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FAQs for Social Workers

Resources for social workers working with children and families affected by domestic abuse.

This is a series of frequently asked questions designed for social workers who work with children and families, who may have been affected by domestic abuse.

FAQs on working with a mother about how domestic abuse affects her child

What might I need to think about when working with a mother? I am worried that domestic abuse may be affecting her child?

Good Practice

The same good practice principles apply when working with families affected by domestic abuse as they do with other concerns. However, there are specific issues to bear in mind when addressing domestic abuse. These may help you and the mother work more effectively together to keep herself and her child safe and meet their needs.

Power Issues

It may be helpful for you to think about the power dynamics that may be at play. Both the perpetrator of domestic abuse and the child welfare system may exert power over the mother. She may feel intimidated by your statutory social work role. She may feel powerless at home and when working with you. This may prevent her from expressing her views in assessments, plans and decision-making processes for her child. You may be able to assist her by supporting her to access advocacy from specialist domestic abuse services. This may assist her to be able to make informed choices and to take part. For more information, see where to get further help.

Mother’s views

Try to find out what the mother’s own understanding of her experiences and needs are. Try to find out what she thinks will help. By listening to, and exploring, her views sensitively you may be better able to understand and analyse what is really going on. This may help you to develop a shared understanding of the harm to any child within the family. If you do need to challenge a mother who appears to not be responsive to her child’s needs you will be doing so from an informed assessment.

Impact of domestic abuse on parenting capacity

The mother’s parenting may have been undermined because of the domestic abuse. She may need your support to help strengthen the mother/child relationship. She may also want you to help her attend a specialised parenting course which acknowledges the impact of domestic abuse on children and increases her parenting skills and confidence.

Individual needs

It is important to understand that there is no typical domestic abuse survivor or perpetrator. Your assessment should reflect the family’s individual circumstances, strengths and difficulties whilst bearing in mind what research tells us about the effects of domestic abuse on children. You need to consider that some difficulties may be symptoms of a woman’s experience of domestic abuse.

As well as coping with domestic abuse, the mother may have compounding factors in her life or additional vulnerabilities. These could include drug or alcohol misuse. She may face discrimination or other disadvantages and have specific needs. This may be as a woman from a Black or ethnic minority community, as a disabled woman, because of her sexuality or because she has uncertain immigration status. You may be able to help her access support from specialist services. For more information see where to get further help.

FAQs on practical support, planning visits and communicating with mothers

What practical things can I do to work with a mother to help her keep her child safe from domestic abuse?

Put information in writing

Remember that a mother affected by domestic abuse is likely to be under enormous pressure. She is likely to find social work involvement extremely stressful. This can make it difficult for her to retain information. So consider putting key information and decisions in writing (or another more appropriate format), promptly, to help her.

Also, try to provide information (including in writing) when you are referring the mother to a service or for an external assessment. This will assist her to make an informed decision about whether or not the service is right for her and her child.

Do signpost her to independent information, advice and advocacy services such as Family Rights Group. They can help her to understand her rights and options. She may feel more confident asking questions of an independent organisation who will not make decisions about her child. It may assist her to get the support she needs and to work with your department.

Prioritise interpreting services

Some women, for whom English is not their first language, may not feel comfortable or may struggle to communicate in English in formal meetings. Ask the mother whether she would like an interpreter. Try to arrange consistent, professional interpreting (and translation) services for the mother. Consider using female interpreters unconnected to their family network. It is also essential to provide sign language support for deaf women.

I have been allocated a case where there are child protection concerns because of domestic abuse. What should I think about when planning my visits?

Your approach

Try to ensure that you work with the family, including the mother, fairly and respectfully. You can do this by being thoughtful in how you set about working with the family. Be on time, make every effort to explain what you are doing and why. Consider the safety of all individuals in the family including what information is asked and shared. Encourage family members to ask questions if things are unclear (including with the support of an advocate if they wish). Do provide feedback in a timely way.

Make sure that you always explain the legal basis for your involvement in a clear and consistent way. If that changes, for example, where a case moves from a child in need process to a child protection enquiry, explain the reasons for this.

