Children's Voice May/June 2008

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Taking a Page from the Book

Almost 10 years after the release of the national Greenbook initiative, communities are showing progress in addressing the overlap of domestic violence and child maltreatment.

By Jennifer Michael

When Sharwline Nicholson suffered a vicious attack by the father of her 5-year-old son in January 1999, she left her son and 9-month-old daughter in the care of a trusted neighbor while she was hospitalized with a broken arm, broken ribs, and head injuries.

Nicholson was still undergoing treatment in the hospital when she realized that the wounds inflicted on her body were only the beginning of the more widespread damage done to her life. Her children didn't stay long with her neighbor in their Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood before New York City Child Protective Services took custody of her children and placed them in foster care homes, claiming Nicholson had "engaged in domestic violence."

Nicholson found herself leaving the hospital one day and hiring a lawyer and going to court the next. Even though her children were not harmed during the attack--her son was at school and her daughter was asleep in her crib--she had to "fight" to get her life back in order, Nicholson recalls. What pushed her was not only the thought of seeing her children again, but of all the other women she met in court who were in the same situation. "I was not alone, so that gave me incentive to fight this battle," she says.

Eventually the Administration for Children's Services dismissed Nicholson's case and returned her children, but caseworkers still paid her visits and she was told she could not return to her home. Another sobering consequence of the family's involvement with the child welfare system, Nicholson says, is that her children were abused during their time in foster care. During her visits with the children while they were still in care, she found scratches on her daughter and her son had a black eye.

Today Nicholson serves as a spokeswoman and advocate for domestic violence victims and their children because "So many children go through this pain and needless suffering that we have to bring some sort of attention to it," she says.

Nicholson's case is an example of how women and children involved in domestic violence situations are often victimized twice, both by the abuser and by the systems designed to help them. Too many times service agencies have differing protocols and goals and fail to coordinate among one another.

To address these issues, the Family Violence Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges convened leading family court judges and experts on child maltreatment and domestic violence in the late 1990s. In 1999 they released a report, Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice. Today, the report's tongue-twisting title is often referred to simply by the color of its cover--the "Greenbook."

The Greenbook initiative issued a set of guidelines for child welfare agencies, community-based domestic violence providers, and dependency courts to collaborate and develop policies and procedures to enhance the safety and well-being of battered women and their children. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services selected six demonstration sites around the country to implement the Greenbook recommendations over five years--ending last year--at a cost of $1.05 million.

Now, child welfare workers, domestic violence advocates, and family court judges in communities nationwide are drawing on the fruits of the demonstration sites' labor. They are using the resources the sites developed and following their advice on what to do and not do when developing collaborations. They are on a mission to prevent what happened to Nicholson and her children from happening to other women and children caught up in domestic violence.

Data to Stand On

"It was very common prior to the Greenbook work that child welfare workers would just plain not talk to domestic violence agencies," observes Katherine Lucero, a Supervising Judge in Juvenile Dependency Court and a former Family Court judge in Santa Clara County, California. "They viewed the domestic violence advocates as not being protective of children. The domestic violence advocates viewed the child welfare system as not understanding the family dynamics in a domestic violence family and certainly, therefore, revictimizing the victim by taking her children."

As one of the six demonstration sites implementing the Greenbook guidelines, Santa Clara County was able to put this issue on the table and give the different systems a chance to build trust and walk in one another's shoes. The other demonstration sites were El Paso County, Colorado; Grafton County, New Hampshire; Lane County, Oregon; San Francisco County, California; and St. Louis County, Missouri.

"Our community has not only taken on the work of the Greenbook and tailored our recommendations from the Greenbook, but we've also really changed institutions here with regard to collaborations and the benefits of collaborations," Lucero says.

The importance of such collaboration becomes clear when looking at the data on the overlap of child abuse and domestic violence. "Most of the studies over the last 25 years have found somewhere between a third and two-thirds of the families where there is child physical abuse, there is also adult-to-adult physical violence going on in the home," says Jeff Edleson, a Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and Director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse.

