Abstract: Contingencies of Risk: Child Welfare Worker Beliefs and Decisions in Cases Involving Intimate Partner Violence (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Contingencies of Risk: Child Welfare Worker Beliefs and Decisions in Cases Involving Intimate Partner Violence

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 3:15 PM
Union Square 15 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Elizabeth Armstrong, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maine, Orono, ME
Emily Bosk, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Heidi Gansen, MA, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Background & Purpose: Evidence suggests Child Welfare Workers (CWW) find cases involving both intimate partner violence (IPV) and child maltreatment particularly challenging. They are common as well as difficult, representing between one and two thirds of all child maltreatment cases. While there is growing attention to the need for additional guidance around decision-making in these cases, we know little about how CWWs implement available guidelines. Building on recent qualitative studies of CWW experiences with cases involving IPV, we investigate CWW decisions regarding case substantiation and risk level, focusing on the interplay between decision-making tools and CWW beliefs about IPV. This research identifies gaps between best and actual practices, pointing to the need for greater dialogue between CWWs and IPV workers.

Methods: Data come from semi-structured interviews with 34 frontline child protective services workers in a single county in the Midwestern U.S. Interviews focused on decision-making around substantiating charges and formulating treatment plans in child maltreatment cases. This content analysis focuses on decision-making in cases involving IPV. Workers were asked to reflect on their most recent case involving IPV and walk interviewers through their use of standardized risk assessment procedures to identify how they interpreted evidence and made judgments. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed in accordance with grounded theory principles using Atlas.TI. To ensure confirmability of findings, two independent coders analyzed transcripts with discrepancies resolved through a consensus coding process.

Results: CWW definitions of IPV varied. Rather than treating IPV as a power and control issue, CWWs often conceptualized it as the result of alcohol and other drug use or mental health issues, as mutual, or as an anger problem. Substantiation decisions hinged on several factors. Most often, victims’ statements were discounted, with emphasis placed instead on police reports and statements from children. Unless CWWs believed they planned to permanently leave the abuser, victims were often considered unreliable and were subsequently more likely to be substantiated for child maltreatment. CWWs’ assessment of risks to children were contingent on whether children had been meaningfully exposed to violence. Cases were less likely to be substantiated, and services less likely to be put into place, when children had not directly witnessed the incident or were deemed too young to be aware of it. When offered, services were generally framed in educational terms, as CWWs assumed greater knowledge of the potential consequences of IPV would lead to altered behavior on the part of victims.

Conclusions & Implications: Despite new child welfare guidelines’ general assertion that victims of IPV should not be treated as perpetrators of child maltreatment, this research reveals a gap between policy and practice. Faced with complexity, workers frequently rely on sources and procedures—police reports and structured decision-making protocols—as sources of truth while discounting victim narratives. As such, decision-making remains embedded within dominant narratives about IPV that treat victims with skepticism and assistance as contingent on exiting the relationship. Findings suggest need for increased partnership between CWWs and providers of IPV services, particularly around safety planning with victims.