By David Mandel, MA, LPC
Domestic violence and substance abuse co-occur in both the alternative response and traditional response pathways. Despite this day-to-day contact many in the child welfare system have with families experiencing both domestic violence and substance abuse, the understanding of the intersectionality of these issues is still plagued with misconceptions, simplifications and a failure to apply existing knowledge of perpetrators’ behavior patterns to improve assessment, case planning and outcomes for families. This lack of understanding can interfere with identification of either problem, a thorough assessment of child safety and well being, and finally the development of a successful child safety plan to mitigate the safety and risk concerns. The Safe and Together model’s foundation is a focus on assessing perpetrator’s patterns of behavior and their nexus with child safety and well being. When this is combined with setting high standards for fathers and protective efforts of mothers, it forms a powerful, holistic assessment lens that can help us better understand the intersection of domestic violence and substance abuse issues. The following are a few practical ideas and questions using a perpetrator pattern-based approach to the intersectionality of substance abuse and domestic violence to guide assessment and improve positive outcomes for children and families.
- Even if the domestic violence perpetrator is using substances at the time of an incident, do not assume that the coercive control, actions taken to harm the children or violence only occurs when there is substance use. Assess the pattern for those behaviors even when the person is not using substance, e.g. “How does your partner handle his jealousy when he is not drinking?” “What is your partner’s parenting like when he is sober?” “How do you respond when your partner raises concerns about your use on the family’s finances?”
- A pattern based approach to assessing the impact of domestic violence perpetrator’s behavior invites to consider the impact of the times that a perpetrator uses substances and does not get violent or abusive. Once someone has demonstrated their capacity to become violent or abusive when using, family members may experience heighten anxiety or anticipatory fear even when the violence or abuse does not occur. Assessments should seek to whether family members are impacted by the potential for abuse associated with drinking, e.g. “Do you know when your partner begins to drink if it will escalate into abuse?” “How is for the children when you start drinking? What do you think they worry about?”
- A perpetrator’s pattern may involve influencing or encouraging use of substances and/or interference with partner’s recovery efforts. This might involve bringing drugs or alcohol into the house to sabotage recovery, or forcing someone to use with them. Some perpetrator’s will make it hard for their partners to attend a treatment program or a twelve step group. Accusations of cheating with program members, and sabotage of transportation to and from a program are just two the tactics that perpetrators may use to prevent their partner from getting clean and sober. All these tactics should be viewed through the lens of “parenting choices” by the perpetrator. If an abusive father sabotages his partner’s recovery that should be considered part of the way we assess him as parent.
- Perpetrator’s coercive control, substance abuse and financial control may intersect. Some perpetrator’s will use control to gain access over money and resources, like a car, in order to maintain their addiction. Others may use intimidation, threats and manipulation to avoid the consequences of their uses. It is important to draw the nexus between these behaviors and the impact they have on child and family functioning. Documentation should describe the impact taking the car, or spending money on drugs that by a male caregiver has on family functioning. Without this being specifically documented, it is more likely to assumed that unmet basic needs like housing instability and inadequate food and medical care is the sole responsibility of the mother, effectively reducing or ignoring the abusive father’s responsibility for these things.
- Since some perpetrators may be less dangerous when they are using, their partners may encourage their substance use or one type of use over another as part of a way to reduce situational risk. While on the surface this can be very challenging to workers, it is very important to remain pattern-based in our assessment of safety and well-being. Based on this specific perpetrator’s pattern, are the behaviors of the adult survivor reasonable? Are they part of active effort to manage safety for herself and her children? While these efforts may not afford the children adequate safety and well being, it is important to see the adult survivor’s behavior in the context of the perpetrator’s pattern as a starting point for engagement. This perspective can help develop a meaningful partnership with the adult survivor around the safety and well being of the children and improve our capacity to intervene with the perpetrator around their parenting choices and behavior.
For more a 10 item checklist on the intersection of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health issues, click here. Click on these links for more information on the Safe and Together model and Ohio Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Collaborative.
(This piece was originally written for Ohio’s Department Jobs and Family Services’ Differential Response Newsletter Winter 2015. To read more about Ohio’s Differential Response efforts. )
 The Safe and Together model approach is both fact based and gender responsive. While domestic violence perpetrators can be both male or female and domestic violence can occur in heterosexual and same sex relationship, we believe it is important to acknowledge that the child welfare has often approached mothers and fathers with different parenting expectations. To comprehensively address perpetrator accountability and change in the context of child safety requires a thoughtful examination of the impact of biological or social father’s abusive behavior across a full range of domains of child and family functioning, effectively taking the position that the domestic violence when directed at the adult survivor is a “parenting choice.” In parallel, good practice dictates a comprehensive, gender responsive assessment lens for looking at mothers’ protective efforts related to the domestic violence. This means going beyond calling the police, getting a court order and/or leaving to seeing how day-to-day parenting efforts deserve validation and documentation as strengths related to protecting children from the physical and emotional harm of the abuse. In effect, good practice means ensuring that all the work that adult survivors may be doing to promote safety, stability, nurturance and healing from trauma will not be overlooked because “it’s just what mothers do.”