Over the years, Edleson has changed the way he views the impact of domestic violence on children. "I used to talk about children eye witnesses who are witnesses of domestic violence, and I really think exposure is a much broader [term]."

If children don't directly see violence in their home, they may still be exposed if they hear the violence, which may be even scarier. The perpetrator may also use the child as a tool by asking him to monitor the other parent, placing him at the center of a custody battle, or even kidnapping the child. In the aftermath of violence, children can further be exposed to new risks if they are separated from their victimized parent, as was the case for Nicholson's children. In all, 10-20% of children in the United States and in other countries are exposed to adult domestic violence every year, Edleson says, which translates to 7-14 million children in the United States alone.

Community Collaboration

For those communities that have not already engaged in Greenbook-related work, Ruth Houtte hopes what the demonstration sites learned over the five-year project will inspire others to adopt similar initiatives.

"It is really about discovering what your community is ready to do and then designing your project and coupling that with the wisdom that the Greenbook provides," says Houtte, the former Project Director of the Grafton County, New Hampshire, Greenbook initiative. "Find out what is already going on in your community and then build on that."

Examples of positive outcomes in Grafton County included a multidisciplinary dialogue created among child protective services, the courts, and domestic violence programs that enabled them to find common ground across systems in order to begin strategic planning. They didn't start with hot button issues, Houtte says, but found a place where participants could reach agreement by talking about what everyone wanted for kids in the community, which led to an assessment of the resources the community actually had.

Out of Grafton County's multisystem collaboration grew a series of protocols developed for the different systems. Houtte encourages other communities to steal ideas from the protocols, which are located on the Greenbook website. The county also significantly expanded training on domestic violence for new child protection workers, from a one-day training to a three-day training that incorporates a day to focus on women and domestic violence, a day on fathers and engaging men, and a day on children's exposure to domestic violence.

While the demonstration project required each site bring child protective services, the courts, and domestic violence programs to the table, some sites expanded their systems outreach. Grafton County included court-appointed special advocates in their collaboration, and Santa Clara County included local law enforcement.

Judge Lucero says Santa Clara County laid the groundwork for its demonstration project by giving each system homework to get to know one another better, often by going on ride-alongs with police officers or social workers. "We began to build trust and see what other people were going through with their jobs day-to-day," Lucero says. "Also, we could begin to be less critical with one another because we saw that in the field, with real cases and real families, these are very complex issues."

The systems in Santa Clara County also developed a foundation for their work by hashing out issues with a third-party facilitator to focus on their similarities rather than their differences. This helped dispel their biases and beliefs about one another. Working with the facilitator, as well as conducting third-party stakeholder interviews, also helped the group create common language. Each system, for example, held different perspective on the term failure to protect. In other words, who was failing--the battered parent, the batterer, or the system?

Pushing On

Another requirement of the demonstration project was that each site build infrastructure for sustaining its work. So while they are no longer called "demonstration sites," each county is continuing to focus on the impact of domestic violence on their service systems.

"What we learned is that the work is always evolving, and it is important that we continue to push on," Houtte says.

Nicholson is also pushing on, drawing on her experience to help other victims of domestic violence find hope, inspiration, and guidance. After her experience with domestic violence and her involvement with the child welfare system, she sued New York City. In the case, Nicholson versus Williams, a judge decided that the practice of removing children of battered women from their custody was a violation of the 4th and 14th amendments. Since this decision, Nicholson says New York City and other states have paid closer attention to the interrelatedness of domestic violence and child welfare, and more children are being protected from further harm.

The information and quotes used in this article were taken from the fall 2007 Competence on Call teleconference series, "Domestic Violence and Child Welfare Reform," sponsored by CWLA, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and supported by the Office on Violence Against Women and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Jennifer Michael is the former Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.


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