Exploring Approaches to Child Welfare in the Contexts of Domestic Violence and Abuse: Family Group Conferences

This theoretical paper explores service provision for families affected by domestic violence and abuse.

  • Michaela Rogers and Kate Parkinson
  • Child and Family Social Work (2017)

The authors suggest that there should be a move away from professional-led models of social work that focus on the management of risk to a partnership approach that engages families in decision-making. The focus of the paper is on family group conferences (FGC) in the context of domestic abuse.

Prevalence of domestic abuse

Research estimates that six per cent of all children will be exposed to severe levels of domestic violence and abuse occurring between adults in their homes at some time during their childhood (Radford et al, 2011). Many more children live with low-medium levels of violence and abuse on a daily basis.

The 2014 CAADA study found that 62 per cent of children living in such households had experienced direct harm, supporting the link between and co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse.

Coercive control that isolates and disempowers victims is a recurring feature. This can lead to "maternal alienation", where perpetrators deliberately undermine and destroy relationships between mothers and their children.

Safeguarding practice

Safeguarding approaches for families affected by domestic violence and abuse, generally requires the eradication of risk by removing the perpetrator from the family home. The responsibility for ensuring this happens lies with mothers, who are often blamed for their inability to safeguard their children.

One of the difficulties is that fathers are often not readily engaged in child protection processes (Scourfield, 2006). This is especially the case where perpetrators can be perceived as a threat to their partners or professionals (Stanley and Humphreys, 2015).

Family group conferences

The use of FGC to address safeguarding concerns for children where there is domestic violence and abuse is a contentious issue. Concerns have been expressed about the safety of survivors when the perpetrator is present and the potential for re-victimisation (Kohn, 2010).

Involving fathers in the FGC process is important. If they are not involved, the underlying message is that they are not responsible for the wellbeing of their children and that, because they are abusers, they have no right to be involved in decision-making about their children (Featherstone and Peckover, 2007). Evidence suggests that abusive men have the potential to positively contribute to FGCs without dominating the meeting or using it as a means for control and abuse (Inglis, 2007).

Kohn also found that FGC can enable women to feel empowered and in control of their lives, and help perpetrators take responsibility for their behaviour and steps to address it. A Canadian study (Pennell and Burford, 2000) found that, where FGC had been used in case planning, there was a marked reduction in indicators of child abuse/neglect and abuse of mothers/partners, compared to cases where FGC had not been used. This is consistent with emerging evidence that children are better protected when families are engaged in decision-making and solution-finding to address abusive behaviour (Sidebotham et al, 2016).

There is a general consensus that children should attend FGCs where possible as it can help them feel empowered. However, Frost et al, 2014 concluded involving children in the FGC process needs careful consideration as adults may dominate the meeting, leaving children feeling powerless and unheard.

Implications for practice

One of the key benefits of the FGC process is bringing together key family members, as well as relevant child and adult social care professionals. It works with the strengths of families to encourage a partnership approach between child protection services, domestic abuse services and families. FGC also serves to unify the family and strengthen fragmented family relationships.

Although there are benefits to this approach, not all cases where there is a history of domestic violence and abuse will be suitable for FGC, for example where risks to children and/or a mother is significant. Thus, the authors suggest that FGC may be more suitable in low- to medium risk domestic violence and abuse cases.

However, limited evidence on the effectiveness and appropriateness of FGC means more research is needed.

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