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Greater Vigilance in Detecting Family Violence

Research urges greater vigilance in detecting family violence

New research into families at greatest risk of abusing their children says care and protection agencies need to be more vigilant in assessing the likelihood of family violence.

Carried out by University of Canterbury School of Social Work and Human Services senior lecturer Dr Annabel Taylor, the research suggests that child abuse is more likely to be prevented if social workers take into account a series of key factors that the families they work with are unlikely to talk about.

“It is commonsense to acknowledge that families at risk of perpetrating child abuse may not be completely open about all their circumstances, which is reiterated by this research. One of the key findings is that, at an initial interview with a care agency, mothers of young children are unlikely to admit they have abusive partners. If abuse is occurring, it is only likely to be disclosed once the social worker has won the trust of the mother concerned.

“For most mothers in this situation, protecting and keeping the baby is their over-riding priority. They may think that admitting they are being abused will lead the child to be taken into care.

“Another part of the complexity of domestic violence is that women are at greatest risk just after they have separated from an abusive partner. Many victims of domestic violence understand that and see a personal risk in telling a social worker that they are being abused.

“Social care and protection agencies need to be aware of these dynamics when they deal with family violence and child abuse cases,” she said

Dr Taylor’s research, entitled ‘What families would prefer not to tell you about: A New Zealand Practice Experience with Marginalised Families,’ was co-written by Libby Robins, director of the Family Help Trust, which provides child abuse prevention services to families with vulnerable infants in Canterbury. Annabel Taylor is chair of the trust.

“The Family Help Trust is at the forefront of child abuse prevention, and is making changes to its operating procedures as a result of this research. The research showed that 50 per cent of the women we deal live in terror of their partners, but are unable to tell us that until we have developed significant levels of trust with them.

“We are looking at ways to better enable families to disclose their true circumstances, and to ensure that trust is developed as quickly as possible. We urge other care and protection agencies, both statutory and community based, to take a similar approach.

“Early intervention, by professional and scientifically based social work services, into families at greatest risk of child abuse, is the most effective way to address the family violence and child abuse statistics that currently put New Zealand to shame,” said Dr Taylor.

According to established social work research, key factors contributing to the risk of family violence in New Zealand are: poverty, low educational achievement, unemployment, being young, having poor mental health, substance abuse, being a victim of family violence as a child, and having a history of offending and early offending.

Annabel Taylor and Libby Robins will present their research findings at an international child abuse prevention conference in Hong Kong later this month.

The Family Help Trust was established in 1990 and to date has successfully assisted over 1,000 children in Canterbury, providing intensive home visiting support to their families from birth to five years. It currently employs six full time social workers, working with 96 families. Only severely disadvantaged families receive assistance from the Family Help Trust, the majority following past involvement with state child protection agencies.


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