Chapter IV

Domestic Violence Unit

Massachusetts Department of Social Services(1)


In 1993 Massachusetts' population was a little over six million people, of whom 5.8 million live in metropolitan areas concentrated in the eastern and central parts of the state. Massachusetts has three cities with over 100,000 people.(2) Children under the age of 18 comprise nearly one-quarter of the state's population and in 1991, one-fifth of all births in Massachusetts were to unmarried mothers. An additional 8 percent were to teenage mothers. There is little racial diversity in Massachusetts: 90 percent of the population is white, 5 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic. The black population includes many Haitians and Cape Verdeans.

In 1992, median household income in the state was $36,558. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts has been at or below the U.S. rate for the last three years. Eight percent of the population received federal public aid in 1992, and AFDC recipients numbered 335,000.

A 1994 Massachusetts Probation Department study reported that, each year, 43,000 children in the state are exposed to domestic violence. Over 1,000 restraining orders are issued each week, more than half of which mention the presence of a child in the home. A defendant with a criminal history unrelated to domestic violence is twice as likely to violate a restraining order than someone with no prior arrest record.(3)

Brief Overview of Child Welfare Services

Child protective services in Massachusetts are administered through the state's Department of Social Services (DSS). DSS is organized into six regional offices that oversee the daily operations of 26 area offices throughout the state. Each area office is staffed with an area director, area program managers, supervisors, and social workers (or case workers). DSS has an annual operating budget of approximately $465 million and a staff of 2,800. Families come to DSS in one of three ways: through formal allegations of child abuse or neglect, court-ordered DSS involvement, or voluntary requests for services. In 1994 the department received about 59,000 reports of abuse or neglect. These reports identified some 97,000 children (or an unduplicated number of approximately 65,000 children). Close to 60 percent of the 97,000 reported children were identified by DSS as needing a investigation, and of these 57,500 children, about half were found to have been victimized. In 1995, DSS supported investigations for 27,055 children, representing a 10 percent increase over the previous year.(4) Despite the increase in supported investigations, the caseload has remained level since 1992. In July 1995 DSS was working on 21,308 open cases involving 73,198 children. The number of children in placement had increased slowly over the past few years reaching a total of 13,591 in 1995.

Each area office divides its social work staff into units. All area offices have one or more units devoted to intake, investigation, assessment, and ongoing casework. Some area offices also have separate units for adoption, family resources, adolescents, and sexual abuse. The intake unit screens cases as they come into the hotline. Once a case has been screened in, the investigation unit has 10 days to review it and make a determination (emergency cases are investigated within two days). During this period, investigators may also run a CORI check (the state's criminal justice information system) on the children's parents.(5) Following the 10-day investigation period, the assessment unit has 45 days to determine what services are needed. The ongoing case units provide services in several major areas that include family-based services, foster care, group care/residential care, adoption, child care, and domestic violence. State law requires that caseloads remain at 18 cases per social worker. In practice, however, caseloads in many area offices exceed 20.

Child Welfare Agency Approach to Domestic Violence

DSS began to recognize the overlap between domestic violence and child maltreatment in 1987 when the Office of Special Projects initiated formal meetings with battered women's organizations throughout the state. This effort stemmed from a federal Family Violence Prevention and Services grant that required DSS to demonstrate joint planning efforts with the domestic violence community. These meetings with battered women's organizations revealed the strained relationship between DSS and domestic violence programs. From the DSS's perspective, battered women's shelters often ignored the needs of the children while emphasizing the mother's right to self-determination. From the shelters' perspective, DSS often revictimized battered women by forcing them to choose between their children and their partner and requiring them to receive social services. The relationship between DSS and battered women's groups is further complicated by funding matters: state funds for domestic violence services in Massachusetts are distributed to private providers through DSS.

Around the same time, some of the people who worked with the Child Protection Team at Boston Children's Hospital began to notice that battered women were refusing to disclose information about their children because they feared losing them to DSS. The hospital's AWAKE (Advocacy for Women and Kids in Emergencies) program was the first to offer support for these women as well as services for their children. After learning how to work successfully with battered mothers to keep children out of placement, AWAKE advocates began planning a new approach for these families with DSS special projects staff.

