co-occurrence such as physical and sexual abuse has been shown in some research.

The behaviour of perpetrators can significantly impact on parenting capacity and have a huge influence on family functioning. It can compromise a mother’s ability to respond to her children’s needs or change the way she parents in order to shelter children from the behaviour of perpetrators. The relationship between the mother and child may suffer as result of this.

Over time it became clear that children needed to be brought back into focus with appropriate consideration of children’s needs and effective protection of their rights. Initiatives to develop ‘child aware’ practices in adult services aimed to address such issues. Micah Projects and Brisbane Domestic Violence Service endorse this approach.

On the flip side, child protection practice and family support agencies have, in the past, viewed safety of the child as paramount. This promotes the needs of children within the home and prioritises safety for the most vulnerable of our community. From a domestic violence perspective, however, child protection practice once viewed domestic violence as a relationship issue, a mutual argument, or as an anger management issue. Women continued to be the focus of interventions and were held responsible for protecting children from exposure to domestic violence.

Whilst agencies had willingness to partner and to collaborate, they still primarily worked in silos and workers were struggling in practice as to how to keep women and children safe whilst at the same time providing family support.

These issues were explored throughout the duration of this forum and changes in perspective and practice were acknowledged and discussed by presenters and participants.  The particular changes discussed were those with regard to the change from victim blaming to perpetrator accountability and holistic support for non-perpetrating parents and children.

Presentations:

The forum began with brief presentations from our expert practitioners and academics to set the foundation for the ensuing conversation between panellists and participants.

In beginning the forum, Karina Maxwell, a Quandamooka woman, gave the Acknowledgement of Country prior to sharing her expertise. Karina is the Case Manager at Joyce Wilding Hostel.  She worked in policy in state government in remote Indigenous Housing and Cabinet as well as with asylum seekers before heading into Intensive Family Support in a main stream organisation based in Logan working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, about 90% of whom experienced domestic and family violence. This year she moved across to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service which is a community controlled organisation.

Karina spoke to her experiences of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children and families impacted by domestic and family violence and noted the specific complexities of homelessness and poverty including the hardship faced by transient populations endeavouring to access services. She was clear that the provision of safe and stable housing is key to supporting those impacted by domestic and family violence. This is an essential consideration and needs to be a parallel process in providing intervention.

Jane Bowman, Program Manager of treatment services with Queensland Injectors Health Network (QuIHN) is passionate about working with clients with drug use and mental health issues with a particular focus on working with parents who are engaged in the child protection system. She aims to balance the needs and safety of the child whilst empowering parents to have an active and truly collaborative role in the process.  Whilst a child centred approach is essential, Jane highlighted the importance of building a trusting therapeutic relationship with the parents with whom she works. It is the therapeutic relationship that can impact behavioural change and improved parenting capacity. As such, seeing the parent as the client and responding to their own childhood trauma and other associated issues can lead to the most beneficial outcomes. Healing the trauma, building resilience and confidence in the parent has wide reaching ramifications that positively impact both parents and their children. She highlighted the complexities of parental childhood trauma and the need for therapeutic interventions to genuinely affect lasting behavioural change and relationship healing and growth for all members of the family.

Dr Silke Meyer is a Lecturer in Domestic and Family Violence at the Central Queensland University (CQU). She teaches in the Domestic and Family Violence Practice Program at CQU and her research centres on a variety of aspects of domestic and family violence, including women and children’s safety and wellbeing, men’s accountability in their role as perpetrators and fathers and experiences specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Silke is also one of the non-government board members on the Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board.

Silke spoke to the current inroads being made in seeing the family as a whole – holding perpetrators to account for their behaviours and focusing on supporting mums in a holistic manner as opposed to seeing her as having failed to protect her children due to the perpetrator’s behaviour as was the case prior to recent child protection and domestic violence reforms. She asked: Are each group of clients comfortably collocated? She noted that problems arise when focusing on the child and not focusing on parents. With regard to removal we know that this doesn’t necessary make children safer or fare better in terms of their developmental outcomes. We’ve seen a shift to greater understanding and a desire for child protection to do better work with mothers and children and families as a package.  This requires asking – what is it about mothers’ experiences that impact protective parenting? The safe and together model aligns with non-abusive parents holding the perpetrating parent accountable.

This is a challenge, asserted Silke, in that skills training in engaging fathers is lacking. Mothers have historically been the parent worked with largely because they are more compliant and fearful of losing their children. Bringing dad into the conversation means we are potentially asking for staff to engage with potentially volatile and abusive fathers. This request requires a certain still set. To expect that workers are now able to hold dad to account and have the skills and support is not accurate. Workers need to be equipped for these changes in perspectives, processes and practice.

