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Mothers, Domestic Violence, and Child Protection: Toward Collaboration and Engagement
Heather Douglas and Tamara Walsh Violence Against Women 2010 16: 537 DOI: 10.1177/1077801210366291 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Research Symposium

Mothers, Domestic Violence, and Child Protection: Toward Collaboration and Engagement
Heather Douglas1 and Tamara Walsh1

Violence Against Women –542 16(5) 537­ © The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: http://www. DOI: 10.1177/1077801210366291

Keywords child protection, domestic violence, mothers We appreciate the opportunity to consider the responses from the four commentators to our discussion in the main article in this symposium. The workers we interviewed for the main article identified a disconnect between the domestic violence and child protections fields, and similarly the commentators, from four diverse professional backgrounds and from different jurisdictions and using different languages and metaphors, also accepted this was the current situation. Hester identifies what she refers to as three planets of domestic violence, child contact or visitation, and child protection. She observes that these planets have distinct cultural histories underpinning practices and outcomes. Humphreys similarly refers to the great divide between the community and voluntary sector and the statutory child protection services. Mandel refers to the need to improve “cross system dialog” and Goodmark appears to accept there is a need to improve relations “between” victimized mothers and child protection. This symposium in itself has provided an opportunity to engage professionally beyond these identified divisions. While the focus groups with whom we spoke in relation to the research presented in our article were all part of the community or voluntary sector, most of the individual workers with whom we spoke would perceive neither domestic violence nor child protection to be their core business. Rather, they would be more likely to describe their main work as family law, the criminalization of women, youth work, or immigration. However, as a result of


University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Corresponding Author: Heather Douglas, T. C. Beirne Law School, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, 4072 Australia Email:


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their role as supporters of women in these various contexts, child protection and domestic violence issues were intrinsically bound into their core business. While Humphreys suggests that the article “perpetuates stereotypes” of the supportive voluntary sector and coercive child protection organization, it is important to remember that, according to the workers we spoke to in Queensland, many of the “poor practices” (such as providing an ultimatum to mothers: leave violence and keep the children or stay and lose them) continue to be observed by workers in Queensland. Other recent Queensland research has found that battered women have had their most satisfactory help-seeking experiences when they have engaged with the community sector (Meyer, 2009). It is also perhaps worth noting that Humphreys works in Victoria (Australia), a state that has been recognized to have the best child protection intervention practices in Australia (Scott, 2007). This may contribute to a more positive view of current practices related to child protection intervention. Humphreys also notes that there is “a significant group [of mothers]” who have had “good supportive experiences” with child protection workers. In our interviews, some support workers were able to recall occasional positive experiences with child protection workers. In this context, support workers referred to the child protection workers’ level of experience, their ability to develop a rapport with the parent, and their understanding of the parent’s situation (Douglas, Walsh, & Blore, 2009). Improved worker training, retention, supervision, and casework continuity is important and these are, as Humphreys suggests, inherently related to structural change. The “third planet” of child contact or visitation through the family law system was identified by Hester and was also emphasized by Humphreys. In Australia, the policy associated with this third planet is, as Humphreys rightly points out, a pressing concern. Although this third planet was touched on by focus group participants, in this research, we did not explore this issue in depth. There is indeed now an assumption in Australia that even violent fathers will have some contact with their children and women have been jailed in Australia for obstructing such contact (Overington, 2009). Family law in Australia requires courts to examine parental conduct and look positively on the parent who is likely to facilitate contact between parties (de Simone, 2008). In claiming domestic violence, litigating to keep violent fathers away from children, or in moving to shelter accommodation, a mother may be seen as obstructing contact between a (violent) father and the children. The child protection system in Australia seems to remain focused on mothers as carers and as failing in their care role if they allow children to have contact with a violent parent. In contrast, the family law system sees both parents as sharing care and mothers who obstruct contact with fathers as “unfriendly.” This disconnect presents added challenges for mothers juggling the issues raised by the child protection “planet” and the family law “planet.” There has been great dissatisfaction expressed by many in relation to the assumption of shared parenting embedded in family law legislation, and the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) is currently exploring possibilities for reform (ALRC, 2009). Support workers interviewed for our article were very concerned about the level of information provided to mothers by child protection workers. Support workers reported that their clients were often “in the dark” (Douglas et al., 2009, p. 18) about what was happening with their children. Humphreys suggests that women should have a written report

