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Researchers work to improve services for families experiencing domestic violence

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers are part of a five-year, multisite demonstration project grant to evaluate and improve services for child-welfare-involved families experiencing domestic violence. The KU researchers will examine the effectiveness of various methods designed to increase the safety and well-being of children, parents and families, and ensure that children have permanent homes.

Futures Without Violence is the lead agency for the recently launched National Quality Improvement Center on Child Welfare Involved Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence. The $12.5 million project is a partnership among Futures Without Violence, the KU School of Social Welfare, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Center for Health & Safety Culture at Montana State University.

KU’s role will be to conduct site-specific and cross-site evaluations at four to six demonstration sites throughout the country. The results of the evaluations will help develop a knowledge base of effective interventions and strategies designed to improve the child welfare system for families experiencing domestic violence. The interventions and strategies will focus on enhancing communication and collaboration between stakeholders serving these families, improving outcomes for the children and increasing data gathering and sharing.

“The tragedy is that women and families experiencing domestic violence are not just poorly served, but that the system can in fact make things worse for these families,” said Andrew Zinn, assistant professor of social welfare and principal investigator of the KU evaluation team. “There are multiple systems involved in serving these families — from the child welfare system to the family court. There are important differences in philosophy and practice between these systems, but all agree that they should work together better, and we’re going to help facilitate that.”

Adult victims of domestic violence are already in a difficult situation. Child welfare systems often tell parents who are experiencing domestic violence that, unless they leave their abusing partner, they will be viewed as endangering their children. Indeed, in many states, not leaving an abusive situation legally qualifies as child endangerment. The problem, KU researchers said, is that the situation is rarely simple. Many people do not have the financial means to leave a partner or know that doing so could exacerbate violence. Unfortunately, the child welfare system and juvenile courts often do not consider other relevant factors, such as how trauma may affect the decision-making process of victims of domestic violence.

“The complexity of these situations may be compounded by a myriad of additional issues such as poverty, mental health challenges and substance abuse. We’d be hard-pressed to find a domestic violence situation in child welfare where domestic violence was the only critical factor in the safety and well-being of the children and family,” said Becci Akin, assistant professor of social welfare and a co-investigator of the grant.

In addition to using a gender-centered lens, the project will also examine the extent to which differences in the identification of domestic violence and access to services vary by race and ethnicity, “What we know from years of research, is that children of color are disproportionally reported to the child welfare system, and if they are removed from their home, they are less likely to be returned to their home,” said Juliana Carlson, assistant professor of social welfare and co-investigator. “So, it is very important to interrupt racial bias in the child welfare system and other systems, and to further understand how it multiplies the negative experiences of women and their children of color who are also respectively experiencing and being exposed to domestic violence.”

Currently, the project is in the planning phase, which will include a comprehensive review and analysis of child welfare collaborative models and interventions intended to serve families experiencing domestic violence. During this phase, KU and its partners will also select four to six demonstration sites across the country to test strategies to build collaborative practice across service providers and systems. In years two through five, project partners will test these interventions, with KU conducting site-specific and cross-site evaluations to assess the effectiveness of these approaches and practices.

Ultimately, the project will share its findings with those involved in serving families experiencing domestic violence through publications, webinars, policy briefs and conference presentations. By enhancing identification and risk assessment processes in child welfare systems, identifying important policy changes and promoting collaboration across systems, the project will help improve the safety, permanence and well-being of families experiencing domestic violence who are involved in the child welfare system.


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