Beyond Shame and Denial

Keeping your kids safe from domestic violence

Domestic violence is considered harmful to children and you can be charged with neglect if there is domestic violence in your home. However, domestic violence cases also are complex. We spoke with Lauren Shapiro, founder and
director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, and Derek Silvers, director of
Friends to Fathers, about parents’ legal rights and obligations if there is violence in their homes

Q: What do parents need to know about domestic violence and child welfare?
Shapiro: In 1999, a New York City mother named Sharwline Nicholson sued the city child welfare system for removing her children solely because she was the victim of an act of domestic violence. What the Nicholson ruling makes clear is that children should not be removed from a parent unless they are at imminent risk of danger. The court also has to weigh the harm that may be done to children by removal. In practice, however, a lot of children are removed—not just from the person considered the batterer, but also from the person considered the victim, even when the child isn’t clearly at imminent risk.

In part that’s because these are complicated cases. We know that about
half of batterers abuse their children, too. The child welfare system tries
to look at a family’s past history of violence, factors like the age of the child, the reaction of the child, and how severe the violence was. A onetime incident is not even supposed to be considered neglect. But slapping someone is very different than cutting someone with a knife, and if you hit
your partner while holding the child, even just one time, they’re going to see you as getting so out of control that you’re not aware of your child’s safety.

A lot of investigations do not end in removal, but to keep her children out of foster care, often mom has to agree to go into a shelter or enforce an order of protection. Parents also are expected to go to counseling for batterers or survivors. The child welfare system and the court will want to see that you are taking serious steps to keep your children safe.

Q: What makes domestic violence cases complicated?
Silvers: Friends to Fathers supports child welfare-affected fathers in becoming more accountable for their actions and able to reunify with their families. In a domestic violence class of 15, I’d say a good 7 to 10 of the men are perpetrators. They are clearly the batterers. Some men try to control who a woman talks to, what she does, how she looks. They’ll hit her and shame her to maintain that control. But other cases are more complicated. Some men really need help with anger management, not domestic violence.

If you’ve had a bad day at work, and you hold in all your anger until you get home, you’re showing that you have excellent anger-management skills. If you then take your pain out on the one person you feel you have power and control over, that’s domestic violence. But if there’s a man who one day is just so stressed, his partner is nagging him, he doesn’t have enough money to give her, and he loses control—he pushes her or says something very abusive—we think that man needs an anger management class to improve how he deals with conflict and nurtures his relationship. Many men need to learn to express themselves appropriately and respect their partners.

Other times the violence and aggression appears to be a two-way street, or it’s even the partner who is threatening and hitting.

The problem is that it’s often confusing to understand what is going on because many men have big problems with denial, minimizing and blaming. We keep peeling back the layers. We meet with the man and get his self-report. Then we speak to the attorney and the case worker and sometimes the child’s law guardian or therapist. There are often pictures and police reports. We keep bringing all the information together and processing it with the father.

Sometimes a father eventually realizes: “What I did was abusive.” Sometimes, after three or four months, we get a picture of a father who wasn’t abusive. And sometimes, even after six months, we still really
don’t know.

Q: How could child welfare and the courts improve their response to these cases?
Shapiro: The way the court system and the child welfare system think about violence in the home is too limited. The child welfare system is really structured to say, “You must do this, you have to do that.” But what I’ve learned working with people who have experienced domestic violence is that you have to empower them and listen to them. If you don’t, what often happens is that they identify with the person who is hurting them, and they feel even more loyal to that person.

We work with our clients, support them and talk to them. Clients need to have the support to leave, to feel they have that choice. They also need us to understand their full stories.

We believe that real domestic violence assessments need to be done in every case. Domestic violence specialists here don’t usually interview the parents themselves—they consult with child protective workers. Because of that, there’s still too often too simplistic a way of looking at violence in the home.

If our client says that the violence is really mutual, and the couple wants to figure out a way to stay together and handle conflict differently, we may ask the court to approve couples counseling. But just because the violence in the home is mutual, that doesn’t mean that children aren’t being harmed by witnessing the violence.

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