«HELPING CHILDREN EXPOSED TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: LAW ENFORCEMENT AND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS FINAL REPORT to The National Institute of Justice American ...»
The advocates' shifts parallel the 12-hour shifts of the patrol officers. According to the coordinator of the Domestic Abuse Response Team program, advocates are “highly encouraged, but are not required” to ride with police officers for at least part of that 12-hour shift. This allows an immediate response to the scene and it also fosters rapport between the officer and the advocate.
About one-half of the program advocates choose to ride with officers during their training period and continue to ride-along sporadically. If the advocate chooses not to ride with the officer, he, or she, must be available by telephone during the 12-hour shift. Should the victim need or request an in-person meeting at the time of the police response, the on-call advocate can meet the victim at a “safe” place such as at the police department, or at the emergency room of the hospital if the victim is transported for medical services.
A Domestic Abuse Response Team victim advocate may become involved with domestic violence victims and their children in one of two ways. First, the advocate may be in the patrol car as part of a ride-along. In that case, the advocate speaks to the victim as soon as the scene has been stabilized.
If the advocate is not in the patrol car, he, or she, is available by telephone. In that case, the officer at the scene informs the victim that they are about to call an advocate on the telephone. The on-call advocate talks to the victim about safety planning and services available for the victim and her children. The advocate explains the impact of witnessing domestic violence on children and behaviors associated with the trauma of witnessing such violence. As part of that educational process, the advocate discusses the many services available in Lakeland for children who witness violence, including services provided free of charge.
Having advocates available immediately on the scene, or by telephone, is seen as important in working with the victim and their children. While in a crisis state, victims are often more amenable to obtaining services than they are after the crisis has subsided.
The day after the incident, a Domestic Abuse Response Team advocate follows up with the victim, even in cases in which the victim refused services at the time of the incident. If an advocate spoke with the victim the night of the incident, the same advocate follows up the next day by telephone or in-person.
During interviews, advocates emphasized that the victims’ greatest fear is that their children will be taken away from them as a result of the domestic violence incident. Advocates spend considerable time explaining they are not from the state child welfare agency and they are not there to remove the children. They also attempt to enhance the victim’s self esteem. Advocates reason that victims with low self-esteem are not capable of thinking about, and following through on, their children’s needs. Therefore, their outreach to the victim is critical to serve as the allimportant entry to address the needs of the children.
The majority of domestic violence victims are not aware of resources in the community for themselves and their children. The Domestic Abuse Response Team advocates bridge that gap, often reaching out directly to programs on behalf of the victim rather than making a simple referral. Advocates noted that there are “plenty of services available” in Lakeland, a community “very responsive to children.” Among the Domestic Abuse Response Team advocates, many languages are spoken to serve nonEnglish speakers. All advocates receive a free pager and cell phones donated by AT&T. To keep the program operational, the program needs at least 35 volunteer advocates. They have experienced considerable success in maintaining a dedicated core of advocates. They currently have 42 volunteers, six of whom are male. They are especially interested in maintaining male advocates (the full-time paid advocate is a male) because the Domestic Abuse Response Team coordinator wants victims of domestic violence, who are usually female, to see that “there are good males out there who really do care.” The Domestic Abuse Response Team advocates average about three to five calls per week. During interviews with program advocates, they identified the following lessons they have learned about helping children exposed to domestic violence and their families.
• An effective advocate needs to be patient, compassionate, a good listener, and non-judgmental.
Many victims return to their abusers, and advocates need to leave the door open for help in the future and “be there for the victim whatever course she chooses.”
• To be a good advocate, you have to “shut down your emotions.” You “must focus on your job, not the condition of the house or the cockroach in the corner of the room!”
• To build rapport with officers, advocates should conduct ride-alongs. It increases advocates’ understanding of police work and vice versa.
• Expect “bumps in the road.” At first, officers thought advocates would “be in their way,” but “welcome their presence" now. In the beginning, officers only called the Domestic Abuse Response Team advocates because the Chief said so, now they do it because they realize advocates can be helpful!
THE ROLE OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
By Florida statute, judges and police officers are required to notify the Department of Children and Families whenever a child is endangered, abused, or neglected. Whether a report is required in every case in which a child is exposed to domestic violence is a matter of interpretation. Some reporters only call if the child witnessed the violence while others call every time children reside in a domestic violence home. When a call is received via the hotline in Tallahassee, the hotline operator screens the call to determine if there is reason to believe child abuse occurred. If so, the case is transferred to an investigator and a priority established. The case may be prioritized as requiring an emergency response within three hours or a non-emergency attempted response within 24 hours.
When an investigator from Children and Families responds to a report of domestic violence, a decision is made whether to talk to the children first or the parents. It depends on the severity of the incident, the ages of the children, and the worker’s assessment of the family. The goal is to ascertain where the children were during the incident, what the children were doing at the time, what the children witnessed and heard, the family’s prior history of domestic violence, and how capable the non-offending parent is in protecting the children from further harm.
The Children and Families caseworker also explains services available to the parent and child and why children who witness domestic violence may need counseling. If the parent is willing, the family may be referred to a Crisis Counseling six week program or the more intensive Family Focus Family Builder’s three to six month program, which is a local service program. If there is a history of domestic violence, the abuser might be referred to the Batterer Program. These programs may be voluntary, mandated as part of a service plan, or court ordered depending on the severity of the case. If it appears to be a first time incident and the non-offending parent is protecting the child, Children and Families close the case without any official intervention. It was estimated that one-half the cases are closed in this manner.
