Talking to parents about family and domestic violence

Emerging Minds, Australia, December 2020

Research has shown family and domestic violence (FDV) negatively impacts children’s social and emotional development, relationships, education and safety (Mohammad, Shapiro, Wainwright, & Carter, 2015; Roberts, Campbell, Ferguson, & Crusto, 2013). Negative outcomes are more likely to occur if service systems are unable to identify the signs of FDV early, and don’t take steps to reverse its effects on children.

Data shows parents (particularly disadvantaged mothers) who attend services often experience co-existing issues including FDV, substance use, child protection involvement, mental health difficulties, poverty, and a history of trauma (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Heward-Belle, 2017). Practitioners who are able to recognise the signs of FDV and hold curious, respectful, non-judgemental conversations with parents are well-placed to provide critical prevention and early intervention support for children’s safety and mental health (McIntosh, Wells, & Lee, 2016; Wells, Lee, Li, Tan, & McIntosh, 2018). However, many service providers feel they lack the skills to engage in these kinds of conversations.

A guide for difficult conversations

The PERCS-FDV conversation guides were developed by Emerging Minds to support child-focused conversations between practitioners and parents living in the context of FDV. They are designed to help practitioners to consistently ask questions about five important domains of a child’s life:

  • Parent-child relationship
  • Emotions and behaviours
  • Routines
  • Communication and meaning-making
  • Support networks.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the PERCS guides, a pilot study was conducted with 13 practitioners across three services which work with adults in the context of FDV. The study aimed to understand the contribution the guides made to practitioners’ work with fathers who were using violence and mothers who were experiencing violence.

Initial and post-pilot semi-structured interviews were used to assess practitioners’ understandings of FDV, their practice in engaging parents who are living with FDV, and their strategies for asking child-focused questions. Thematic analysis of the interview transcripts was used to identify nine distinct themes, describing both participants’ familiarity with PERCS and the ways in which it contributed new knowledge and skills to their practice. Each theme was then further analysed and summarised to draw out the details and nuances of participants’ comments, before being compiled into a detailed analysis of the interviews.

Findings

Participants reported that:

  • the PERCS-FDV conversation guides, particularly the practice positions and domains, were closely aligned to their existing practice, meaning they could be readily incorporated into their practice
  • the overall structure of the framework provided a helpful guide for practice, especially reflective practice
  • although the five PERCS domains were familiar to them, the framework supported them to focus on areas of children’s lives they may not otherwise pay significant attention to
  • the guides supported them to work from a position of curiosity and collaboration; and could help new practitioners to conduct difficult conversations with parents in supportive, non-judgemental and curious ways
  • the brief and simple layout of the guide and ability to print out and keep a copy on hand made it useful as an on-the-spot, quick prompt during conversations with parents
  • the questions within the guides helped them to focus on mothers’ strengths and the actions they were already taking to ensure their children’s safety and wellbeing
  • having a separate guide for working with fathers who use violence was especially useful, as most participants had limited practical experience in this area and this work which was not usually included in FDV professional development
  • the guide supported them to highlight the gaps between a parent’s actions (particularly a father’s use of violence) and their values, in a way that encouraged reflection and support for behaviour change
  • the conversations encouraged by the guides helped parents to link their concerns about their children’s emotions and behaviours to the children’s experience of violence, enabling parents to be more open to conversations about change
  • the PERCS framework contributed to an increased sense of confidence in engaging parents in difficult conversations about their children’s wellbeing
  • they would continue to keep the PERCS guides on hand for future use and/or incorporate some of the language from the guide into their existing practice
  • they felt the guide could be used to support parents and children with issues other than FDV
  • the skills and strategies offered in the accompanying e-learning course, Family and Domestic Violence and Child Aware Practice also gave them confidence to take an early intervention stance with parents, rather than simply referring them on to a specialist service.

Limitations and future research

As well as a strong commitment to child-focused practice, all participants had strong support from their organisation and practice leaders in employing child-focused practice. Further investigation is needed into the organisational support systems that allow a conversation guide such as PERCS to be used effectively with parents affected by FDV.

The use of semi-structured interviews also relied heavily on practitioners’ reflections of their own confidence and skills. An extension of this pilot would include quantitative and qualitative data from clients to assess the outcome for children.

Conclusion

This pilot evaluation engaged a group of 13 practitioners to analyse the contribution of the PERCS-FDV conversation guides to their child-focused practice with parents affected by violence. The results of the semi-structured interviews showed that for this cohort, the conversation guides had a positive effect on their practice with both fathers who were perpetrating violence, and mothers who were experiencing violence.

This pilot has provided further confidence in the PERCS-FDV conversation guides, particularly where practitioner understandings and organisational commitment support child-focused practice. The next steps involve work with practitioners and organisations where confidence in child-focused practice is not as high, or where commitment has not been as strong. Findings suggest the conversation guides can be used as part of an overarching framework that supports practitioners to ask child-focused questions of parents who are experiencing FDV, as part of a prevention and early intervention strategy. Ultimately, this strategy should be tailored to improve the short- and longer-term outcomes for children’s mental health and social and emotional wellbeing.

References

Bromfield, L., Lamont, A., Parker, R., & Horsfall, B. (2010). Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems: The co-occurrence of domestic violence, parental substance misuse, and mental health problems. NCPC Issues, 33, 1-24.

Heward-Belle, S. (2017). Exploiting the ‘good mother’ as a tactic of control: Domestically violent men’s assaults on women as mothers. Journal of Women and Social Work, 32(3), 374-389.

McIntosh, J. E., Wells, Y., & Lee, J. (2016). Development and validation of the Family Law DOORS. Psychological Assessment, 28(11), 1516–1522. Available here.

Mohammad, E., Shapiro, E., Wainwright, L., & Carter, A. (2015). Impacts of family and community violence exposure on child coping and mental health. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 203-215.

Moore, T., Noble-Carr, D., & McArthur, M. (2010). Who cares? Young people with parents who use alcohol or other drugs talk about their experiences with services. Family Matters, 85, 18-27.

Roberts, Y., Campbell, C., Ferguson, M., & Crusto, C. (2013). The role of parenting stress in young children’s mental health functioning after exposure to family violence. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26, 605-612.

Roche, A., Trifonoff, A., White, M., Evans, K., Battams, S., Adams, V., & Scarfe, A. (2014). From policy to implementation: Child and family sensitive practice in the alcohol and other drugs sector. Civic Square: Australian National Council on Drugs. Available here.

Wells, Y., Lee, J., Li, X., Tan, E. S., & McIntosh, J. E. (2018). Re-examination of the Family Law Detection of Overall Risk Screen (FL-DOORS): Establishing fitness for purpose. Psychological Assessment, 30(8), 1121–1126. Available here.

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