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Defining Child Exposure to Domestic Violence as Neglect: Minnesota’s Difficult Experience

(Jeffrey l. Edleson, Jenny Gassman-Pines, and Marissa B. Hill)
Social Work (April 2006) Volume 51, Number 2
The article under consideration deals with the Minnesota state legislature changes in revising the definition of child neglect, speaking about child’s exposure to family violence. In the year 1999 an extended national examination of children’s exposure to adult domestic violence was in progress. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges took definite measures on national level in order to ameliorate the court response, domestic violence programs, and child maltreatment welfare agencies against violence. The guidelines worked out by means of joint efforts of these organizations resulted in the National Conference of State Legislatures articles and briefs. In half of the families where a child suffers maltreatment domestic violence occurs. Consequently, these efforts resulted in considerable interest among policymakers and program planners of the country who elaborated demonstration projects demanding financial support. The Minnesota legislators took leadership in making changes in the state’s child welfare system. Their goal lay in making child protective services better within a state. State Senator Jane Ranum paid much attention to improvements of this system. Along with state Senator Sheila Kiscaden she visited a number of cities to study the programs implemented across the country, she also examined particular differential response systems of the cities. So the child welfare reform lay in the fact that legislature enacted state guidelines on child protection to develop differential “alternative response” to child maltreatment reports. The legislation involved voluntary assessments in supporting of families with lower risk of violence occurring than in those traditional welfare services for children. The reform was aimed at providing differential response to children problems at different levels of risk. Though legislation on alternative response pilot projects was passed, they were not put into practice until the fall of 2000. Ranum and Kiscaden guaranteed that new alternative response programs would respond to children exposed to domestic violence. They cooperated in favor of changing Senate Judiciary and Health and Human Service Committees in this respective. The definition change into neglect was only part of changes which were planned to be undertaken. The newly expanded definition of neglect led to additional fund expenses which were not defrayed. The final wording change ceased to appear in the House’s version of the bill. And this gave rise to discussion in a conference committee between Senate and the Minnesota House. Signing of the new law after finding a compromise led to the official appearance of the new category of children, but legislators supposed that it would not have a drastic effect on child protective services. Later it turned out they were mistaken. Legislators did not think it necessary to lead long discussions as they just changed the word, language but not practice. Before 1999, data was rendered not thoroughly and consequently child protective services were not aware of the problems in the families until there appeared severe risk factor such as weapon presence. Citizens were not quite aware of the changes implemented due to the lack of hearings and timing of the legislation. So they did not expect major changes to be made at once, the main thing was the new alternative response effort, but counties faces a difficult task to implement new procedures appeared because of that neglect definition change. Before the definitional change it was reported by child protection service members that they knew of some children exposed to domestic violence but had nothing to do with it as they could not intervene as the concept of exposure to domestic violence did not correspond to what was meant by child maltreatment. With neglect definition changing practically every child came to be suspected in being a witness to adult domestic violence. Therefore, the number of annual reports of child maltreatment grew rapidly across Minnesota. Child protection agencies suffered because of dramatic increase of workloads and the appearance of a new category of children according to new definition which had to be taken care of not to be neglected. So many county agencies faced a great number of newly identified neglected children reported to them. There were several important concerns, the first one dealt with the terms of responding to child maltreatment reports, they had to be reacted to immediately. The second concern touched upon the lack of funding as it was provided for only in pilot counties, the rest did not possess the specific funding. As a result of this new category implementation there appeared necessity in additional funding and the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators surveyed and concluded that they would need more than ten million dollars to provide neglected children with appropriate services. Child protection agencies could not work up all the reports as their number continued to increase. County agencies could not well differentiate the factors in exposure to adult domestic violence. There appeared a possibility of inadequate resources distribution to serve families where children experience physical or sexual maltreatment. It turned out that those who needed help desperately would most likely not receive it. The legislation swept up a wide range of children: those who required help and those who did not need it. The fear that child protective services could more often blame mothers for their inability to protect children from their male partners is quite reasonable. The child protection services conducted a deep analysis of mothers entering shelters with children. So the county action went well beyond what was envisioned by the definitional change and began to create fear among women that this investigation would lead to their removal from custody. Though only small percentage really led to that outcome, mothers and community members were concerned and anxious about it. This new alternative response system could solve a number of problems people faced in the year 1999. But his effort remained nothing but a plan, was not implemented even in pilot counties. The matter is that county child protection services treated all reports the same way regardless of circumstances and experiences. The only county which successfully coped with an increase of reports was Olmsted County, it appeared to be an exception. The increase in reports did not frustrate child welfare services and overwhelm child protection programs, county board members managed to collaborate so that the resources were well distributed. Olmsted County became a leader in this differential response model implementation. It followed the experience of Massachusetts and other pioneer-states who managed to implement the model’s specific response to children exposed to domestic violence. That is how Olmsted became a leader in the movement. The success lay in several points, such as development of a distinct domestic violence intervention team in the child protection agency which consisted of social workers. The second point is that all domestic violence cases information was analyzed by experienced in domestic violence prevention staff members. They worked