DSS was forced to take more immediate and agency-wide actions after a tragedy in which a child was killed by her mother's batterer. DSS responded to this incident by piloting a revised set of intake and case practice guidelines which stated that domestic violence was a possible indication of child abuse. This policy, called Project Protect, was a step in the right direction, but was piloted without staff training on domestic violence or substance abuse. The effects of the policy were twofold. First, DSS experienced a dramatic increase in child abuse and neglect reports. In June 1989, DSS had 22,442 families in its caseload. By June 1990, the number of families had increased to 24,946. Second, anecdotal reports suggested that battered women had stopped seeking help from police, emergency rooms, and other places for fear of losing their children.

DSS soon formulated a smaller scale alternative to Project Protect. This alternative was an agency-wide domestic violence program. In 1990 DSS hired its first domestic violence advocate (who is now the clinical supervisor in the Domestic Violence Unit) to advise and consult with staff of the Family Life Center, DSS's intensive, short-term, home-based services model. The following year, interagency teams organized around the issue of domestic violence were piloted in two DSS area offices.

The political climate around the domestic violence issue further heated up in 1992 after a rash of domestic violence murders in the state. The Governor signaled the importance of the domestic violence issue by declaring a state of emergency. He and the state legislature increased funding for domestic violence services from $4.8 million to $9.1 million.(6) That same year, DSS conducted an open, competitive bid for battered women's services statewide and implemented newly developed service standards. Battered women's service providers were involved in focus groups prior to drafting the standards, but the bid underscored the reality that DSS was the major funding source for battered women's programs in Massachusetts. This connection both hinders and helps collaborative efforts regarding case practice.

Since 1993, DSS's domestic violence initiative has concentrated on two areas: the creation of an internal Domestic Violence Unit, including statewide domestic violence training, and the creation of services within the community that augment the child welfare service system. These are described in more detail below.

Department of Social Services Domestic Violence Unit

In 1993, the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) was created under the Deputy Commissioner for Quality Management and Program Development within DSS. The number of domestic violence advocates (or specialists) within DVU increased from four to six, to provide one specialist for each region in the state. After further expansion in 1994, the staff now includes the director, who reports directly to the Deputy Commissioner for Quality Management and Program Development; a clinical supervisor; two coordinators responsible for the direct supervision of the specialists; and 11 specialists. Each of the six regions now has two specialists, except the Central region, which has only one. To meet demand, the unit is hoping for an increase in funding so it can hire a specialist for each area office.

The DVU's operating budget is supported through both state and federal funds. Forty percent of the unit's budget is from state funds and supports the salaries of 11 specialists and their supervisors (they are not state employees, but are paid as consultants out of the state budget). The remaining 60 percent of the budget comes from federal funds and pays for staffing, administration and training, batterer intervention services, visitation center services, children's evaluation services, and other battered women's services.(7)

The majority of the unit's specialists have come from the battered women's shelter community. Many of them were ready to move "beyond shelter work" and viewed the DSS initiative as an opportunity to work toward important systems change. Many specialists have also worked in other fields including children's services and advocacy, court/justice system advocacy, drug and addiction counseling, and diversity and social justice education. Two specialists have worked as CPS social workers in other states.(8) Given historical tensions between DSS and the battered women's shelter network, staffing the DVU with former shelter workers has had advantages and disadvantages. One important advantage is that the specialists' experience working with battered women gives them credibility with DSS workers and the larger community. A disadvantage is that some shelter workers initially view the specialists as "defectors," further straining relationships. Also, because of tensions between the two communities and general reluctance to seek "an outsider's" help, some DSS social workers are reluctant to ask former shelter workers for advice on how to handle domestic violence. Over time, as specialists gain the trust and confidence of DSS social workers, many of these tensions diminish.

The domestic violence specialist's roles and responsibilities are quite broad but generally involve three main types of activities. The first is to train and consult with DSS managers and social workers on ways of identifying domestic violence in their caseload and developing safe and effective ways of serving these families. A second activity is to forge collaborative links with other agencies and organizations in order to educate all community members about the connections between child maltreatment and domestic violence. Finally, specialists also provide direct services (safety planning and general advocacy) to DSS-involved battered women and their children. They are actively involved with as many as 10 to 15 families at a given time. In addition to offering families basic supportive services, providing direct services to mothers and children allows specialists to "model" the types of case practice changes they want to encourage among all DSS social workers. Similarly, by co-leading (with a shelter worker) a support group for DSS-involved battered women—as several specialists are doing—the specialist prepares these mothers for the types of group counseling they may later take part in at a battered women's shelter. At the same time, the domestic violence specialist is educating the co- leader from the shelter community about differences between the needs of the women they are accustomed to seeing and DSS-involved mothers.(9) Some of the more successful interventions developed by DSS domestic violence specialists are shown in Exhibit IV.1.

