The Challenge for Social Workers – Take Action on Child to Parent Violence & Abuse

12th November 2019

In different parts of Ireland, parents/ carers are living in fear of a son or daughter who lives with them and who is under the age of 18 years of age.

Parents are feeling powerless

As a social worker, psychotherapist and researcher, I have heard parents describe their feelings of walking on eggshells around their child and of living in fear of the next explosive outburst leading to threats and acts of harm and/ or violence against parents who feel powerless and alone. Social workers and other health and social care practitioners in voluntary and statutory services talk about the feelings we face when parents and carers tell us about living in fear of their child under the age of 18 years old. We are faced with difficult dilemmas: how can we resist the impulse towards a quick and easy solution that probably will not work in the long run? How can we resolve the dilemmas that this raises for us? How can we anchor ourselves & keep a clear focus on helping the parents and the young person?

3 things social workers can do

I think there are three things we can do that can help us keep a clear focus as we work with families living with the abusive and violent behaviour of a child under the age of 18 years of age.

  • We can remind ourselves of the core principles of social work;
  • We can share with colleagues and parents a clear understanding of the problem of when children use abusive and/ or violent behaviour towards parents/ carers.
  • We can resolve what looks like conflicting rights of parents and children when we hear about the problems of children using abusive and violent behaviour towards parents or anyone such as a grandparent, an aunt or uncle or a foster carer, or anyone who is parenting a child.

What are the core principles of social work?

In July 2014, the International Federation of Social Workers, a kind of UN for social workers, defined social work in this way:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people…..Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work…..social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.”

We can remind ourselves that one of the distinguishing features of social work is our focus on empowerment and liberation, on social justice and human rights and on collective responsibility. The ideals of empowerment, human rights and collective responsibility also hold the key to unlocking the problem of child to parent violence and abuse.

What is the problem?

We also need to have a clear understanding of the problem. Myself and colleagues involved in a national network of practitioners called Non Violent Resistance Ireland understand this kind of problem as Child to Parent Violence and Abuse (CPVA). We can then start with a clear definition of the problem: child to parent violence and abuse is an abuse of power through which a child or adolescent (under the age of 18 years) coerces, controls or dominates parents. We also apply this understanding of the problem to people who are acting in a parental capacity in relation to a child under 18 years of age – so grandparents, aunts, uncles, foster carers and adoptive parents also experience child to parent violence and abuse.

In our assessment work, we need to be able to draw a clear line between parent and child conflict (which can be expected as every child matures and develops) and child to parent violence and abuse. The issues of power and fear clarify the difference.

If parents feel they must adapt their behaviour due to threats or use of violence/ abuse by a child, then there is child to parent violence and abuse (Wilcox 2012; Coogan & Holt 2015; Coogan, 2016a, b; Coogan, 2018a, b).

This is a human rights issue

We also see this problem as a human rights concern. What do we mean by understanding CPVA as a Human Rights Issue? Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by Ireland states that ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’.

We believe that parents/ carers are included here as having these rights.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The declaration does not say ‘except parents or carers’.

There are parents/ carers in Ireland who are living with cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment as a result of the behaviour of sons and daughters under the age of 18 years old.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Ireland in 1992 and was strengthened by the 31st Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, 2012 (Children’s rights). These rights include: the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration in all actions and decisions concerning a child and must be used to resolve conflicts between competing rights; the right to survival & development (access to basic services and equal opportunities to achieve their full development; the right to Non-Discrimination; the right to have their voice heard and respected in all matters concerning her/ his rights. Children’s rights also iinclude the rights to adequate standard of living, to education, play and recreation and to family life.

But is there really a conflict between parents/ child rights where CPVA takes place? We do not believe that there is a conflict between promoting and protecting the rights of children and of parents/ carers. CPVA is in fact a threat to the rights of parents and of children. As social workers, we are challenged to take a clear position against these problems (not against the child OR parent) and to empower people to change. We are challenged to promote and protect the rights of children AND parents/ carers where there is CPVA.

How can we protect and promote the rights of parents and of children?

We can help by using some of the ideas and skills of the Non Violent Resistance Intervention model, develop first in Israel by Haim Omer and his colleagues and adapted by us here in Ireland (Weinblatt & Omer 2008; Omer 2011, Lauster & Coogan 2015; Coogan 2018). We can help by:

  • Making clear where we stand – there is never any excuse for abusive and/or behaviour in family relationships
  • Inviting parents/ carers to adopt a similar stance and commit to non-violence in language and in actions
  • Identifying and providing concrete skills and practical support that restore parental confidence and competence; these skills include for example- de-escalation; pressing the pause button in a moment of conflict; increasing positive parental presence;
  • Identifying different habits/ patterns of relationship and interaction and empower parents to change some and to continue or reinforce others
  • Reducing social isolation and activating social networks

These ideas and strategies are part of the Non Violent Resistance model of intervention.