Jatinder Kaur, Director, JK Diversity Consultants spoke of the additional impacts of domestic and family violence on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities. Her professional career spans 15 years and across various scopes of practice: research, child protection, family support, refugee settlement support, domestic violence counselling, policy roles and teaching Social Work practice. She has been a strong advocate and has published research in various journals and presented at national and international conferences. She has prepared submissions to various child protection inquiries and royal commissions and domestic violence reviews. This month, she is launching a new service in the Brisbane South West region in partnership with Inala Community House called the Oasis Centre.

In speaking of the nexus between domestic violence, child protection and family support, Jatinder noted multidimensional forms of oppression for women of race. We don’t know to date the prevalence of migrant and refuge communities in the child protection system. There are critical gaps in the system.  Nor do we have policies and practice to cover this issue. The recent Domestic Violence Inquiry led by Dame Quentin Bryce make 140 recommendations. Only one recommendation pertained to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities – the use of interpreters in addressing language barriers. The domestic violence space for CALD women is exacerbated by lived experiences of oppression, racism and faith based biases, the Anglo white workforce and the white Anglo dominant discourse. Cultural perspectives are resoundingly silent in these conversations. The voices and issues facing the most vulnerable are not recognised in legislation, policy or practice. “How many contributors from diverse communities are there in key inquiries such as the Carmody Inquiry and the Not Now Not Ever report?” Jatinder noted that the needs and voices of migrant refuge women were not highlighted. She also noted that Minister Fentiman has taken this feedback on board and has committed to more CALD responses working with communities and unpacking domestic violence around gender and patriarchy. Jatinder asserts that there is much to be done in this space – data collection, research and front line practice improvement amongst the changes needed.

Jackie Stewart is the Team Leader at Yeaca Dhargo. Jackie is an Aboriginal woman from the Kongabula tribal group of Southern Queensland. Jackie also runs her own private practice ‘Ancestors Singing’ providing cultural supervision and mentoring and creating and delivering cultural training and resources to support cross-cultural understanding for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Jackie’s deep connection to her Aboriginal culture and the spirits of her Ancestors guide her in work and life. Jackie is committed to naming and supporting healing from the impacts of generational trauma for Aboriginal people in Australia. Jackie spoke to lateral violence in Aboriginal communities. She noted that when communities can’t fight back against the oppressor they start fighting each other. The impacts of domestic violence are another layer located within this paradigm. Whilst the victim of the domestic violence is the client, so too are her family and community. The whole community are clients and are all responding to trauma and pain based behaviours.  She noted that it is important to focus on your client but to see family and community as part of the engagement process, always remaining mindful of the impacts of colonisation. The recognition is that each person comes with history and trauma. So too does the perpetrator. There are layers of complexity that need to be understood and addressed.

Belinda Cox is Communities and Partnerships Program Manager at Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, Micah Projects. Belinda regularly provides specialist and complex case management support and advice to the team of workers at the service. She has an extensive working knowledge of complex risk factors regarding domestic violence and coordinating responses within the broader community sector. Belinda is a regular provider of specialist training and community education to service providers and community groups in Brisbane.

Belinda outlined the work of Micah with regard to domestic and family violence, the state wide 24/7 programs and the need to remain cognisant of the housing first framework. Alongside Karina, she too highlighted the vital importance of housing and stability for those facing multiple issues that include domestic and family violence.  Belinda noted that Brisbane Domestic Violence Service Is the only 24/7 face to face response service in Queensland.  In the last financial year they supported:

  • 1,661 single women
  • 1,249 families with children under 18, and
  • 2,589 children in the families they supported

Belinda outlined services to children and families and the terminology they use. They prefer the term: the person they’re supporting as opposed to clients.  The women they support and their children are the key consideration. They support women and children to be safer within a child focused framework. When working with individuals with child safety involvement, transparency and clarity is essential. Who is the client and what are the goals are key points. The person they are supporting is anyone who requires safety and protection. Belinda also spoke to the need for advocacy to be provided in communities and alongside women, children and their families. She noted that the service is for all victims of abuse regardless of gender or sexuality.

Rachel Shelton, after giving an overview of the historical issues as noted above, also outlined her current work with the Family and Child Connect (FACC). She noted that around 80% of FACC’s referrals include domestic violence as a factor. She further noted that they also have referrals that do not include domestic violence as a primary issue, but when assessed further this is present.  Domestic violence can be masked by other complex issues within the family.

She outlined the holistic method to explore children’s needs in the family includes assessing and mapping behaviours of the perpetrators of violence and experiences of the survivor and children in the home. She noted that over time the referrals received are beginning to show a more nuanced understanding of the complexities and subtleties of domestic violence including coercive control.

