Empowering Women to Protect: Improving Intervention with Victims of Domestic Violence in Cases of Child Abuse and Neglect; a Study of Travis County, Texas

Article excerpt

Lesley E. Daigle* I. Presentation of the Issues

There is an increasing awareness among those in the family violence movement of the interrelatedness of women battering and child abuse and neglect.1 Men2 who batter women pose significant risks to the emotional and physical health of children living in the home.3 The children of battered women have been shown in one study to be fifteen times more likely to be abused than children of women who are not domestic violence victims.4 In Travis County, Texas, which includes the greater Austin metropolitan area, prosecutors confirm that domestic violence occurs in families that are under investigation and involved in the court system for child abuse and neglect in significant numbers.5 Travis County's approach to the presence of domestic violence in child abuse litigation is instructional in both positive and negative aspects as a local level response to problems seen throughout the United States. The Travis County Child Protective Services (CPS) system,' like many other child welfare systems in the United States, responds to battered mothers with numerous and often conflicting efforts to address the violence in their homes. In Travis County, legal issues related to domestic violence and child abuse are resolved in different proceedings that are not coordinated in a systematic manner.7 Although the government agency responsible for child abuse investigations, Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS)-or its subdivision, CPS-trains new caseworkers on domestic violence issues, it has no official protocol for investigating or assessing for domestic violence or intervening on behalf of battered women in child abuse cases.s When the parental fitness of a battered woman is at issue, the CPS system focuses on her ability to separate from the batterer,9 often without consideration of the batterer's cooperation or an understanding of the risks that the act of separation poses for women and children.lo Battered mothers lose custody of their children, even though they have not committed a direct act of abuse or neglect, on the grounds that they have failed to protect their children from the same violence they themselves could not successfully escape.ll

This article explores the need for a more coordinated community response to family violence that focuses on preserving the relationship between a nonviolent parent and a child. Indeed, assuring "that children will have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of the child" is the official public policy of the state of Texas.l2 In terms of federal policy, the promotion of family reunification has long been held to be a prerequisite for federal funding of state CPS agencies.13 Children involved in CPS litigation often express that they wish to be reunified with their parents.14 These policy goals of reunification are consistent with that underlying reality. Keeping nonviolent parents and children together avoids the undesirable aspects of out-of-horne care. While they serve an essential function in providing safer, alternative homes for many abused children, foster homes should be considered in the best interest of the child only when used cautiously, due to the emotional stress separation from parents and a lack of permanence can cause children.l5 Foster care and group home facilities are also expensive substitutes for homes with a nonviolent parent,16 and they are not always safe placements for abused children. There have been alarming cases of child abuse and children's exposure to violence in foster homes. 7

In addition, the reunification of children with nonviolent battered mothers serves as a buffer against institutional racism and sexism. Although families involved in the CPS system come from all socioeconomic strata, people who are poor and people of color are overrepresented in the client base.ls Further, scholars challenge the gender bias of a system that holds mothers accountable for their omissions under the doctrine of failure to protect, while many fathers are not held accountable for similar omissions or for failing to be involved in their children's lives on any level. …

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