Working systemically with domestic abuse is crucial to ensure children and families are supported effectively. As social workers, we need to enter a family’s space with a non-judgemental perspective, and to adapt to their needs so that real improvements can be made. But this approach can be difficult to sustain, especially with lockdown adding more layers of complexity. At this time, being creative and adapting our practice – while always prioritising safety – will make a huge difference for the families we’re working with.
In my experience of working in assessment and long-term teams, a major challenge for social workers is maintaining a systemic approach to domestic abuse. Too often, we fall back into patterns of speaking mostly to the victims and placing the responsibility for safeguarding children in their hands. We can struggle to have honest conversations with perpetrators. The conversations we do have tend to focus on the individual and the abusive behaviour rather than gaining a wider understanding of family dynamics and contextual factors.
Safety plans can too often be directive and social-worker led, based more on the need to reassure ourselves that we have done what we can to protect children, rather than embracing ‘safe-uncertainty’. Unfortunately, lower collaboration with families ultimately leads to plans that families can’t or don’t want to follow. This leaves children and victims in a more dangerous situation.
Covid-19 has presented some unique challenges to safeguarding and intervention with domestic abuse. Many problems stem from the increased stress families are facing. This may be due to job losses, financial pressure, lack of childcare, and the loss of the protective features of daily schooling for vulnerable children. Overcrowded or intense living situations – where family members cannot remove themselves from volatile situations easily – have also been very challenging. There are few options for victims to safely exit abusive situations as hotels, refuges and even families and friends have been far less available. Victims are unable to contact domestic abuse helplines in safety as perpetrators are in the home, and there have even been times where the police have been uncontactable or unable to respond to a call due to pressures on their service.
In the last few months, I have personally worked with several families who had been successfully managing relationships in which domestic abuse was a feature. There had been established routines and safety plans, often using grandparents or other relatives to help relieve tensions. Schools were also able to have regular check-ins with children and could act appropriately if things got difficult. Now, however, the support of school and wider family has been pretty much stripped away, creating a sense of unknown risk for children on the edge of social care who have lost these spaces as a safety net. This could lead to a potential rise in harm or, conversely, unnecessary social care referrals being made. To address this, social workers have had to be creative and resourceful with their practice, increasing contact and rethinking how to best navigate the obstacles Covid-19 has created.
As social workers, we want genuine, long term change to take place for families. For this to occur, change needs to happen in the way that people within the system relate to each other – as well as in the contexts they are situated in – so that there is a shift in belief systems. Knowing this, the Fellowship ran a Systemic Responses to Violence workshop with Dr Arlene Veteree to provide practical and creative ways social workers can adapt to best support children and families experiencing domestic abuse. In part two of this blog, Christina will share her insights from this, as well as some of the techniques discussed.