What is the Non Violent Resistance (NVR) Intervention Model?

This model of intervention is described in work such as Omer (2004, 2011), Weinblatt & Omer (2008), Lauster et al (2015) and Coogan (2018). The NVR model emerges from a commitment by practitioners and parents/ carers to non violence & resistance.

It is a brief, systemic, evidence-supported intervention model for parents/ carers adapted in Ireland (and elsewhere) as a structured response to the abusive/ violent behaviour of some children & young people. It adopts a clear and non-negotiable stance against the use of abusive & violent behaviour.

What do practitioners in Ireland say about Non-Violent Resistance?

As part of a research project focusing on NVR and child to parent violence, I asked practitioners working with families in three different parts of Ireland what they thought about the NVR model after they have received training in it and then used it in their work. These practitioners were working with parents and families in different statutory or voluntary agencies as, for example, social workers, social workers and family support workers (Coogan, 2016a; 2018.).

Cian’, a Child protection and welfare social worker said ‘I think, the model, the steps were quite clear and I liked that about it. It was kind of something that you could get your head round and, and take a parent through’.

Another worker, this time ‘Ellen’, a Family Support Worker with a voluntary agency said “…having used it (the NVR intervention model), I certainly think its empowering to the parent and the solution focused aspect of it is, you know, very important. And I think it works really well”.

Kate, a child protection and welfare social worker spoke with me and said: “That was one of the main things that stood out for me about it, that it was more kind of co-operative and open and with dialogue….People feel more listened to”

Where is NVR in Ireland today and what are the hopes for the future?

A national telephone support service in Ireland offers NVR as one of the supports for parents who call them – Parentline 1890 927277 / www.parentline.ie There is useful information available for free on websites such as www.cpvireland.ie &              www.newauthorityparenting.ie and www.rcpv.eu

Over 700 practitioners who work with children & families trained in NVR in voluntary and statutory services in Ireland. These include practitioners working in Tusla, in Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services, psychotherapists in private practice and practitioners in Family Support and in Youth Justice Services and in Cork, services such as the Probation Service, Le Cheile and Tusla’s Liberty Street services.

There are practitioners/ researcher partnerships, such as the EU co-funded Responding to Child to Parent Violence Project (www.rcpv.eu ).

A Tusla practitioner in Dublin is also carrying out a part-time PhD research, talking with parents about their experiences of child to parent violence and abuse and of the NVR intervention model. Non Violent Resistance Ireland was set up in May 2019, bringing together a national network of practitioners trained in NVR and interested in further developing and supporting their own practice and creating local contact people for NVR in different parts of the country.

What do parents say about NVR?

But I think the last word, the very last word here belongs to parents, as reported to me by Ellen, an NVR practitioner from a voluntary service. Ellen was talking about what a parent said to her after she had talked with her family and friends about her experiences of abusive and violent behaviour and asked them to help her to help her son change his behaviour. As part of the NVR Intervention model, this is called the Support Network. Ellen said that:

She (a mother) said she felt afterwards she just felt like for the first time that she felt so held by her family and by people, you know, that she wasn’t on her own…that was huge for her…They (the Supporters) would take the lead from her because, you know, I suppose, parents maybe haven’t been able to take their place as a parent in their own family quite often and they are quite empowered as well (by the Support Network)”

 

Declan Coogan, PhD, is a lecturer in Social Work and a Research Fellow with the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway. He is a CORU registered social worker with practice experience in community child and adolescent mental health and child protection and welfare services. He is a member of the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW). Declan is also a registered systemic psychotherapist (FTAI). He is committed to developing and supporting close links between social work practitioners and researchers. Declan was the NUI Galway/ Ireland Lead for the successfully concluded EU co-funded FP7/ DAPHNE Responding to Child to Parent Violence Project (JUST/2012/DAP/AG/3086). This innovative project involved academics, researchers and practitioners in 5 countries working together to develop awareness of child to parent violence and to develop and research 2 intervention programmes for child to parent violence throughout 2013-15. Declan was awarded a PhD in Sociology by NUI Galway in 2016 for his action research focusing on child to parent violence and Non Violent Resistance (NVR). Declan is an NVR consultant and trainer in Ireland and a founding member of the NVR Ireland Network for practitioners and researchers. He has written and spoken extensively on child to parent and abuse and on NVR and continues to facilitate NVR training programmes for practitioners. His book Child to Parent Violence and Abuse – Family Interventions with Non Violent Resistance was published in 2018 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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