While the domestic violence unit views DSS social workers as their primary "clients," the unit specialists also view battered women as consumers of their services. The specialists serve battered women directly as they model best practices for DSS social workers. Moreover, many battered women are more comfortable disclosing information about violence in their home to an experienced specialist. Specialists also oversee special projects in the area offices that are usually designed in conjunction with area managers and supervisors. Such projects include establishing and running regular multi- disciplinary and interagency domestic violence team meetings at which caseworkers and their supervisors present cases for indepth group consultation. Specialists also engage in outreach to battered women's shelters and other community groups, and participate in and support community-wide roundtables sponsored by the District Attorney's Office. One DSS area office is involved in the Partnership Project on Domestic Violence—a collaborative effort among DSS, the Simmons College School of Social Work, and Boston City Hospital to provide training, support interagency collaboration, and develop a curriculum of materials for schools of social work.

DVU specialists spend one day a week in the central office to attend meetings as a unit. One day a week the specialists work out of the regional offices, and the remaining three days are divided among their assigned area offices. Specialists have established office hours in each area office, it is important that these hours be fixed so that social workers know when to plan on consulting with the specialist. However, these hours are limited, and scheduling conflicts and unexpected emergencies can make it difficult for the specialist and social worker to meet. With some flexibility and creativity, though, the arrangement has worked successfully.

Exhibit IV.1

Successful Interventions by Massachusetts DSS Domestic Violence Specialists

Hold Provider Meetings

Meetings for providers, including DSS staff and all agencies involved in a case, have served to educate participants regarding the overlap of partner abuse and child abuse. Effectively run meetings decrease splitting among agencies, clarify goals and service plan tasks for offenders and victims, and result in increased understanding and support for battered women and children.

Encourage Women to Prepare "Impact Statements"

Battered women are often at odds with DSS and have difficulty trusting child welfare social workers. Their anger and "refusal to cooperate" serves to reinforce social workers' negative attitudes toward battered women. Helping a woman to prepare an "impact statement" to be delivered by the woman and/or the Domestic Violence Specialist at a provider meeting can positively channel the woman's feelings of powerlessness, fear, and anger. It gives the woman the opportunity to tell her story as she sees it and to influence the way she is viewed by service providers. An effective impact statement can result in increased empathy for the woman's plight and improved relations between the woman and service providers.

Require Investigators to Conduct Criminal Record Reviews

Information gleaned from the alleged offender's criminal record is extremely helpful for the investigator to have prior to making a home visit. The record helps the investigator to determine the potential lethality of the offender and to design a safe approach for contacting the family. A safe approach in a potentially lethal case may include contacting the mother when she is home alone, conducting a further assessment before notifying the offender of the child abuse report, or inviting the family members to the office. The Domestic Violence Specialist assists the investigator by quickly accessing criminal record information and interpreting the data.

Read All Relevant Case Reports

Overburdened child welfare workers do not always take time to read the investigation report or other previous case records or to consult with previous social workers. The Domestic Violence Specialist can provide a more complete picture by screening all reports and records for the presence of domestic violence. This review also helps promote continuity in planning.

Help Social Workers Use Domestic Violence Protocols

Domestic Violence Specialists can highlight key areas of the protocol such as the assessment of lethality or the mother's history of seeking help, and provide "cheat sheets" for workers' reference. Specialists can train units of workers or walk through the protocols with individual workers during case consultations. When Domestic Violence Protocols or other policies simply sit as part of statewide manuals, they are rarely consulted. They need to be "brought to life" through application to real case situations.

Help Social Workers To Manage Feelings and Develop Strategy

Social workers experience a range of feelings in response to domestic violence situations, ranging from fear and anxiety to minimizing or denying the extent of the problem. In some cases, Domestic Violence Specialists help social workers to contain their anxiety and to move forward thoughtfully. They help them to voice their concerns rather than overreact by precipitously removing children from the home. In other instances, the specialist actually works to raise the worker's level of concern about a case and advocates for intensive safety planning. In both situations, the Domestic Violence Specialist helps the worker to make an assessment, prioritize tasks, and develop short- and long-term goals based on the best information available.

