Iowa State University shifts focus to children in domestic violence cases

An Iowa State University initiative is making a difference for thousands of domestic violence cases across the state by placing the focus on children's safety and needs.

The Child Welfare Research and Training Project in human development and family studies partners with David Mandel and Associates, a child welfare consulting group, to deliver the Safe and Together Program to all child welfare professionals in Iowa. The work is funded by the Iowa Department of Human Services. Development of this initiative is a contractual partnership between the Iowa State University Child Welfare Research and Training Project and the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Leah Kinnaird, a human services specialist and domestic violence response coordinator in human development and family studies, said the new model trains social workers, domestic violence advocates, and other child welfare partners to place more emphasis on children in domestic violence cases.

“It’s a philosophical change in how we’re approaching families,” she said. “We need to stop blaming victims for the wide variety of reasons that they are present in those relationships and start asking, ‘What presents the safety risk to children?’ And that is perpetrator behavior. So we have to start there and have that be our focus.”

Over the past year, the Child Welfare Research and Training Project has trained more than 1,130 child welfare state workers — including nearly every social worker in Iowa.

Beth Ann Stratton, a child protection supervisor with the Iowa Department of Human Services, said she has seen small but important changes in Iowa’s child welfare system through the Safe and Together Program.

“We’ve been seeing a language change, and we’ve also been seeing a little bit of a shift in how we look at domestic violence cases and how we look at who we make responsible for what,” she said. “For example, we’ve stopped asking, ‘Well, what can the survivor do to keep people safe?’ because that’s really not how it should be. It should be the person with the problem who changes.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four women and one in seven men 18 years and older in the United States have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. One in three women and one in four men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

A holistic approach

Developed originally for child welfare systems, the Safe and Together Program model has policy and practice implications for domestic violence advocates, family service providers, courts, evaluators, domestic violence community collaboratives, and others. The model has a growing body of evidence associated with it including recent correlations with a reduction in out-of-home placements in child welfare domestic violence cases.

The model contains three principles: keeping the child safe and together with the non-offending parent, partnering with the non-offending parent, and intervening with the perpetrator to reduce risk and harm to the child.

While the first year of training covered the model in big-picture terms, the second year will invite all child welfare professionals for a second round of training focusing on specific tools and best practices.

In practice, child welfare professionals will shift their focus on a holistic level by keeping the child’s safety and needs as a top priority during interventions with domestic violence cases.

One example of this change is switching the intervention process to treating situations as assessments, rather than investigations.

“Historically, we would try to go in and figure out if a particular incident had happened on a particular day,” Kinnaird said. “Really, good social work is about doing a thorough assessment of the family overall. So not just, ‘Did this incident happen, but is there a history of domestic violence?’”

The program treats these assessments as ways to look at comprehensive patterns of abuse: physical, verbal, economic, emotional, or other types, and how those behaviors impact the children.

“A violent assault is traumatic for kids, but so is a four-year history of hearing their parent called bad names and being afraid to invite their friends over because one of their parents is violent and angry,” Kinnaird said.

Taking training to the next level

Groups in charge of the second round of training, Connect and Protect (CAP) teams, will work to make sure that child welfare workers are following the model. A member of the eastern Iowa team, Stratton said these teams will play a critical role in continuing the mission of the Safe and Together Program.

“We’re going to go out and do more in-depth training with all the providers and human services workers in each of our areas so they know what resources are available and how they can make their cases more efficient in addressing domestic violence,” Stratton said.

The Child Welfare Research and Training Project is also inviting more partners to join the transition to the model. In the fall, the project will introduce the model to all Iowa judges who preside over domestic violence-related cases.

The training project recently completed its first-year assessment by collecting and analyzing feedback from child welfare professionals all over Iowa.

“We’ve had a lot of good feedback saying this was the shift that we needed,” Kinnaird said. “I have heard that working under this model and partnering with folks in this way feels good and like they’re pointed in the right direction now.”