Module 6: Supporting and Advocating for Families in Contact

Module Purpose

The purpose of this module is to:

  • Understand why people may remain in contact with partners/ex-partners and why children may remain in contact with a parent who is or has been abusive.
  • Articulate the importance of enhancing advocacy with families who stay in contact with their partners or parents who were or are abusive.
  • Advocate and provide holistic and culturally appropriate services families in contact.
  • Make the connection between meeting the needs of all family members including services and interventions for people who abuse and the role of advocates in those interventions.
  • Describe why it is important to provide meaningful opportunities to work with people who abuse.
 

Staying in Contact

This module will explore what responses are helpful to support people who have either chosen to remain in a relationship that is abusive or they have chosen to leave their relationship, but remain in contact with the other person.

Whether people decide to remain in a relationship that was or is abusive or if they have separated but remain in contact with each other, they may need ongoing support, requiring responses that reflect their situations.

Who is in contact?

Sometimes contact is by choice, sometimes by necessity, and sometimes it is ordered by a court. In addition, children are likely to have ongoing contact with the parent who is or was abusive, even if their parents are no longer together. The following are examples of people who remain in contact: 

  • Person remaining in a relationship with a partner who is or was abusive
  • Person has left a relationship with a partner who is or was abusive and has ongoing contact
  • Children who are in contact with either or both parents

It is important to learn about why people continue to be in contact with their partner in order to better support themAcknowledging this reality for parents and their children is important. The more we know about and understand the experiences of parents in an abusive relationship and the impact on their children, the better equipped we are as a community to meet their diverse and unique needs.

Communities are often organized to support a parent and their children when they are leaving a relationship that is abusive. Domestic violence programs, the criminal legal system, and children and family services, as well as other intervening systems, are designed to help parents and their children when they leave an partner/parent who is abusive.

Examples of common leaving strategies

  • Emergency shelter
  • Orders of protection
  • Domestic violence courts

These are important strategies for some parents who are in an abusive relationship and their children. The goal of providing advocacy and support for people who stay in contact with their partners is not to eliminate or get rid of our current “leaving” strategies. However, it is also important to explore additional strategies for parents who continue to remain in contact with their partners, even if they have left their relationship. This requires that we expand our work to be more responsive and reflective of the experiences and choices of all all parties and their children.

Examples of how to support people in contact

  • Supervised visitation
  • Parenting programs
  • Safety planning for people in contact
  • Fathering after violence 
  • Reviewing organizational practices and policies to remove barriers to better provide services and support
  • Training staff
  • Collaborating with other organizations
  • Building capacity for working with fathers/men

Consider 2–3 things you could do in your role to better support and advocate for people in contact and their children.

Lived Experience: Peggy Carlson

Read Peggy's Story

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I know everyone thinks I should leave Bruce. Maybe I should but I don’t want to. If we could turn things around and he got some help, I know things would go back to the way they were. I love Bruce and I think he can be a good father. I stay with Bruce because when we are both sober, things are really good. He is good to me, I know he loves me and I for sure know he loves our children. They should grow up with a mom and a dad. Anyways, whose to say I would be any better off away from Bruce than I am when we are together. Who can help me? Who can help Bruce?

 

Supporting Families

Working with people who are experiencing intimate partner violence and their children is not a new concept. However, when we work work with families who are remaining in contact we need to shift our response to better reflect the needs of the whole family. This requires:

  • A more complex understanding about risk and safety
  • A broader definition of safety and safety planning
  • Focusing on the needs and interests of the children
  • Supporting a safe and healthy relationship between children and both parents where possible
  • Leaving and staying strategies for parents and their children
  • A more in-depth understanding about each family’s life circumstances
  • Enhanced collaboration and support within our network of advocacy and family-serving programs
  • Programs for men and fathers that are grounded in intimate partner violence and restorative practices
  • Partnerships as defined by the parents
  • Understanding the impact of  trauma and providing opportunities for healing
  • Providing ways to interrupt intergenerational transmission of trauma

One of the most effective ways to enhance children’s safety and well-being is to ensure that a child maintains a continuous relationship with his or her non-abusive parent and where possible a safe relationship with his or her parent who is abusing or has abused the other parent.

 

Lived Experience: Brian Carlson

Read Brian's Story

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My dad moved back home—it is so awesome. He bought me the baseball glove, and him and my mom are hugging all the time. Last week we had pizza two nights in a row. It’s great. It’s like a party all the time at my house. The only one who isn’t happy is my sister, but she’s stupid sometimes. Dad says it’s ’cuz of puberty, and that girls get all crazy and icky when they go through that. I’m glad that when boys go through it they just get strong. I can’t wait to be strong like my dad.