Advocacy services can help mothers to have their voice heard when working with social workers, managers and other professionals. For more information see FRG’s advice sheet on advocacy for families when social workers make plans for their children.

Manage change/repeated patterns of assessments

Be aware of the impact that changes of social worker and repeated assessments can have on families. When you take over or hand over a case to another social worker, take the time to discuss the impact of this with the mother. Acknowledge how she feels about it. Joint visits with the new/previous social worker and familiarising yourself with the file beforehand may lessen some anxieties.

Tailor services to need

The skills and expertise of individual practitioners working with mothers can make a big difference to their experience. It can also affect the outcome of any intervention. Be willing to work with other agencies, not just mainstream or statutory services. Be as creative as you can be in responding to an individual mother’s needs. Listen to the mother and her support network.

Plan and support participation

Think carefully about the timing and setting of appointments and meetings, both with you and other services. Make sure that they are as realistic and manageable as possible. Ensure they take account of the mother’s commitments and competing pressures such as childcare and work. She may need some practical support in order to be able to take up services that you think will benefit her and her child. Consider how your agency may be able to help. For example, you may be able to cover travel costs or childcare. Remember that section 17 child in need support can be used to provide help to a mother as well as her child, if it helps the child’s safety or wellbeing.

Follow up support

Always think about what follow up help could be beneficial if social work involvement or another support service is ending and for those mothers who have lost care of their children.

What should I think about when communicating with a mother who has been subject to domestic abuses?

Think about language

Make sure to use language carefully and to avoid jargon to minimise distress and confusion. Don’t forget to signpost the mother to independent information, advice and advocacy services such as Family Rights Group if she needs more help to understand her rights and options.

Be specific

Always be clear about why you are recommending a particular service and about whether the mother can choose to attend or not.

If you would be very concerned if she does not engage with a particular service, then explain clearly your reasons for this. Explain what action you may take if she does not cooperate and where she can get independent advice. Listen if she has any objections and explore with her if these can be overcome.

Encourage her to seek independent advice including legal advice, for example from FRG’s advice service and other specialist organisations. For further information also see FRG advice sheet 9: Child protection procedures.

Be realistic

Take care not to give the mother an impractical list of tasks to complete independently and then criticise her if she fails to achieve them. Instead, try to work with her or help her to access some individual or key worker support from a specialist agency to progress any plan. See where to get further help.

FAQs on engaging extended families

What should I bear in mind when thinking about how and when to involve the extended families?

Consider the early involvement of wider family members where this is safe for the mother and child. This could be through a family group conference. This can help bring the family and friends network together to make safe plans for the child. This might be to explore what support they could provide to the family including both child and adult victims of abuse to enable the child to live safely at home. This may include supervising contact with the other parent, where appropriate. It can also be to explore alternative potential care within the family where that may become necessary. Statutory guidance on court orders and pre-proceedings recommends that wider family are identified as early as possible to support the child and help parents address difficulties. It recommends children’s services should consider arranging a family group conference to avert a child entering the care system, where possible. There is now a body of evidence as to how this can organised in a safe way to empower adult and child survivors of domestic abuse. You can download this guidance from statutory guidance on court orders and pre-proceedings.

FAQs on working with mothers and fathers about domestic abuse

I feel that I am putting the responsibility for keeping the child safe on their mother. But it is their father who has been violent. What can I do about this?

Don’t blame the victim for the violence they have experienced

It is important that you support the mother and child to understand that the violence is not their fault. And that they have a right to be safe from violence. By only working with the mother living with domestic abuse instead of with the father perpetrating the violence, you are placing the burden on her. You are requiring her to do all the work and take responsibility for the perpetrator’s behaviour. This denies the need for the person who has been violent to stop his abusive behaviour.

It is also important to help parents understand that both the mother and the father are responsible for parenting. This includes keeping their child safe from harm, including witnessing violence.

Involve parents safely

Social workers are expected to work in partnership with both parents. This includes involving both in assessments, planning and meetings. You may need to work with mothers and fathers separately because of the domestic abuse. You should consider putting in place “split meetings” for child protection conferences or core groups if involving the father in the meeting would place the mother or child at risk.

