For victims raising children, the violence and control of a partner makes parenting difficult. A partner who is abusive may keep a victim from doing what she thinks is best for the child. Many victims face other harsh realities as they try to provide for their children, particularly those living in poverty. Like other parents, most victims put their children’s needs first.
Children are also victims. They may also be abused by the person battering their mother. Each child uniquely experiences the violence against her/his mother. Some children will cope and be okay; others will struggle and need more help to be okay.
Implications for victim-defined advocacy
Talk about how the children are doing
Ask questions about the children and find out what their mother thinks. As with all aspects of victim-defined advocacy, this conversation must be respectful and culturally responsive.
How a child is doing will be determined by the combination of their strengths and all the risks they face – not just the domestic violence. Identify the positives in the child’s life – family, school, individuals, interests, resiliency, and culture. Talk about the risks – the violence and other factors that are a risk to the children’s development. These might include living in poverty, health issues, family dysfunction, parenting challenges, abuse, or inadequate schools.
Sometimes your views will differ – from other advocates and from the mother’s. Check your understanding of her view and the accuracy of your own. Work to get on the same page.
Support her parenting
Children benefit when advocates provide information, conversation, and resources that support a victim’s parenting. The parent also benefits. Build support from the cultural context of the victim’s family and parenting approach.
Sometimes violence and other life hardships damage the relationship between the child and the victim-parent. When warranted, offer the parent concrete suggestions for repairing and strengthening that connection.
Offer strategies and resources that improve child well-being
What you offer will depend on the child. As with adults, strategies must be customized to their needs, culture, and current resources.
- Violence prevention and intervention: No more violence and help for the effects of the violence they’ve already experienced. That’s what will make things better for children.
- Mother’s safety plan:Include safety strategies for children in their mother’s safety plan. Children’s needs are usually central to their mother’s safety planning and decision-making. Sometimes children, particular when older, can benefit from age appropriate strategies they can use.
- Child contact with person who abuses: The strategies to offer will depend on the relationship between the child and the person who batters and the amount of contact. Does the child still live with him? Is he the child’s father? Is he the mother’s partner or ex-partner? What contact do they have? Are the interactions positive? Are protections necessary? Is the child in danger? Does the child experience negative emotional effects after the contact? Do those effects warrant a reduction or change in the contact? What support would help the child cope with negative effects?
- Contact with their father who abuses: Even if their mother leaves their father who is abusive, the children are likely to continue contact with him. Safe contact for some children might require supervision or protected settings. Other children might need little or no intervention to benefit from contact with their father. A child will benefit if a father who batters stops his use of violence and improves his parenting.
- Reduce other risks, increase resources: Does the family need help to meet the child’s basic human needs? Would the child benefit from access to child advocacy or behavioral health programs? What culturally specific programs might make things better for the child? What school based resources or advocacy might help?
Take action if the children are not safe or okay
Advocacy with parents may not be enough to protect their children from serious harm. Additional steps are then necessary. For example, involve other family members, connect the family to other social services, or offer intensive parenting intervention plans. Some circumstances may even require child protection involvement.
Coordinate advocacy for adult and child victims
This is particularly important in programs that might provide a different advocate for the victim-parent and the child.
Collaborate with programs and people that work on children’s issues
They may have resources that will help the children you’re working with. The domestic violence specific knowledge and resources you have will help the children they are working with. Potential collaborations may be found with the following kinds of programs: child advocacy, child behavioral health, child health care providers, parenting programs, schools, kids clubs, fatherhood programs that acknowledge and address family violence, early childhood programs, child poverty, child welfare, family support, child protection, law enforcement, and juvenile court.
Victim-defined systemic advocacy implications
The impact of violence on children and their safety and well-being are integral parts of domestic violence systemic advocacy and analysis. Central to that analysis is the role of the children’s parents, both the victim parent and the parent who abuses. The cultural context of child development, parenting, and families must also frame the analysis. Domestic violence must not be the only risk to children considered. The resources, strengths, and resilience of children and their families integrated into the policies and programs developed.
- Improve current methods to assess the impact of violence on children: How can we more accurately know the effects on each child? How can the impact of other risks be included? How can strengths, resources, and resilience of children and families be included?
- Promote strategies that protect victim parents and children together: What systems currently separate them? What can be done to link them? Under what circumstances are separate strategies appropriate? How are parent-child bonds strengthened in these strategies?
- Promote realistic expectations of battered parents:
This is particularly important in the context of child protection policy. When children may be at risk, unrealistic and even impossible expectations can be placed on a battered parent. These do not protect the child and can further reduce the safety options for the parent. What process is necessary to develop realistic expectations for each parent?
- Improve current methods to assess the violence of fathers who batter and the impact of contact with their children: Does a father who batters pose a risk to his children? How? To the children’s mother? How? What effect is contact having on the children?
- Collaborate with programs and people that work on children’s issues: Victims and their children will benefit if child-focused systemic advocacy effectively integrates domestic violence responses. Similarly, it is important to include the needs and perspectives of children and battered parents in domestic violence systemic advocacy. A meaningful collaboration between domestic violence programs and the child protection system might offer significant systemic improvement to victims and their children. Potential collaborations may be found with child advocacy and parenting programs.
- Support efforts to advocate for policies, programs, and funding that will improve options for children’s well-being and growth:These might include efforts to promote love and support of family, and access to shelter, food, health care, quality education, friends, activities, protection from violence and other harm.
Understanding what victims in your community think
Understanding victims’ needs and perspectives is the foundation of victim-defined advocacy. If you don’t know what victims think you can’t be victim-defined.
How: There is a wide range of ways to gather and analyze information. Do not let the process or time keep you from finding out what victims think. Just ask! Ask a specific question at intake, or during support groups, or as part of community outreach. You might also ask advocates and others who regularly work with victims what they are hearing. Gather information from as many victims as possible, those you regularly serve and those you don’t. Know who is missing from your data. Is it women of color, immigrants, victims living in poverty, LGBT victims or other marginalized group? Make an effort to find out what they think.
Then think and talk about what you’re hearing. Information used in this process should be generalized to protect victims’ safety and privacy. If resources are available conduct formal research, inquire about a broader range of issues, or track information over a longer term. Do what you can, but do something.
What to ask victims about helping their children: Ask what is relevant to the priorities and context of your advocacy. Ask some open ended questions that will give you information about victims’ priorities. Do victims think that your advocacy helps them to help their children? What do they think you should do? What are mothers’ priorities for themselves and their children? What would help them strengthen their relationships with their children?
Sample questions to help you frame the ones you’ll ask: What are your hopes for your children? What are your worries about them? What help do you think they need? What do you need to make things better for your children?
“My children know now that we don’t have to live in fear." - Shelter Resident, Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences by NRCDV for the National Institute of Justice (October 2008)