keeping to the following principles: mother and child safety increase, mothers’ authority and autonomy respect, victimizer identifying and specific treatment. They worked out safety plans to support change-orientated services and develop plans for victims, collaborating with local organizations for necessary services. The majority of Minnesota counties could not withstand the increase in reported cases of neglect. County social services administrators and women supporting communities supposed the new language could be abandoned as it lacked in funding and created more problems than it solved. Because the language change defined exposed children as neglected, it implicated the victim of the abuse as well as the trespasser. The state considered the victim responsible for the exposed child. There could be some misunderstanding of the notion itself, so the child welfare started discussing the implications of the definition change for children and female victims. They came to a decision to develop a protocol for child protection to use it in cases of domestic violence investigation. The Minnesota Department of Human Services issued the guidelines which set an example and were widely distributed and applied to in training workshops for child protection workers. In 2000 the Minnesota legislature abandoned changes to the definition of child neglect. The new statutory language admitted some points on safeguards for children, which were supported by Senators Ranum and Kiscaden. Its purpose was to avoid negative influence of earlier definition change. In case of adequate funding, the new definition could be implemented only in Summer of 2001 but it was not. Without material support, Minnesota does not consider exposed to adult domestic violence children to be neglected children. While in Olmsted County children exposed to domestic violence fall under mandatory reporting requirements, and resources continue to be provided to the children in need. Other counties which lack the resources and were not so successful in response to children exposed to adult domestic violence model. The story with definition changing had two sad results. The community reacted to the expanded definition of neglect by active reporting which led to inability of child protective services to respond to all of them in a proper way. Many children who were earlier identified were no longer visible in the system and could not receive services. Therefore, the article summarizes the whole data given underlines that this experience makes people draw certain lessons. Simple changes in definitions can lead to serious consequences, legal changes may not be an ideal solution of families’ suffering from domestic violence problems. Changes cannot be made in isolation; population should participate in services’ important decision-making. The reporters provide readers with positive Alaska experience in this sphere. Alaska’s legislation defined child exposure to domestic violence as maltreatment if it led to substantial risk of mental injury. But Minnesota defined all forms of exposure as child maltreatment. Moreover, Alaska provided child protection workers with new assessment protocols and put substantial resources into workers’ training to implement the changes.
In my opinion, the article under consideration contains valuable information which is intended for a wide range of readers, especially for those who are concerned with psychological, political and sociological aspects of the society evolution. The authors successfully covered and analyzed the issue of child exposure to domestic violence definition changing and the results of the legal change as well as enumerated lessons which could be drawn from the situation described. The authors focus on the issue which touched upon the Minnesota child protection services and the ways, local authorities tried to solve the problems and find additional funding, the efforts of whom by the way did not move county or state governments to provide additional resources. They underline particular drawbacks of the system and emphasize the evident lack of resources and at times child protection services workers’ insufficient training. Not in vain have many researchers focused their attention on children exposed to domestic violence. Domestic violence is a devastating social problem that affects every segment of the population may often be an initial cause to children’s maladjustment, hence, the issue is burning and requires particular attention and investigation. Only having collected accurate reliable information about the prevalence and nature of children’s exposure to domestic violence, prevention and intervention efforts cannot be discussed and worked out. That is why such articles are necessary to shape public opinion and keep people’s awareness of the problem so that they would not feel isolated. This will be one of the lessons we may take from Minnesota’s experience. It is important to put services into place before the population using those services is expanded. Though this may be hard to achieve it is worth trying. The reporters provide readers with valuable facts with which statistical data is logically blended. Every event and authority action is proved with definite resource reference so that in case of necessity and additional interest in the issue one may turn to it. The facts prove that though a number of discussions were held on preparatory level, the child protection organizations neither introduced data to population and nor examined its possible consequences, instead the legislators issued laws on definition change and the majority of common people were caught in surprise. The authors of the article give readers an idea that the general concept of definition changing was quite positive and even rational but hoping that legislators could just change the language but not practice was rather thoughtless. It made a balanced system of child protection services go wrong or malfunction, as a result the new language seemed to magnify problems with children exposed to adult domestic violence rather than solving them or reducing their scale. It lacked support in funding sphere and staff workers could not cope with workloads in the majority of Minnesota county child protection agencies. We may notice the inversely proportional dependence between reports and response capacity. As reports on cases of adult domestic violence occurrence increased, the response capacity in the majority of child protection agencies accept Olmset County’s agencies lowered. It is obvious that Minnesota’s experience is instructive and shows the way a system may go wrong when something is irrationally changed. The legislators were primarily concerned with the plight of children exposed to adult domestic violence but rushed to change the laws without adequately considering possible consequences and a wide range of perspectives the changes could cause. Although Minnesota has not found a way to support a comprehensive implementation of ideas introduced, as Alaska managed to do, it provides an instructive pattern which may serve a vivid demonstration of interrelation of agencies involved in various programs, projects, different child protection services collaboration. This way it is possible by means of close collaboration of researchers and competent child protection workers to work out a practical and optimal solution of issues which arise in this sphere not to trigger a backflash.


 

 
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