Academic journal article Social Work

Frontline Worker Responses to Domestic Violence Disclosure in Public Welfare Offices

Academic journal article Social Work

Frontline Worker Responses to Domestic Violence Disclosure in Public Welfare Offices

Article excerpt

The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (R L. 104-193) (PRWORA) resulted in substantial changes for victims of domestic violence and drastically altered the structure and requirements of the public welfare program for poor mothers. PRWORA changed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, an open-ended entitlement program, to a time-limited, provisional, work-oriented system called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).This transformation incorporated an overriding emphasis on prompt integration of recipients into the workforce through requirements that TANF clients be engaged in work-related activities such as job readiness training, community internships, and job seeking. Under PRWORA, failure to meet these program requirements results in financial sanctions or even termination of benefit eligibility.

In recognition of the potential threats to women's safety that could be created by new welfare program requirements, Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN) proposed the Family Violence Option (FVO) as an amendment to PRWORA. A majority of states now participate in this policy (Government Accountability Office, 2005) and, by doing so, agree to screen all welfare applicants for domestic violence. If a woman discloses victimization, the welfare office is required to provide information about available community resources and waivers to TANF rules such as work requirements, child support enforcement, and time limits if these requirements pose a danger to the abused recipient or if domestic violence hampers the applicant's ability to comply with program obligations.

Unfortunately, recent literature suggests that the implementation of the FVO has fallen far short of its original intent and purpose (Levin, 2001; Lindhorst & Padgett, 2005). Although up to 65 percent of welfare recipients report some experience of victimization by an intimate partner during their lifetime, and one-quarter report current abuse (see Tolman & Raphael, 2001, for a review of studies), a very small number ultimately receive FVO-related waivers or referrals. No mandate exists under current legislation to track use of the FVO in welfare systems, and only a handful of studies are available regarding implementation. The findings from these reports suggest that, at most, 3 percent of welfare applicants receive waivers of TANF rules under the FVO (Hetling & Born, 2006).

In addition to the dynamics surrounding disclosure for women experiencing abuse, theories regarding low rates of FVO waiver referrals point to the potential role played by frontline workers charged with implementation of the policy. Few studies are yet available that assess the ways in which welfare workers discuss the FVO with clients who have disclosed that they are experiencing domestic violence. In the present research, we sought to address this gap by examining transactions between welfare caseworkers and clients who have reported intimate partner abuse. More specifically, we sought to identify and classify the responses made by workers to client disclosures of abuse and assess the match or mismatch of these responses with FVO policy requirements.


Welfare caseworkers express ambivalence and anxiety regarding the issue of domestic violence and their role in addressing it (Hagen & Owens-Manley, 2002); simultaneously, they face institutional pressures that provide incentives and accountability for case closures rather than services to survivors (Lindhorst & Padgett, 2005). In Hagen and Owens-Manley (2002) and Lindhorst and Padgett (2005),workers described individualized belief systems about which domestic violence situations were "legitimate" and what kinds of battered women were eligible for waivers under the FVO. Some workers believed that women must demonstrate certain characteristics--such as having already left an abusive partner--before they would be eligible for assistance under the FVO, even though these requirements are not mandated by policy and are counter to research understandings about the dynamics of abuse (Campbell et al. …

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