Danger signals

The impact upon children of domestic violence is increasingly recognised. A risk assessment model in Northern Ireland is helping staff measure the dangers and plan effectively. Graham Hopkins reports

Research tells us that domestic violence in family homes is a strong indicator of potential child abuse. Indeed, in male on female violence, a perpetrator may well abuse children as part of their violence against the woman.

Social workers are increasingly required to assess risk and make decisions about child protection issues presented by domestic violence. But, there has been no explicit instruction as to “how” these risks should be assessed.

However, Belfast-based practitioners and North American practice now may have combined to provide the “how”. Barnardo’s Northern Ireland domestic violence outreach scheme (DVOS) opened in November 1997 and has developed several services, including carrying out recovery and safety work with women and children who were still in a violent relationship.

“We noticed there was an inconsistency in how social workers managed these cases,” says children’s services manager, Maddie Bell. “Sometimes they would set off a child protection response when it probably could have done with a family support response; and vice-versa.”

Seeking answers, Bell took a two-week field trip to Canada in 2000. “I went to London, Ontario, to observe their groupwork with children, and to see how they were managing domestic violence in their child protection procedures,” she says. “Following the study trip a Canadian trainer came over and trained 25 staff here in their risk assessment model.”

However, Barnardo’s experience in Canada led to Bell expanding the model’s six assessment areas to nine (see Risk Assessment) and adding threshold scales consisting of risk factors, potential vulnerabilities and protective factors.

“Canada had a model of analysing risks through child protection procedures,” she says. “They had ‘adult conflict’ as a category of abuse. That was the difference. And that made us think of threshold scales. Domestic violence wasn’t even mentioned in our procedures. It wasn’t there as a form of abuse. Now it is.”

In Northern Ireland there are at least 11,000 children known to be living in domestic violence situations. Mindful of research that suggested such children suffer directly and indirectly and may well be children in need, three Health and Social Services Trusts and the Ulster Community & Hospital Trust commissioned Barnardo’s to carry out a six-month pilot study in 2004 to apply the model in their family and child care teams. “We provided an initial three days’ training – two on risk assessment and, crucially, one day equipping social workers with a toolkit to do safety work with women and children,” explains Bell. “Safety work is an important part of this model; the best time to do such work is in the aftermath of an incident and the people going in at that time are the social workers.”

As part of the study Bell mentored staff, meeting monthly with small groups of social workers to talk through cases. Mentoring has been critical to the model’s success. One social worker said: “This model helps you to be very specific about the risks posed and then decisions can be made with more clarity and more specific information recorded.”

However, applying the full model – using the threshold scales and subsequent full assessment – takes three months to complete. So it is only used where there are high risks to children. It also specifically relates to male to female violence. “We know that female to male violence occurs and violence within same sex relationships – and we must develop our knowledge on the impact of these risks to children,” says Bell.

Less time demanding, however, are the threshold scales. “They can be assessed very quickly and used as a guide as to which areas need work,” adds Bell. “They are being used by A&E hospital social work staff, child protection nurse specialists, women’s advocates and health visitors. They are all trying to work from the same threshold scales – so they know when they need to pass cases on to social services or when they can offer safety work and can continue to monitor that situation.”

The arrival of the risk assessment model could be very timely indeed. “In Northern Ireland we have now developed and begun piloting a multi-disciplinary assessment framework,” says Bell.

“This includes a Unocini (understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland) form which is used to make referrals to social services, ensuring that referred children come with the wealth of information that has already been collected by professionals.”

She adds: “We’re saying in those cases of neglect, sexual abuse and domestic violence, where there is a high concern for children, social workers need to have a risk assessment toolkit for each one of those concerns in order to assess it more accurately.”

Risk assessment

The nine assessment areas:

  • Nature of the abuse.
  • Risks to the children posed by the perpetrator.
  • Risks of lethality.
  • Perpetrator’s pattern of assault and coercive behaviours.
  • Impact of the abuse on the women.
  • Impact of the abuse on children.
  • Impact of the abuse on parenting roles.
  • Protective factors.
  • The outcomes of the women’s past help-seeking.


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