A holistic assessment should involve assessing the father as well as the mother. This will mean you are able to identify if and how the father may be a potential resource for his child and better assess the level of risk he may pose. This will inform your recommendations about what is needed to keep the child safe.

There can be links between a father’s domestic abuse and their fathering. You need to consider the impact of any potentially negative parenting practice by a father who perpetrates domestic abuse.

Communicate with the perpetrator directly

It is essential that a father who has been violent in the family home is made aware of concerns you have about his child’s safety and welfare. You need to be clear with him what should be done by him to address these concerns. Your department should discuss this directly with the father. There must be no expectation on the child’s mother to pass on the information to him.

In some situations, mothers are left to tell fathers that children’s services have stated that they cannot have contact with their children. This puts the mother at further risk. It also fails to hold the father accountable for his actions. And it prevents him from learning what steps he might be able to take to change his behaviour.

If your department believes that contact between the father and child can place the child at risk of harm, they must make this clear. They must also state on what basis they are stating this, for example, is this part of a child protection plan? Both parents need to know and understand what action your department may take if contact between the child and their father happens without their agreement.

Prioritise safety

Mothers tell us that, sometimes, social workers say that if there are any further police call outs children’s services will get involved again. But there involvement will be at a more serious level, potentially removing children from home. Of course, parents need to understand how seriously domestic abuse impacts on children and what steps social workers can take to protect children from harm. However, how this message is conveyed is crucial.

No mother should not be put at further risk because they are too scared to call the police. No perpetrator should be empowered by the knowledge that their partner feels unable to seek help due to fear that they will lose their child if they do so.

The most important thing is the safety of the mother and her child. She should not be blamed for doing the right thing if she needs help from the police. If she doesn’t seek help this may be interpreted as placing herself and her child at risk. Be aware of this dilemma. Try to make sure that she has access to specialist domestic violence services to help her.

What might help me work more effectively with fathers or step fathers who are violent at home?

Training

Some social workers may lack training, experience and confidence in working with perpetrators of domestic abuse. You or your team can ask your manager for support and training to help you enhance your skills and develop strategies for working with violent men. Managers should respond positively to such requests. They should consider how best to promote social workers’ professional development when working with perpetrators, as well as survivors, of domestic abuse.

Resources and information

You may also find resources to assist you via British Association of Social Workers website and Family Rights Group Frequently Asked Questions For Fathers.

Specialist perpetrator assessments and programmes

There are a number of accredited specialist domestic abuse perpetrator programmes which provide focussed interventions for men. These programmes have been found to reduce domestic abuse, its effects and the risks to adult and child survivors.

Perpetrator programmes usually work with a range of services and with multi-agency groups. They offer risk assessment and violence prevention services for men. They also offer support services for partners (male and female) and ex-partners and young people. For more information about services offered by Respect and Domestic Violence Intervention Project (a division of Richmond Fellowship).

You may want to consider signposting fathers, as well as mothers, to independent sources of advice and information such as Family Rights Group for legal advice.

FAQs on protecting children and responding appropriately to their mothers

How do I balance my statutory role in protecting children with responding to the needs of mothers who are victims of domestic abuse?

Acknowledge the complexity

Working with families where there is domestic abuse is very complicated. Both for the families themselves and also for the professionals working with them. Social workers with statutory responsibility for protecting children can struggle with these issues. They may sometimes feel that their focus on the child’s welfare prevents them from being able to respond to the mother’s needs too.

Protecting mothers protects children

Being child-focused and aware of how damaging living with domestic abuse can be for a child does not mean that you have to ignore or neglect the needs of the child’s mother. In many cases, addressing the mother’s needs will support her to care for and keep her child safer too. As a social worker, you are committed to promoting the child’s best interests. Helping the child’s mother to be as safe and secure as possible, and that her practical and emotional needs are also met, is likely to be in the child’s best interests. She may be the most effective resource for protecting her child.

It is a key principle of the Children Act 1989 that the best place for a child to be brought up is in their own family, provided it is safe, with reasonable support from the State when needed. Therefore, providing support which helps the mother and child to be safe and stay together, where this is in the child’s best interests, is good practice.

