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Prior to the grant, the Salisbury Memorial school had a small art therapy program for children exposed to domestic violence. The Victims of Crime Act grant (which is their primary source of funding) enabled the program to hire a director and a staff person. In July 1998, a location was selected for the program and a local bank agreed to pay the rent for the first year, an offer the bank has since continued. A grant from the Harply Foundation provided the organization with toys. Current funders also include United Way, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, and many other generous community organizations and individuals.

Services provided to children include art therapy, sand therapy, play therapy, individual counseling for children of all ages, teen support groups for females, “healthy anger” groups for females and males ages 12 to 16, and sibling support groups. Most of their groups consist of eight to ten week sessions. In addition, they offer a “drop in” center for children and youth. Services for parents include support groups, family case management and assessment, and family advocacy.

Interestingly, the project has done counseling for new, non-abusive parents who have joined a family that has previously experienced domestic violence. They work with the adults on how to deal with the special issues these children may face. The COVE project is very structured, but allows for flexibility with each case plan. The program is based on the philosophy that intense parental involvement gives the parent a sense of investment and control. They rely heavily on parental feedback to determine the children’s needs. Childcare, which includes therapy, is provided for young children while their parents receive services. While the project does not have an official waiting list, COVE programs are always full and at times they need to refer children to other services in the community.

Two full-time staff members run the COVE project. They attended a 40-hour training by the Boston Child Witness to Violence project. One training day was spent on outreach and collaboration with organizations, with a special focus on working with the police. They continue to use the Boston project as a resource. The COVE project staff are also Rapid Response Team advocates. In addition to providing counseling services, they conduct case management meetings with police and school representatives and conduct programs and groups in the schools. They teach children safety planning, including how to dial 911 and talking to children about what to do if their parents are fighting (i.e., do not get in the middle of the fight). They encourage children to find someone they trust and can really talk to, especially when there is reoccurring violence.

Recently COVE received a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

With that money, they will hire a full-time clinician and collaborate with four different agencies that can provide additional free services (such as substance abuse counseling). Because the services at COVE are free, clients who wish their location to remain unknown can not be traced through insurance records. The grant also covers the new “nurturing program” which will pay for a badly needed sink for the office kitchen and help develop a nurturing program curriculum. This program, which is offered once a week for two and a half hours, involves separate group counseling for parents and children. Following the session, the parent and children’s groups come together for a meal and a group activity.

The program keeps statistics on the number of children served each month. During a 12-month period from September 1998 to August 1999, an average of 33 children were served each month (children could receive multiple services) with an average of seven new children served each month. Approximately 25 families received services each month (they might work with the same family for several months). These statistics are used for internal purposes as well as to report to funding agencies.

Staff have learned valuable lessons that can be shared with other programs that work with children exposed to domestic violence.

• Spending time on strategic planning up front is time well spent. They planned for the first year to limit target outreach efforts to Amesbury, the town in which they are located. This outreach included working with the schools and police department. While they accept referrals from the surrounding towns in the Newburyport area, they confined their outreach efforts only to Amesbury. They did not want to overpromise services by reaching out too broadly.

• A program such as this needs an adequate number of paid personnel with clinical skills, diversity, and versatility. This project has been an evolutionary process with a need for staff who can evolve with the process and wear multiple hats. Currently, the program is interviewing for a master’s level clinician who can also facilitate collaboration with outside organizations and a full-time child advocate to assist with their daycare services.

• Providing childcare for parents while they receive services is critical to program success.

Clients with small children are not able to effectively participate in services if they have to care for small children.

Staff cited several program challenges ahead.

• It is difficult to recruit and maintain volunteers. They need a person dedicated to recruiting and coordinating volunteers. Keeping volunteers in the program has been close to impossible.

Volunteers, however, are vital to the continuation of the program especially since they are an excellent source of childcare providers.

• Maintaining grant funding is particularly challenging with their client base. Difficulty in tracking clients who may wish to not be found makes outcome studies nearly impossible.

Grantors, however, want programs to show results quickly.

• Their referral basis has been expanding as a result of increased outreach efforts and publicity highlighting the program. They are already serving children at their capacity. In light of their current level of funding and personnel, they are mindful that demand may increase to an unmanageable level.

Overall, staff members believe the program is having a positive effect on the children. They provided an example of a 16 month-old that was in his mother’s arms when she was beaten. After that incident, he began acting out and hitting his mother. COVE began individual counseling with the infant. Within three weeks, the hitting had decreased and eventually stopped.