FOLLOW-UP SERVICES WITH SCHOOLS AND OTHER SERVICE PROVIDERS
Two years ago, the Domestic Abuse Response Team developed a “Parental Consent Form” for a parent to sign for children under the age of 16. The Form gives the program permission to contact the child’s school and advise school officials about the domestic violence incident. The intent is to engage the school in helping the children. All police officers are familiar with the Parental Consent Form. Most parents, estimated at 90 percent by the Domestic Abuse Response Team coordinator, sign the Parental Consent Form. According to officers interviewed, parents usually agree to the Parental Consent Form because (a) they are in crisis, (b) it is designed to help their children, and (c) the police uniform and badge contributes an air of authority that parents are reluctant to question.
Officers acknowledged that the Form is extra paperwork (something officers loathe), but “it only takes three minutes and it helps the kids” so they do not mind the extra work as it “is worth it.” The supervisor of school psychologists described a very strong working relationship with the Domestic Abuse Response Team and an active community service-based response to these children and their families. The coordinator of the Domestic Abuse Response Team personally visited all of the 37 schools in Lakeland to explain the Parental Consent Form and the effects of children witnessing domestic violence. This process established a trust critical to a cooperative working relationship between the Domestic Abuse Response Team and the schools. The supervisor of school psychologists noted that she has never had one complaint from parents about the Parental Consent Form. She is the recipient of most complaints and notes if there were any problems with the Form, she would have certainly have heard about them. Lakeland schools are very active in violence prevention programs through conflict resolution, anger management, and peer mediation programs.
In every case in which the Parental Consent Form is signed, the Domestic Response Team contacts a school representative the day after the incident. The Domestic Abuse Response Team coordinator or the full-time advocate makes this contact. The Form is faxed to the school principal or guidance director after a call is placed to alert them the Form is coming. The reason for this precaution is that the Domestic Abuse Response Team coordinator does not want the Form “hanging around” the fax machine where other students and employees can see it and thus learn of the domestic violence incident. This could feed the rumor mill and have disastrous consequences for her working relationship with school officials.
In addition to moving children into services, a side benefit of the Parental Consent Form is that it demonstrates to Children and Families that the parent is taking steps to protect his/her child. This may result in fewer children being removed from the home for failure to protect.
We visited a kindergarten through fifth grade school of 725 students, one of the 37 schools, that works with the DART coordinator on the Parental Consent Form. We learned that when a Form is received, the counselor seeks out the child and asks what happened the night before. The counselor listens to the child’s concerns and worries and assures the child that he or she may come to the counselor at any time to talk about his or her feelings. If the child does not seek out the counselor after the initial meeting, the counselor reaches out at least one more time. The counselor assesses the child’s need for individual or group counseling. Group counseling is offered on the topics of divorce, self-esteem, anger control, and grief. A major goal is to help children understand that violence in a family is not normal and that people can share their feelings without shouting or hitting. In addition, safety planning is provided. The counselor also addresses the need for material services, such as food and clothing. She may also counsel the child’s mother and help her obtain needed services if circumstances warrant it. The counselor notifies the child’s teacher that there are problems in the home (no specific mention of domestic violence is made) to alert the teacher to be extra caring and attentive to the child.
The Domestic Abuse Response Team coordinator said the response to the Parental Consent Form has been “overwhelmingly positive” in Lakeland and has received national attention. Many departments across the country have contacted the program to find out how it works in an effort to develop one for their department.
In addition to school programs for children exposed to domestic violence, there are a number of other programs for these children. For example, Gentle Giants: “It takes a Big Person to Walk Away” is a conflict resolution program for adolescents offered once a month by the Clerk of Courts. There is also an “Outward Bound” type program for adolescents who may be acting out aggressive behaviors learned in the home.
In Florida, VOCA funds are available to pay up to $10,000 for the child’s counseling if the child was injured and up to $2,500 if the child witnessed domestic violence. The advocates help victims fill out VOCA compensation forms to submit a claim.
FUNDING The Domestic Abuse Response Team has a Violence Against Women STOP grant of $67,000 (they are in their third year of STOP funding) that supports the full-time coordinator and a full-time advocate. It also covers the cost of gasoline for the Domestic Abuse Response Team car (the car itself was purchased with STOP funds during year one of the grant). The Chief of the Lakeland Police Department has a commitment to continue the Domestic Abuse Response Team even after funding ceases and will assume the costs for doing so.
The Domestic Abuse Response Team is not being evaluated. The team coordinator believes it is working, because the number of calls for repeat service are down (from 236 before the Domestic Abuse Response Team compared to 136 after) and the number of new calls for service are up (in August alone, they had 70 domestic violence calls). Also, there has been a decline in the number of domestic violence homicides.
CHALLENGES FOR THE DOMESTIC ABUSE RESPONSE TEAMChallenges for the Domestic Abuse Response Team to fully address the needs of domestic violence victims and their children include the following.
• It would be helpful if psychologists could respond as a team with the Domestic Abuse Response Team volunteers during the initial crisis intervention. Currently, there are no funds to support such an effort.
• The Domestic Abuse Response Team volunteers would embrace more specific training on the effects on children exposed to domestic violence.
• More male advocates are needed. It is good for victims to see males in a positive light.