Primary Sources: How Can Domestic Violence Shelters Include Young People in Family Safety Planning?

A happy family.

Provider Perceptions of Safety Planning with Children Impacted by Intimate Partner Violence” (abstract). Evette Horton, Christine E. Murray, Bethany Garr, Lori Notestine, Paulina Flasch, Catherine Higgins Johnson. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 42 (July 2014).

What it’s about: The authors wanted to know how the needs of children and youth were being taken into account during safety planning with adult victims of family violence. To find out, the researchers conducted focus groups with nine intimate partner violence service providers in North Carolina. In total, there were 62 participants with an average of 7.4 years working on issues related to domestic violence. The work was part of a broader study on safety planning conducted by the Family Violence Research Group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Why read it: Millions of U.S. children and youth live in families where intimate partner violence occurred at least once in the past year. Young people exposed to domestic violence have a greater risk of living with a family member with a history of mental illness, substance abuse, and/or incarceration, and they may experience worsened physical or behavioral health. Despite this, few studies have focused on the needs of youth in the family violence safety planning process. This study seeks to address this gap. While this study represented programs in one state, and laws will vary in other states, it contributes some overarching considerations applicable to domestic violence programs.

Biggest takeaway for family and youth workers: Family and youth workers expressed hesitation about knowing the right way to provide safety planning for young people. The researchers note that many factors -- age and developmental stage, gender, economics, family structure and relationships, environment, and others -- impact child safety planning, and should be taken into account.

Developmental impacts. Staff report that children of different ages adjust differently to the trauma of family violence and life conditions in a shelter. Some children even side with the abusive parent after moving into the shelter. When including young people in safety planning, they suggest, it is important to consider the age of the young people as well as their knowledge of the violence. Several note that young people must not be made to feel responsible for the family violence, and that parents rather than children should be responsible for child safety.

Gender impacts. Service providers note that adolescent boys sometimes mimic behavior they learned from the abusive parent.

Larger shelters with multiple floors and bathrooms are better able to accommodate the needs of teen boys. Other shelters encourage family or friends outside the shelter to house the boys, or suggest alternative shelters or extended stay hotels that would allow the family to stay together while seeking alternative housing.

Resource and economic impacts. Service providers report that lack of funding makes it difficult to provide support groups and counseling for young people in the shelter program. Providers also said they often need additional training from child protective services regarding mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect.

Family impacts. The participants note that custody issues can interfere with the safety of young people. For example, domestic violence is often more likely to occur during custody exchange. Participants suggest that educating parents about the impact intimate partner violence has on young people can be a valuable part of the safety planning process. Most programs make parenting education part of the process because many abused parents have been so disempowered that they are unable to play a parental role.

Setting Impacts. Shelter staff note that security cameras in shelters help create a sense of safety for children. In addition, when families move to a shelter or get a protective order, notifying schools is part of the safety planning process. A number of service providers also work to educate schools' faculty, staff and students with programs ranging from informal presentations to curricula integrated into the school system's programming.

Horton and her colleagues suggest that future research should focus on exploring what interventions are appropriate for young people at different developmental stages, as well as the effectiveness of these interventions. They further suggest that studies examine how much discussing safety and parental domestic violence may distress young people.

Additional references: Learn more about family violence and safety as well as youth involvement in NCFY’s resource library.

"Safe Strategies: Safety Planning for the Survivors of Domestic Violence and Their Children" is a resource based on studies by the Family Violence Research Group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.)

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