When children are exposed to domestic violence in Massachusetts, mandatory reporters (which include the police and school officials) are required to file a “51a” report with the Department of Social Services. Many workers view the 51a as a way to obtain services for the family. Often victims accept services because of a combination of wanting help and being afraid that their children will be taken away by the Department of Social Services. If a family is deemed not safe in their present location, efforts by social workers will be made to find them a safe place to live. After a 51a filing, there is a ten-day period during which the department has to investigate the case. The investigation includes a visit to the family in a neutral location such as a park, school, or police department. The Department of Social Services worker will work with the police, school, and pediatrician to develop a safety plan.

After the investigation, a decision is made about whether the case should be opened or closed. If closed, the case is usually referred to services in the community such as the Women’s Crisis Center, COVE, and the Pettengill House (an organization that provides services to the community). If the case is opened, then there is a 45-day assessment period. The Department of Social Services will follow-up to see if the victim received services. At times, they may keep a case open as a safety net for the family. There is a real fear by victims of having their children removed. The media heightens this fear when victims hear about others having their children taken away. The department reports that they will remove children only if there is a real risk to the child and the victim does not take advantage of services or abuses the children. The Department will also factor in the batterer’s attitude and his/her ability to recognize the problem.


The Salisbury elementary school, Memorial School, reaches out to children who are exposed to violence at home. Teachers refer children to the School Adjustment Counselor for school-related issues. Often however, school-related issues, such as acting out behavior, stem from problems at home. The counselor can provide general counseling to the child, but if the issue requires more intensive individual or group counseling, the counselor must receive permission from the parent(s). The counselor facilitates anger management and healthy relationship support groups.

Many of the children who are recommended for anger management have seen violence at home.

When necessary, she or other school officials will file a 51a.

The Salisbury school nurse is another school employee who is in frequent contact with a large number of children. She may see up to 60 children in one day for reasons such as administering medication and tending to children who do not feel well. She finds that children often feel comfortable telling her that “mommy and daddy were fighting last night.” When this happens, the nurse calms the child down and offers him or her a snack. When asked how the children who are exposed to domestic violence behave, she said that they are frightened. They think “my parents are out of control and I do not know what is going to happen to me.” The boys generally exhibit acting out behavior while the girls tend to be quiet. She subsequently refers the child to the Adjustment Counselor and draws upon her formal and informal professional community contacts to seek advice on what can be done to help the family. She can file a 51a, although she believes they can help certain families better when she does not file a 51a. She may recommend to the parent that they seek services or ask for the parent’s permission to obtain counseling for the child. At times the nurse will follow-up to find out if the parent actually received services and if the parent did not, she will inquire why. When the parent is not receptive to helping her/himself or the child, the nurse said she is more likely to file with DSS.


As previously mentioned, project staff shared their insight regarding critical issues to consider as programs are developed to address the problem of children exposed to domestic violence (that is, the lessons they learned). Other lessons revealed during this research project included the following.

• Communities must recognize domestic violence as a problem and that children are the silent victims. Program implementers must secure commitment from key organizations and players.

In greater Newburyport, there is a Domestic Violence District Court Roundtable that is held at the district attorney’s offices. The theme of last year’s roundtable was domestic violence and children. There is also a Community Collaboration Taskforce, which has been focusing on the effects of domestic violence on children.

• For an approach like Salisbury’s to work, it must be embraced and supported by the police chief.

• Advocates must learn how to effectively collaborate with law enforcement. It takes time to build rapport and break down officer resistance to outside interference in their cases.

Officers had to be convinced that social workers would help, not hurt, their cases. The advocate is not there to do police work, but rather to do social work. Advocates need to take a soft approach, get support from the Center and forge a partnership with the police. Cross training between the police and victim advocates can be very valuable. Information to officers should be provided in a way that they will be receptive to hearing it, such as providing information in sound bites as opposed to long-winded lectures.

• Having two advocates on the Rapid Response Team, one for the adult and one for the children, would be helpful. When there are several children, the advocate is faced with multiple demands simultaneously. A second advocate would allow them to do their job more effectively and efficiently.

• Children who reside in homes with domestic violence are more often mislabeled than correctly labeled. They are often labeled Attention Deficit Disorder when they may actually be exhibiting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

• Schools can play a central role in identifying problems and moving children into services.

Teachers, staff, and parents need to be educated on domestic violence issues and its effects on the children. Children need to be taught that hitting is not “ok.” They must have an avenue to express their feelings and learn how to manage their own anger. School is a good place to begin this process.

• Prosecution rates have increased since the Women’s Crisis Center has worked with the police.

With support from counselors, prosecutors find victims are less likely to change their minds about prosecuting.


• It has been very difficult to engage parents in the Salisbury school system. This problem is most likely because many parents are single and work two jobs. Even when a free meal is offered as an incentive to come to attend an open house at the school, parental attendance has been low.

• The presence of the violent parent in the child’s life after the event is important to address. The perpetrator is almost always given access to the children. Attention needs to be given on how this interaction can occur while keeping the child’s best interests in the forefront.


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