Join with Social Workers

The Domestic Violence Specialist is most effective when social workers feel there is a shared mission. Specialists can join with social workers by reframing the problem of domestic violence from one of concern for women to one of concern for children and their mothers. Specialists have the expertise to assess the impact of domestic violence on women and children and may decide to directly interview the children as well as the mother if doing so would be helpful to the worker and family.

Source:Domestic Violence Unit, Massachusetts Department of Social Services, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996.

There appear to be several advantages to linking CPS and domestic violence through a central team of advocates. In the Brockton Area Office, investigations unit staff said that having specialists involved meant more people have a hand in the decision-making process, which leads to better decisions. The specialists provide another voice and a level of experience to domestic violence cases in the office. An area director in the central region said that the specialists raised awareness among her social work staff. Staff had previously been reluctant to ask women about domestic violence because they did not know how to handle it and were afraid of opening a Pandora's box.

The experience of specialists in other area offices revealed some of the difficulties in integrating domestic violence strategies into DSS case practice through a separate unit of specialists. Two important issues are whether or not case workers consult with a specialist at all, and if they have consulted with a specialist, whether or not they actually accept the advice they are given. The specialists explained that many social workers are not overtly resistant to consulting with a specialist but are uncertain about the potential benefits of doing so. A key to engaging staff is to provide them with real help on a particular case. When workers see the value of consulting with a specialist, they are more likely to seek their help again later. Having supervisors on board is also important; they too are involved in most case consultations and it is important that the specialist and supervisor not work at cross purposes. While the specialists felt that they had succeeded in educating many upper level staff about domestic violence, they observed that workers were not always actively encouraged by their superiors to consult with specialists. Most of the specialists agreed that when management supported their work, social workers were more apt to use them.

The specialists also work on developing personal relationships with the individual case workers. Training helps increase understanding of domestic violence, but casual chats by the coffee machine were often the best way to gain the trust of case workers and to get them to look at domestic violence issues in their caseload. Gaining this trust, however, can take a long time—as long as one or two years. One specialist jokingly characterized her job with case workers as "technical assistance in-your-face." One interesting aspect of this intensive, ongoing technical assistance is related to the effect of DSS staff turnover. Though many agencies bemoan the effects of turnover (due to lost investments in training and staff development), DVU staff explained that working with new recruits presented a unique opportunity to train and establish model case practice approaches from the beginning. Trying to change the case practice of older, established workers was more challenging because old habits had to be modified.

One problem with trying to integrate specialists into an area office is that case decisions still rest ultimately with the social workers and their supervisors. DSS does not have clear guidelines about intervention with social workers and it can be difficult for specialist to see if their recommendations were implemented. The specialists are trying to get involved earlier in the life of a case, during the investigation and assessment stage when the tone for how the case will be handled is set. But the investigation period is also a sensitive point in a case and some social workers may be reluctant to seek the advice of a specialist.(10)

Domestic violence specialists identified other challenges in working within DSS. To do their jobs well, the specialists must bridge two very different systems (battered women's services and the child welfare system). Many new specialists must evolve from having been a women's advocate to being a children and women's advocate. Even after this period of growth, other people may continue to view specialists as being part of one system or the other. Specialists explained that they often had to "wear different hats" depending on the setting. In outreach meetings with shelter staff, they are seen as being "DSS." DSS managers and workers might view the specialist as a battered women's advocate, a domestic violence expert, or perhaps just an extra case worker or "someone from central office." One specialist explained, however, that she did not care how she was viewed by other DSS staff as long as they "worked with her." Knowing how to define one's role to different audiences is a very specialized and important skill. As one specialist explained, she is constantly training and meeting with managers and workers about how to best use a domestic violence specialist.

Specialists also mentioned the tension between providing direct services themselves and encouraging DSS social workers to change their case practice as part of a larger system change. Because it takes a long time to change case practice, specialists often feel that it is more efficient to do it themselves, by interviewing a mother and helping her develop a safety plan. In the beginning, the specialists did more direct service than consultation, but over time this breakdown shifted and they now spend more time advising case workers. One specialist estimated that 60 percent of her time was spent on case consultations with case workers, 30 percent on administrative tasks, meetings, and outreach to the community, and 10 percent on direct service with mothers and children. Modeling strategies for social workers to learn how to incorporate domestic violence issues into their decision-making is a slow process. Actual changes in social workers' attitudes and practice are incremental. Overall, specialists were surprised by how much time and effort was needed to change case practice.

