A New Demonstration Project for Children and Youth Exposed to Domestic Violence
Barbara Nissley, MHS Children's Program Specialist/Trainer
Nancy Durborow, Health Projects Manager
In October 2005, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV) was awarded a 3-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human and Services for "A Demonstration Project for Enhanced Services for Children and Youth Exposed to Domestic Violence." The goal of this project is to expand the capacity of domestic violence advocates to more effectively identify and address the unique needs of children and adolescents exposed to intimate partner violence and to support the non-abusive parent's care giving capacity to build resiliency in children. The primary approach to accomplish this goal was to select five demonstration programs that would offer 12-week home or community-based services to victims who are mothers.
Children exposed to a batterer are impacted in different ways than adult victims of domestic violence and their healthy development is in jeopardy. Historically, domestic violence programs have focused their services, advocacy, and system change efforts on adult victims of domestic violence, assuming that if the abused parent is safe then the children will be safe. This practice does not address the reality of children who witness violence and their exposure to an abusive caregiver, or that their needs are separate from the adult. This practice also does not address or recognize that batterers interfere with the victim being the most effective parent she can and wants to be. Additionally, many victims first seek help regarding the safety of their children, and with concerns for the overall welfare and well being of their children. Intervention services that focus on strengthening the abused parent-child relationship are beneficial in addressing the trauma associated with a child's exposure to a batterer.
Our experiences of working with victims and their children have taught us that limited services, especially thirty days of shelter, don't always allow for time to meet the varied and pressing needs of mothers and children. Once families leave shelter, they may only contact the program when a crisis arises. Transportation, childcare, and even safety concerns may hamper a victim and her children from returning to the program for additional assistance. An advocate going to the family rather than the family coming to the domestic violence program site represents a shift in PCADV philosophy and service provision.
Additionally, many victims of domestic violence find themselves involved with the child welfare system. The PCADV has always sought out and listened to the voices of battered women as a foundation for its planning and work. In 2004, PCADV conducted focus groups with battered women who were involved with the children and youth system. Some of the outcomes included referrals by child welfare to generic parenting needs or that of their children. Battered women also requested more help for and with their children.
The activities of this demonstration project will serve to more effectively address the deficiencies identified by focus group participants and the knowledge gained from research findings. There are three components to the project: 12- week home/community-based service provided by five demonstration projects, intensive training for the demonstration programs and regional trainings for all advocates, and the development and distribution of written materials to programs. The aim of all of these activities is to help the non-abusive parent to better understand child development, age-appropriate behaviors, and the impact of exposure to domestic violence on children, and promote strategies to address the short-term and long term needs of their children. Because domestic violence program staff is being asked to develop new services that have not been previously offered, training and education are an essential priority of the grant. Trainings are focused on child development, the effects of trauma on children, and skill-building.
Five different programs were chosen as demonstration sites for the home/community-based service based on diversity of geography, services offered, type of program, populations served, program quality, and competency of the children's advocate. Each program will provide a 12- week, 2- hours per week home- or community-based visit to help mothers help their children.
In addition to trainings, curricula and books have been purchased for the demonstration projects. PCADV will be developing and providing educational materials for intervention with children, brochures or fact sheets on age appropriate behaviors and behaviors that reflect the impact of exposure to violence, curricula for support groups on understanding and addressing children's behaviors and needs, and family safety planning.
There are challenges in this grant work. Home- or community-based services and a focus on strengthening the mother-child relationship is both a philosophical and service paradigm shift for the programs. The long-term challenge will be the institutionalization of this philosophy and subsequent practice within all 62 PCADV programs, in particular the shift from services within the shelter or the program to a home- and community-based service. Additionally, on-going training will be a priority.
What have we learned? It is important to stay focused on the purpose--to help mothers understand their children's behaviors and needs and to develop strategies for mothers addressing these behaviors and needs. Advocates are accustomed to working with victims and children's needs separately. It requires a constant rethinking and refocusing on working with the mother to help her build resiliency in her children.
Advocates have reported that they realize that they really must "take their cues" from the battered woman when the service is in her home or community. This has become more apparent compared to the victim receiving services in our shelter settings and programs. In our programs, the victim is living within our system and adjusting to our practices. In the home or community, the advocate has been invited into day-to-day life.
The advocates are also recognizing that the mother and the child both have strengths that were not as apparent in the shelter setting in a time of crisis. Their focus on the children is clearer and participants have reported being excited and appreciative of the advocates coming to their home to help them with their children.
Project evaluation is being provided by Dr. Cris Sullivan, who has previously evaluated home-based domestic violence services. Evaluation will focus on both the experiences of the mother and of the children.