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outlining the investigation by child protection authorities and the substantiation of abuse. This would be helpful for women who are engaging with the family law system, as Humphreys suggests; however, it would also be useful to assist women to become informed and understand the nature of relevant child protection interventions and the expectations of the relevant child protection authority. Humphreys’ observation that women need evidence was echoed by support workers in our study who commented that they often took it on themselves to keep a paper record of interactions between their clients and child protection workers (Douglas & Walsh, 2009). Work is currently being undertaken by researchers in Australia to develop a code of conduct specifically for child protection workers. One aspect of such a code requires the provision of detailed information to parents by child protection authorities (Ainsworth, 2009). In our article, we suggested that improving criminal justice responses to domestic violence may be beneficial, at least in some cases. Hester holds out some hope that recently introduced legislation in the United Kingdom allowing orders that exclude abusers from the home for a period of time may be a progressive step. Although it has been possible to obtain such exclusion orders as a condition of a civil protection order throughout Australia for some time, research suggests that magistrates have been reluctant to grant them except in very serious domestic violence cases where, in fact, exclusion orders may put mothers and children at even greater risk (Field, Carpenter, & Currie, 2003). It appears that exclusion would be most safely, and thus usefully, ordered when there are lower levels of domestic violence. It may be necessary to ensure that magistrates are better educated about the optimum use of such orders if they are to act as a valuable aid. Goodmark emphasizes that some members of the judiciary continue to lack understanding about domestic violence, and this misunderstanding may be influencing decisions about exclusion orders in Australia. In her commentary, Goodmark observes that criminal justice approaches have not improved relations between child protection services and mothers and that the evidence that such strategies work to reduce violence is equivocal. However, in some states in the United States, criminal justice interventions have been held responsible in part for reductions in domestic violence related fatalities of both women and children (Websdale, Town, & Johnson, 1999). Some of the problems identified in relation to the application of criminal law may be significantly improved. For example, Goodmark points out the problems associated with delayed or lack of service of documents on batterers in the U.S. context; this is also a problem in Australia. Lack of service of documents creates uncertainties for women experiencing domestic violence and those who are supporting them. One of the identified problems in Australia in relation to criminal justice interventions is lack of access to appropriate sentencing alternatives where batterers are charged with domestic violence offenses (Douglas, 2008). A recent Australian government report has recommended that more resources be dedicated to developing and researching perpetrator programs that may offer suitable sentencing alternatives in some cases (Commonwealth Government, 2009). Mandel notes that segments (at least) of child welfare agencies are “often excited and interested in learning how they can do their job differently.” This, too, has been our experience; since disseminating our research findings, we have been contacted by employees


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of the Department of Child Safety who are interested in discussing how they might reform their practices to ensure that mothers and children are supported more effectively. As noted earlier, in our focus groups, we heard many stories of positive engagements between community services and departmental officers. However, there were a number of real barriers identified that prevent these “therapeutic alliances” from forming. For example, in our study, much was made by participants of the high turnover among departmental staff and the perceived lack of professional development that results (see Douglas et al., 2009). One participant said, It does depend so much on the individual worker in the department. Like I have had three or four good cases, you know, with good case workers, but I think as time goes on, they are fewer and farther between because the turnover in the department doesn’t get any better, it gets worse if anything. Furthermore, two participants in our study mentioned the fact that the Queensland Child Protection Act of 1999 does not explicitly confer powers on child safety workers that would allow them to work closely with mothers and involved services. Rather, their powers are limited to the investigation of complaints and the removal of children. This parallels Goodmark’s comment that “workers may have very little leeway in their dealings with the mother and her children.” It is also consistent with Goodmark’s and Mandel’s observations regarding the special mandate of child protection services. Mandel reminds us that child welfare agencies are in the “unique position” of being “the only agency with statutory responsibility for the safety and well-being of children.” Moreover, as Goodmark says, “[i]n a system that defines its mission as protecting children rather than strengthening families, parents are necessarily cast as the enemy.” Our argument is that focusing on children to the exclusion of their primary carer (who will most often be their mother) will seldom bring about protective outcomes for children. Of course, we recognize along with Mandel that, in some situations, removal of the child will be necessary. However, as a matter of general practice, mothers are an overlooked resource when devising protective interventions. So, how can we align these “planets”? Mandel advocates for closer engagement and collaboration between community services and child protection departments. In Australia, there are models of effective partnerships between government departments exercising protective functions and related community services that might be replicated and built on, the notable example being in the area of adult guardianship (Wong, 2006). Goodmark argues that legislative reform is necessary, that the law and legal system need to reflect an understanding of domestic violence, and that our focus cannot merely be on “changing the institutional culture of child protection.” Hester’s focus was instead on the importance of ensuring that child protection officers’ assessment tools reflect our understanding of domestic violence and why victimized women “behave and react as they do.” The tendency of some assessment tools to transform “need” into “risk” has been discussed both in the child protection setting (Henricson, 2008) and in other settings (particularly corrections; see Webster & Doob, 2004). Ineffective assessment tools mitigate against the best

