Kyle Pinto knows what it’s like being on the front line in the family violence sector, starting his career as a community educator at a women’s shelter before working for several years as a Social Worker in Washington DC.
It was during his term as a Social Worker that he heard of the Safe & Together Model through his colleagues. He said its uniqueness resonated with him; “this is one of the few models that actually combined the language and the approach that is necessary for both advocate and domestic violence crisis counsellors as well as social workers.
“In the social work field I felt that we were severely lacking in training and education on dealing with domestic violence when kids are involved.”
Owing its name to the assumption that children are best served when they are kept safe and together with the non-offending parent, the Safe & Together Model provides a framework for partnering with the survivor and intervening with the perpetrators.
The model began approximately two decades ago after the death of a child. The state child welfare agency assessed the then current policies and processes to see where the system had failed. They found domestic violence indicators which had been missed by social workers, leading to the realisation that they are often ill-equipped to assess and also intervene with instances of domestic violence.
The state put out a request for help- and David Mandel, founder of the Safe & Together Model, responded.
Mandel was working with perpetrators and men’s behaviour change programs at the time and raised the issue that social workers didn’t have an understanding of how to talk or intervene with perpetrators of abuse.
“We’ve looked into different practices in Australia and also in the states and across the board we have a pretty horrific history of removing children as a knee-jerk reaction when they find evidence of domestic violence because they don’t know how to deal with it,” Pinto said.
“[Dealing with perpetrators] was really left off the table when it came to child welfare practice because they were focussed on the mothers and the children. We had basically a practice where we could mark mothers in particular as ‘failing to protect their children’ in the midst of a domestic violence incident. So we were blaming that survivor and we might make removals… we would be overtly punishing that family by making the claim that the survivor, and in most cases Mum, was unable to protect from this perpetrator.”
Mandel developed the Safe & Together model to improve case practice and cross system collaboration, while identifying how a perpetrator pattern-based approach can improve social workers’ ability to help families. The results are thus far proving to be successful. In Florida, for example, the year following staff receiving S&T training saw an almost 60% increase in verified domestic violence maltreatments and an over 50% reduction in child removals.
The model continues as an attempt to train and upskill child welfare and serving agencies on how best to include a focus on perpetrator patterns. Pinto recognises one of their biggest successes has been bridging the gap between the domestic violence advocacy space and child welfare.
“There were places we were going and we were kind of trying to use this new model to share language and people were telling us that this was the first time that both parties, domestic violence agencies and child welfare, were actually in the same room and excited to work together. Too often those bridges are pretty split because they have different goals. So I think one of our major successes is that we’re actually bringing those fields together to work better for the safety of those children.”
Implementation of the model has not come without its challenges, with the largest has been getting workers on the front line and at the top level to be introspective of their own biases and question their approach to working with families.
“The most basic and primal challenge is, the model really highlights the gender imbalance, the gender bias- especially as it relates to mothers and fathers- and how we expect different things from mothers, and we have a low expectation for fathers versus how we expect Mums to bear the burden for the whole family.”
Pinto believes there are several key principles which determine best practice care for children experiencing domestic violence: 1) Recognising in order for children to heal they need consistency and connection with the non-offending parent, 2) Partnering with the non-offending parent and recognising they want what’s best for the child, and 3) Finding ways to intervene with the perpetrator based on their behaviour patterns.
The future of the Safe & Together Model looks bright with it being absorbed and implemented in Australia, the UK, Scotland and parts of England. The UK Ministry of Defence’s Army Welfare Services use the model in their approach, and New Mexico is rewriting their system in the vain of Safe & Together.
“I do feel like we’re starting to feel some momentum where eventually systems are going to understand that, in order to achieve safety, well being and permanency for children, is to incorporate this approach and engage those perpetrators because I think people are getting a little tired of ignoring the perpetrator.
“They realise that that’s not helping and it’s actually quite destructive because now children don’t have their Dads or they see their Dad differently or they side with their Dad because they don’t have the facts, so I do believe that there’s a lot of momentum to understand more about the father who’s been invisible for so long.”
Criterion’s Child-Centred approaches to ending Family Violence is running at CQ Functions Melbourne, 18-20 September, 2019. Bringing together senior leaders and practitioners including Safe & Together’s Kyle Pinto, the event will explore how the sector can be more child-centred in their responses to family violence in policy, service delivery and practice.