She stated that she is pleased to be involved with a project group which has developed practice principles for a domestic violence Informed approach to child protection practice. Since then, embedded workers in FACC, Intensive Family Support and Child Safety have aimed to improve such language and to integrate frameworks in order to keep children and women safe and hold perpetrators to account.

Best practice includes understanding the impact of domestic and family violence on children, not just by being directly harmed or by witnessing it but the unseen impacts of disruption to parenting, the household and family functioning. It is critical to view children and young people in their own right, as primary victims.  She asserted that best practice when making assessments of domestic and family violence and children’s needs includes a combination of strengths based and risk focused processes. Holistic approaches ensure that the right service is assisting the family at the right time. A strengths based approach is vital to see the survivor as the expert in her own life, in order to build trust for her to feel comfortable disclosing sensitive information. When assessing risk and safety planning children are always discussed and considered and these assessments are not static because neither is domestic violence but rather, are discussed at every interaction. To combat domestic and family violence, the key is to work with all parties.

Rachel’s sentiment about the importance of working with all echoed those of all the panellists. Whilst panellists offered a diversity of perspectives, overall agreement was evident on the majority of key points raised.

The Conversation:

One participant asked how to work with domestic and family violence when fathers were still in the family home.  A key recommendation offered was to ask the fathers how their children reacted to the abuse, what they said afterwards and how they changed in either behaviour or mood.  Focusing on the children often gave the father an impetus for change as opposed to focusing on his relationship with his partner which often leads to an ongoing endeavour to blame the victim and explain how she was the problem.  They are often more cognisant of children being small and innocent and therefore, this can be the best opportunity for dialogue about the impact of their behaviour.

Whilst it was noted that the majority of domestic violence cases are perpetrated by males against females, it was also acknowledged that further work needs to be done in responding to the small number of male victims of abuse, those in same sex relationships and a range of other examples where use of violence and coercive control is evident such as adolescent to parent abuse and elder abuse.  It was clearly noted that homicides and immediate risk of safety are a key concern and these relate most to women victims.  It was also stated that work at all levels needs to be done so that those living with domestic and family violence are supported and given a timely response.

Another participant noted the complexity for parents with intellectual disabilities and the additional marginalisation they face in the system as a whole with regard to both domestic violence and child protection.  Both their vulnerability and how they are treated by the system in response to their particular disadvantage requires additional comment.  This was seen as an area for more conversation and will inform part of the next forum intended to expand this conversation.

Presenters and participants also highlighted the complexities of working with perpetrators and the importance of not being manipulated into colluding with the perpetrator and blaming the victim. The subtleties of such endeavours by perpetrators were noted as important pitfalls to avoid.  This issue was one of the key reasons why collaborative responses were deemed as essential in working holistically across child protection, family support and domestic and family violence cases.

Further analysis of working with fathers was also noted as an area for additional conversation.  The WalkingWithDads program have noted interest in being part of the next forum and will be a welcome addition, amongst others, to the conversation.

Overall, the acknowledgement that safety was key was noted as being important in a parallel process that supported those facing the abuse, noted their personal agency and strengths, as well as vulnerabilities whilst holding perpetrators of abuse to account.  Whilst previous child protection process of holding mothers accountable for father’s behaviours have been debunked and are now seen a punitive, there was discussion about how real this change in perspective is when translated into practice.

The general sense throughout this conversation was that philosophically we are cognisant across the sector and the child safety department that child protection is key alongside victim safety and support and perpetrator accountability.  However, implementation of the changes are being noted in practice gradually and sometimes are viewed as too slow.  Some commented that the sense that this is slower than preferred is a positive in that change is being thought through, embedded and evaluated – this takes time.  Any major shift in perspective and process does too.  Those commenting from both government and non-government settings believed that this shift has occurred and positive outcomes are already being noted.  The only exception to this was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait contributors who noted that in their communities little improvement in statistical outcomes has been noted – in fact the rate of children coming into care continues to increase.  If we don’t begin to fully acknowledge and respond to systemic racism, we will continue to struggle in responding to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children, families and communities.

A sense of good will and a genuine endeavour to implement the reforms and improve the impact for women, children and families was evident.  The importance of working together was clearly articulated.  Belinda noted the need to all work together going in the same direction much like a 3-lane highway.  It was important to stay in our lanes and not encroach on each other’s work but work closely in appreciation of both or differences and sameness.

The panellists offered diverse views but overall were all on the same page.  So too were those in attendance.  It was heartening to see so many committed to working together to improve the lives of women, children and families impacted by domestic and family violence whilst working holistically with non-perpetrating parents, children and perpetrating parents to respond to domestic and family violence and the plethora of associated complexities.