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outcomes being achieved for children, and their mothers, and the current review of the Queensland child safety practice manual is welcomed by us. However, without clear legislative guidance regarding what should and should not be recognized as “harm,” and clear stipulation as to the types of interventions that officers are permitted and expected to use in certain circumstances, the outcomes of such reviews are unpredictable and the practices of individual officers will still vary. Obviously, the ideal is clear legislation that is both practical and sensitive to the needs of the various target groups, supported by an assessment tool that is evidence based and reflective of our shared knowledge regarding the challenges and opportunities faced by those within the system, coupled with the deployment of experienced workers who welcome the opportunity to work with all parties involved toward the achievement of protective outcomes for children. Until this is achieved, we must continue to advocate around these issues, regardless of how “repetitive” our arguments might seem.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or publication of this article.

The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article: This research was supported by a grant from the University of Queensland.

Ainsworth, F. (2009, November). Launch of the FIN NSW Child Protection Code of Practice. Presentation to the Family Inclusion Network Meeting, Canberra, Australia. Australian Law Reform Commission. (2009). Family violence inquiry. Retrieved March 3, 2009, Commonwealth Government. (2009). Time for action: The National Council’s plan for Australia to reduce violence against women and their children, 2009-2021. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from Documents/The_Plan.pdf de Simone, T. (2008). The friendly parent provisions in Australian family law—How friendly will you need to be? Australian Journal of Family Law, 22, 56-69. Douglas, H. (2008). The criminal law’s response to domestic violence: What’s going on? Sydney Law Review, 30, 439-469. Douglas, H., & Walsh, T. (2009). Mothers and the child protection system. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 23, 211-229. Douglas, H., Walsh, T., & Blore, K. (2009). Mothers and the child protection system: A report. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from child-protection-report.pdf Field, R., Carpenter, B., & Currie, S. (2003). Making of ouster orders under the Domestic Violence (Family Protection) Act 1989 (Qld). In J. Dewar & S. Parker (Eds.), Family law processes, practices and pressures (pp. 99-116). Oxford, UK: Hart.


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Henricson, C. (2008). Governing parenting: Is there a case for policy review and statement of parenting rights and responsibilities? Journal of Law and Society, 35, 150-165. Meyer, S. (2009, November). Victims’ responses to IPV over time: Help-seeking as a process between learned hopelessness and strategic survival. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Philadelphia. Overington, C. (2009, May 5). Mother jailed for denying access to boy’s dad. The Australian, p. 3. Scott, D. (2007, November 14). Children let down by the rules. The Australian, p. 11. Websdale, N., Town, M., & Johnson, B. (1999). Domestic violence fatality reviews: From a culture of blame to a culture of safety. Juvenile & Family Court Journal, 50(2), 61-74. Webster, C., & Doob, A., (2004). Classification without validity: An empirical examination of the custody rating scale for federally sentenced women offenders in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 46, 395-422. Wong, R. (2006). It’s hard but not impossible. Parity, 19(3), 4-8.

Heather Douglas, PhD, is an associate professor in the T. C. Beirne Law School at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research interests lies in the areas of domestic violence and criminal justice and is particularly interested in how the criminal justice system impacts on women. She has previously worked as a lawyer in private practice, at an Aboriginal Legal Service and a Domestic Violence Legal Service. Tamara Walsh, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the T. C. Beirne Law School at the University of Queensland, Australia. She has degrees in both law and social work. Her research interest lies in the impact of the law and legal systems on people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Her previous work experience includes social work practice in children’s health and welfare policy settings.

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