The one bummer is that I had to go to the principal’s office again. I got mad at Mrs. Masunaga when she told me I had to try harder on my homework, and I yelled at her and called her a bad word. I forgot again that you aren’t supposed to use that word at school. I felt bad, because I like Mrs. Masunaga. I had to go to the office, and this time they called my mom and dad to come and get me. You could tell that Mom was really mad, and she kept asking the principal and Mrs. Masunaga questions, but Dad made sure she didn’t ask too many. He told her to shut up and that helped, and we got to go home. 

 

Lived Experience: Bruce Carlson

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Read Bruce's Story

This whole thing has just gotten out of hand. I love Peggy and I am a good father. I feel like I am being punished for not being perfect. You have met Brian, he needs his dad, he told you himself. Life has just been a little stressful. The bills are backing up, we have had layoffs at work, and I take my role as head of my household very seriously. I just need a break and Peggy and I just need a vacation together so she can remember how good things are between us.

 

Supporting Children’s Safety and Well-being

Every child is unique and each child has their own set of strengths and resources that shape and inform their experiences. When trying to assess how a child is doing, it is important to consider all of their life factors and experiences, including the impact of intimate partner violence and possible child abuse. A key strategy to understanding how a child is doing is to help their parents understand their feelings, behaviors, and experiences at home, at school, and in the community (1).

See Module Two: Childhood Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence, for additional information.

Recognizing that children have a range of experiences is helpful when assessing what a parent or child might need. If we think of all experiences as the same, we miss opportunities for best supporting safety and well-being for each individual child and their parent.

When we work with families, we need to support parents as they support their children. Supporting this process helps parents engage in an ongoing process of assessing risk and supporting safety and well-being.

Strategies for supporting children’s safety

  • Help parents know how their children are doing.
  • Support and build upon parenting strengths and skills.
  • Build from strengths, resilience, support systems, and cultural models.
  • Strengthen empathetic and supportive connections.
  • Offer strategies to improve children’s well-being and safety.
  • Talk to the parents about each others’ parenting.
  • Take steps necessary to protect children from serious harm.

For many families experiencing intimate partner violence, strong partnerships and plans for supporting safety can help address risks that children face. Depending upon the level of risks, some families will require more intensive intervention.

Some questions to explore

  • Have the parent’s identified risks to the children’s safety?
  • How does she/he perceive and respond to those risks?
  • How are her/his children doing? At home? In school? In other relationships? How is their health? Have there been any dramatic changes in their behavior and/or actions?
  • What actions have been taken and what actions are necessary to protect the children?

Sources

  1. Davies, Jill, 2009. Advocacy Beyond Leaving: Helping Battered Women in Contact With Current or Former Partners A Guide for Domestic Violence Advocates. 
 

Lived Experience: Anna Choi

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Read Anna's Story

Sometimes I get so sad that I think I might disappear—my mommy is sad a lot now and sometimes she also gets really tired. I try to help her as much as I can. I try to make my bed in the morning and I get dressed before she even has to ask me. I also try to get Nelson dressed, which is easier now that we are in the same bedroom. Sometimes when Nelson gets sad at night, I let him sleep in my bed. I don’t sleep a lot anyway, so it is nice to watch him sleep. It makes me feel like I’m helping. But even when I help, my mommy is still sad.

Lately we have to go to a center when we are going to see my dad—we can’t see him at Gramma’s house anymore, or at his house. There has to be a lady in the room when we see him. It’s a special room with lots of toys and games, and sometimes Dad will play with us, but a lot of times he just sits and talks to the lady. I like the lady a lot—she has a kind smile—she reminds me of my teacher. Sometimes, before I see my dad, the lady and Nelson and I talk about what happened that week or how we feel about seeing my dad. I always tell her I’m fine, and I want to see my dad. I don’t want to tell her that I don’t want to, because I know my mommy worked hard to make it so we can see him. Plus I need to stay in the room with Dad so he doesn’t yell at Nelson. I don’t want to upset the lady. She’s so nice.

Critical Thinking

This section is intended to allow us to integrate the training content into the lived experiences of our families. Each of our critical thinking questions addresses one or more of the people in the Carlson, Choi, or Johnson families, and examines an aspect of their lives.

Take time to think about each of these questions, and think about responses from multiple stakeholders’ points of view. It may be helpful to go back and review sections of the curriculum, re-read the experiences of each family member, and engage in dialogue with community partners and co-workers.

  • How would you respond to Peggy’s request for help for Bruce?
  • What are the benefits and risks to engaging and working with Bruce?
  • What services are available for Bruce? What is missing?
  • What are the signs that Brian is showing that might point to issues at home? What can the school do right now to help him?
  • If Anna won’t tell anyone that she is in pain and that she’s worried about her mom, how might they know she’s hurting? Who makes up her support system? What could her support system be doing better?
  • What would a coordinated response look like for the Carlson family, for the Choi family? Who would you have at the table? What are the risks? What are the opportunities?