An important feature of this systems change effort is having a single unit (DVU) within DSS that administratively houses all of the specialists. Specialists share many goals and philosophies, and the unit fosters a team spirit among them. This is especially valuable within a large bureaucracy such as DSS. By sharing their experiences and successes, the specialists are better able to meet the many challenges they face in area offices and within the community at large. Finally, the DVU also has an internal work group with representatives from all levels of field staff. The group meets monthly and is chaired by the DVU clinical supervisor and a coordinator. Having participated in the development of the investigations and assessment portion of the DSS's Domestic Violence Protocol, the group is now working on the second part of this protocol. Group members are examining permanency planning issues and will develop protocols for foster care and adoption.

Domestic Violence Training and Protocol Development

In addition to pre-service domestic violence training which was made mandatory for all new staff in 1989, DSS added area-based training on its Domestic Violence Protocol in 1994. All DSS area office staff were offered training, but participation varied by area office: not all area directors made the training mandatory for supervisors and case workers. In addition to training line staff, the unit also conducted statewide training for area directors and area program managers. The DVU has also included a Question-and-Answer fact sheet in the DSS newsletter to help inform field staff about domestic violence issues and the resources available to them. The unit has also made training on batterers intervention available to all staff in area offices.

In early 1995, DSS adopted a Domestic Violence Protocol to assist staff in managing cases involving domestic violence. The protocol was distributed to all social work staff as part of the agency's assessment policy. The protocol provides information about how to screen families for domestic violence and how to assess the family's safety. The protocol also suggests service plan tasks appropriate for cases involving domestic violence. While social workers are not mandated to follow the protocol, it provides them with a framework for approaching cases and is a useful learning tool for newer workers. More experienced workers felt that they had already incorporated the domestic violence strategies into their work. One social worker commented that it was good to have the department's expectations about how to handle domestic violence cases formalized in the protocol. Others, however, said that the protocol added another step to the already lengthy investigations process.(11)

The increased awareness of domestic violence issues through the training provided by DSS and the unit was thought to have resulted in better screening of cases. One area director said that her case workers were more confident about domestic violence issues in their caseload (she also noted, however, that they did not routinely use the Domestic Violence Protocol). The mandatory training reached social workers who might have been reluctant to consider domestic violence issues in their caseload. Training alone, however, does not change case practice. Some social workers view any training as an interruption to their overloaded work schedule.

Finally, the DSS Domestic Violence Unit provides training for other organizations and agencies, including national organizations such as the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Court Appointed Special Advocate programs, other state CPS agencies, and local justice system agencies (law enforcement, Attorney General's Office, District Attorneys' Offices). The unit also trains hospital workers, teachers, and parent aides.

Area Office Efforts

In addition to DSS's agency-wide efforts, several of its area offices have special domestic violence projects. These include domestic violence interagency case review teams in five area offices and, in one area office, a dedicated unit of case management social workers who specialize in domestic violence cases. These efforts were initiated by and receive ongoing support from the DVU, but are run out of the local office.

Interagency Domestic Violence Teams were first piloted in two area offices (Boston's Warren Center office and the Fitchburg office) as one of the first efforts of DSS's domestic violence program. Since then three other area offices have also developed Domestic Violence Teams. Team members include DVU specialists, area office management and social work staff, battered women's service providers, batterer intervention service providers, other service providers, and law enforcement.

The Domestic Violence Team at the Warren Center Area Office meets every three weeks for two hours. Two to three cases are presented at each meeting, generally voluntarily by social workers seeking help on a particular case. Occasionally, supervisors ask a social worker to bring a case to the team. During the team meeting the social worker begins by describing the case. Team members then suggest strategies to handle the case. The advantages of the Domestic Violence Team are that it brings together different types of people and allows a discussion of many aspects of domestic violence cases. The team approach helps ease the historical ambivalence between shelters and DSS because it allows social workers and shelter workers to discuss cases together and to understand the barriers each system confronts when attempting to help victims of domestic violence.(12)

With only one meeting per month, the team is limited in the number of cases it can review and in the timing of the consultation. The specialists noted that cases often come to the team in their later stages, when counseling services are about to end or when the cases are about to be transferred to another unit. In an effort to get cases to the team earlier, the office's investigation unit now flags domestic violence cases during the 45 day investigation phase and encourages the assigned social worker to present the case to the team.

