Beware Professional Minimisation
Children's social workers often find themselves in the position of having to work with parents who minimise violence and abuse taking place in the home. This post is designed to help social workers in their work with families where domestic abuse is a concern.
DV-ACT experts have spent decades working with and assessing perpetrators and victims of domestic violence and abuse. We are often asked by social workers how they can work with and challenge perpetrators often in the face of minimisation, denial and disguised compliance. We have used our experience to provide a number of posts for children's social workers to help them in this challenging area of work.
Whilst we acknowledge that perpetrators can be male or female, the majority of perpetrators are men, therefore, this guide is designed for those working with Fathers.
Minimisation and mimicking language
Language experiments conducted by psychologists have shown that when two people are talking they tend to subconsciously adapt their communication style to mirror the other person. It has been suggested by researchers that the human brain uses this strategy to improve communication and empathise with the communication partner (P. Adank et al 2013). So it is important that we recognise this and consciously work to ensure that we are challenging and not colluding with perpetrators when they minimise their violent and abusive behaviour.
It is also helpful to acknowledge that minimising is normal, we all minimise, usually because we’re ashamed of something, it means that we understand the difference between right and wrong. However, in order to take responsibility for and change our behaviour we must be able to recognise it in ourselves.
Useful tips to avoid colluding with minimisation
These guidelines are important to bear in mind both within direct conversations with parents and in written reports.
1. Relationship conflict or parents arguing - using terms such as relationship/couples/family 'conflict' reinforces the assertion that the violence and abuse taking place in the home is mutual and means that the perpetrator is not fully responsible for the abuse and it is a 'relationship problem'.
2. Parents fighting - similar to the point above if we say the parents are 'fighting' it draws us away from the perpetrator and actually makes the assessment of risk more difficult. To get to grips with the dangers in a situation and therefore plan properly you need to know who did what to whom and under what circumstances.
3. Call it what it is - there are many ways we can use language to minimise abusive behaviours, some of the most common ones are as follows:
Using 'hands around/near the neck' - instead of strangulation
Saying 'non-consensual sex' or versions of this - instead of rape
"Her head hit my fist" - instead of "I punched her"
"I had to restrain her" - instead of "I put her in a headlock" or "I suffocated her"
"I moved her out the way" - instead of "I pushed/shoved her"
"I waved a knife/bat/weapon near her" - threatened with a weapon
"I said I would destroy her/make her sorry/make her pay/put her in the ground" - it is important to be clear on what exactly was said as threats to kill can be an indicator that raises the risk
As with the point above in order to accurately assess the risk, and keep the children safe, it is important to recognise the severity of the violence and if it includes potentially lethal behaviours that would raise the risk further.
4. Blaming the mother - often the mother is more forthcoming about any violent resistance she may have used. Victims tend to self-blame anyway, particularly if the perpetrator has spent many years blaming her for the violence and abuse that he has used, and so she may disclose her own violence which then takes you back to the situation of ‘counter-accusations’ or ‘relationship problems’. It is important to look at the circumstances behind any violence used by the mother this can include not just violence from the perpetrator but also coercive control, gas-lighting and emotional abuse.
Remember that some of the most controlling and dangerous men are able to present themselves very well and many abused women present with issues such as poor mental health or drug and alcohol abuse as a direct result of the abuse.
5. Refocusing on other issues/needs - there may well be other problems but we need to question whether they are the ones which raise the threshold – a vast number of families have problems with criminality, mental health and substance use etc – but are they at a level that makes it dangerous? It may also seem that these are issues that can be more easily tackled especially if it means the mother addressing issues who is much more likely to comply, so we focus on that rather than the abuse from a parent that is difficult to engage. Also, parents can often experience this as ‘moving the goalposts’ which leads them to the view that social workers just 'have it in for' them.
Working with families affected by domestic abuse
Further guidance on working with perpetrators specifically with regards to minimisation, denial and objectification will be included in further blog posts. Please join our mailing list to receive automatic updates about our posts.
Our section with guidance for social workers is freely available including our popular posts on how to complete safety planning with a family and our section on vulnerability including how to assess if parents have really separated.
A note on the current level of risk
The Coronavirus crisis lockdown poses a myriad of problems for victims including a much higher risk of fatal violence. Of particular concern are those perpetrators that have a history of coercive controlling behaviour and who have used high risk, potentially lethal, behaviours in the past.
The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; what can be done to help families living in isolation with an abuser and completing emergency safety planning with perpetrators. This section also gives up to date information on how DV-ACT assessments are used to safeguard children in care proceedings.
DV-ACT experts are continuing to work throughout the Coronavirus pandemic as usual and are available to discuss cases and complete assessments on both victims and perpetrators. Visit our post how are DV-ACT completing assessments during coronavirus crisis to find out how we are currently working.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do.