Think advice, advocacy and specialist support

Do encourage the mother to access advice and information. Specialist advice can help her:

  • feel listened to;
  • be given information about what the law says;
  • understand what procedures should be followed; and
  • help her to consider her options and make realistic choices.

She may benefit from speaking to a specialist Family Rights Group adviser. Or she could contact a solicitor for legal advice.

Remember too that government guidance (Working Together 2015) strongly recognises that parents should be given information about advocacy services. They should be allowed to bring an advocate to child protection meetings. The more vulnerable a mother is and the more serious the child protection measures your department is considering, the stronger the argument that you should provide advocacy. This would help her participate more effectively from an informed position.

Research shows that advocacy can help families work in partnership with social workers. This is especially so where advocates are professionally trained and have good knowledge of child care law. Be positive in your approach to advocacy as it may result in better and more informed participation and help keep the child safe.

For more information about this see FRG advice sheet on advocacy for families.

You may not be able to provide all the support that the mother needs. But you may be able to assist and encourage her to access specialist services where she can get the right help. She may need your encouragement or practical help, though, to take up services. So do think about how you can work alongside her to support her through the process. See where to get further help.

Dilemmas

Social workers must maintain their focus on the child’s developmental timescale. They must also comply with statutory and judicial timeframes for assessment and court proceedings. This can cause a dilemma when the mother (and/or the father) needs more time and ongoing support to address the concerns or maintain changes and where decisions need to be made for the child’s future.

Plans made may impact on the child throughout their life. So you will need to ensure that the family has been offered support to resolve concerns wherever possible. It is also important to consider providing continued support to enable the mother and child to remain together. And to consider exploring alternative care options within the family as early as possible. This could be done through offering the family a family group conference (unless this would be too risky).

Where a mother has lost care of her child because of domestic abuse it is still very important to consider offering her follow up support to maintain her relationship with that child. It may also assist her to safely care for any future child she may have.

I am assessing a family where there has been serious domestic abuse but the mother is minimising our concerns. What can I do?

Minimising or denying domestic abuse may be a starting point for many mothers when social workers are first involved. But it does not have to be the end point. It is important for a child that their mother is able to reflect on how they and their child are (or may be) affected/harmed by domestic abuse. They also needs to be able to reflect on how they can be supported to keep both child and mother safe.

Why might she minimise the concerns?

When planning your assessment, it may be helpful to think about all the competing issues this mother has to contend with. She may feel ashamed because of the nature of the abuse she has suffered. She may be worried about how this will impact on her role within her wider family and community. She may be focused on managing the situation in such a way that she keeps safe and that the violence does not increase. These are just some of the possible reasons why she feels she cannot disclose what is happening, or at least not at first.

Her main fear, as for many parents when social workers are involved, may be that her child will be removed. She may think this is more likely if she tells you the extent of what is going on.

She may not view what is happening as domestic abuse. She may need time and specialist support to develop her understanding of domestic abuse and to be able to make informed choices to address the concerns. See where to get further help. Unfortunately, sometimes the timescale for the mother to make changes may not be the same as for her child. In those situations the child’s needs must come first.

How can I help her move forward?

By recognising the factors that may be impacting on the woman’s ability to be open about the abuse she has suffered. By listening to her about her understanding of the situation, you may be able to build up a relationship. This will promote a more open discussion about the situation. You may be able to allay some of her worries especially in less serious cases. Where the concerns for the child’s welfare are very significant you can tell her honestly what action may be taken and in what circumstances. Most importantly you can talk to her about what she can do to stop this and how you can help.

You could also encourage her to attend a specialist domestic violence service. She can speak freely to the professionals there and learn more about domestic abuse. She can find out more about how to keep herself and her child safe and be supported to do so.

Always consider encouraging her to access independent advice and advocacy from Family Rights Group. Or she could contact a specialist solicitor for legal advice.

FAQs on working with mothers who remain with or separate from their abusive partner

A mother won’t separate/remain separated from her abusive partner. How can I help her understand the harm to her child?

Think about the barriers to leaving

Often, mothers are expected to make urgent major decisions such as permanently separating from their abusive partner who may be their child’s father. Yet they may not be ready or have very little support in place. Sometimes, social workers question why the mother stays with her violent partner. Instead they need to be thinking about what are the barriers to her ending the relationship. They may also neglect to consider how to manage his behaviour.

In addition, when couples reconcile, mothers are often seen as being at fault for allowing the father back. However, it could be that this has happened because of the mother’s lack of options or support. It could also be due to her partner’s coercive control.

What might help her decide what she should do?

It is important not to have a simplistic attitude. Instead think about why the mother may be behaving in a particular way. It may be that you can try to find a way to help her prioritise what will keep her child safe within her care, where possible. Despite the domestic abuse she has experienced, the mother may experience separation as a grieving process. She may have many logistical and emotional problems to overcome. Of course, her child should not be put at risk by this. But acknowledging and trying to help her address the complexities she faces may be beneficial.

You may be able to help a woman to make informed decisions about her relationships. You may be able to assist her to more effective follow through on decisions she makes. For example, you could help her remain separated by giving her the means to access professional specialist support and advice. This may be from domestic abuse organisations, housing services and legal services amongst others. She may fear moving away from her or her child’s support network, her job or the child’s school. Discuss these practicalities with her. There are useful contact details in where to get further help.

Be aware of the difficulties that women face in accessing legal aid and obtaining court orders. Be alert to the impact that changes to the benefits system may have on her ability to afford a refuge place or safe accommodation.

Mothers with no recourse to public funds will face particular challenges and are likely to need your help and that of experts in this field.

Develop a shared understanding of harm to the child

Try to engage with the mother in thinking about how the domestic abuse has impacted on her child. This should take into account her perception as well as your professional assessment and that of the other agencies working with the child and family. Be specific about what harm her child is experiencing/may experience and the particular risks that uncertainty in the current situation poses. It might be helpful to talk with her about why social workers tend to become more concerned when parents show less concern about, or appear to minimise domestic abuse.

Discuss options

Discuss openly what the different options may be. This should include how she may be able to apply for a legal order to get protection. Consider with her that your department may pursue legal action and alternative care within the family if needed. Encourage her to seek specialist, independent legal advice so that she can make informed decisions about how to proceed. See where to get further help.

What do I need to think about now that a mother I am working with has separated from her abusive partner?

Risk assessment and safety planning

You are right to be aware that the family you are working with may well have particular needs following separation. Separation does not guarantee that a child and their mother are safe from domestic violence. The risk of violence often increases when a woman leaves or afterwards. Be aware that some families may continue to need your support or the continuity of services in order to stay safe. The period following separation may need careful planning/assessment and effective safety-planning.

You may need to assess what role/support you can offer to ensure that the mother and child have access to any specialist support they need. This may include legal advice for a mother to protect herself and her child through court or to make contact arrangements. It may include help with housing, financial needs, parenting needs and any therapeutic support.

Maintaining confidentiality

You may need to maintain confidentiality and security very carefully because of the potential continued risk of violence following separation. This should be reviewed with the mother and her safety network. Take care when sharing any personal information. If the perpetrator is the child’s father he may continue to have contact with the child. Your department may continue to work with him. It is very important in this situation that you are alert to ensuring information is not shared in a way that could put the mother or child at risk.

Contact arrangements

The family court may be involved in making decisions about contact arrangements and who the child should live with. This needs to be linked into your plans and interventions with the family. Where contact with their father is decided to be in the child’s best interests consider how you can ensure that it is safe for the child and mother and that the arrangements are reviewed. It can be difficult to find suitable contact centres and supervision arrangements. So do try to assist with this wherever you can. If there is a lack of suitable contact services in your area, do raise this with your manager so that they can consider a strategy to address this.

Note on the language we have used:

We refer to survivors of domestic abuse as “the mother” or “she”. We refer to the abuser or perpetrator as “he”. We have chosen to use this language because it reflects the situation in the majority of cases. However, we recognise that men can also be survivors of domestic violence and that domestic violence can occur in same sex couples.

The information we have provided generally applies to England and Wales. However, there are some differences in the law between England and Wales. If you live in Wales you could get local advice from a solicitor or Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

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