In the William E. Warren Center Area Office, which serves the Roxbury and Dorchester areas of Boston, a unit of ongoing case workers specializes in domestic violence cases. The dedicated unit is four years old and currently has five social workers and one supervisor. The state DVU's director and clinical supervisor initiated the dedicated unit at the Warren Center Office. At that time, one of the supervisors in the office and her whole unit volunteered to become the dedicated unit. The unit's supervisor said that forming the special unit would have been difficult without the help of the DVU.

If domestic violence is identified during the investigation process, the case is assigned to the dedicated unit as long as it has an opening.(13) The social workers turn to each other when making decisions about complex cases. They also support ongoing social workers in other units within the Warren Center Area Office who have cases involving domestic violence. While no formal evaluation of the dedicated unit's caseload has been conducted, the unit supervisor reported that compared to other units, its cases seem to be kept open longer, its children are less likely to be removed from their mothers, and its social workers spend more time preparing before filing a Care and Protection order.(14) The supervisor also thought that case practice in the area office as a whole had changed from the period before the dedicated unit was formed. Social workers now prioritize safety of the entire family.

One informal activity of the dedicated unit is to educate judges about domestic violence issues. The unit social workers are trying to write court reports differently to take into account domestic violence and to use these reports to educate judges and lawyers. They have also developed a domestic violence service plan that requires the battering father to receive multiple services, rather than flooding the mother with services. Great care is taken when drafting the language used in court reports and service plans in an effort to avoid victimizing the mothers and to educate others who may read these official documents.

Although the dedicated unit cannot handle all of the domestic violence cases in the office, the supervisor did not see the need for a second dedicated unit. She also did not recommend that all of the social workers in the office be required to rotate through the dedicated unit, since it was the voluntary aspect of the unit that made it work. In another area office, the area director did not feel the need for a separate unit of social workers for domestic violence cases. She felt that her staff was well trained, that they had a domestic violence specialist for consultation, and that a dedicated unit was not very realistic since cases are shifted around and domestic violence is not always apparent at the time cases get assigned.

Perspectives of Other Community Service Agencies and Organizations

The issue of domestic violence has garnered a lot of attention in Massachusetts over the last several years. Statewide, there are two main groups working on the domestic violence issue—the Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence and the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups. The commission has looked at the link between children and domestic violence, while the coalition remains focused on battered women. Locally, service providers and law enforcement also work on cases that involve both child abuse and domestic violence, as described below.

Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence

The commission is chaired by the Lieutenant Governor with membership from the criminal justice system, battered women's services, batterer intervention programs, health care organizations, social services (including DSS), the Department of Public Health, mental health organizations, schools of social work, and religious organizations. At one point, the commission was headed by the former public policy director of the Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups.

The commission meets every six weeks and has five subcommittees and numerous working groups. One of the subcommittees is focusing on children and domestic violence, and recently produced a report that recommends a multi-disciplinary assessment of children involved in domestic violence. Local-level teams would ensure that mothers and children receive consistent responses regardless of where they enter the social service or justice system. The commission was a key force in lobbying the legislature for increases in DVU's funding and, more recently, has tried to gain funding so that each area office can have its own specialist.

Domestic Violence Service Providers

The Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups is the primary advocacy organization for battered women's issues in the state. Its members include the network of battered women's shelters funded by DSS and other sources. DSS provides over $9 million to fund 24-hour hot lines and emergency shelter services, counseling, legal advocacy, and transitional living programs for battered women and their children. All of these programs are run by local community providers and can be accessed by anyone seeking help, not just DSS consumers. As discussed earlier, the coalition leadership and DSS have worked diligently to improve relations between the two systems. The coalition makes recommendations to the Governor's Commission about how to use money budgeted for domestic violence. State money had gone to the service providers (the coalition's members) before coalition staff persuaded its membership to allow funds to be used to establish the Domestic Violence Unit in 1993.

State funding for battered women's services is administered through DSS. Historically, DSS simply passed these funds directly to battered women's shelters in the state. In the last several years, DSS developed standards for battered women's services and incorporated the ability to monitor these standards into its service contracts. While DSS does not currently have the staff to perform this monitoring function, it is very adamant that DVU specialists not serve this function. Being seen as the funders or monitors of shelter programs might undermine specialists' ability to collaborate with other members of the domestic violence community. The DVU director plans to hire a program development staff person to oversee this network of service providers.

The shelter network does not have the capacity to serve all DSS-involved women. DSS-involved women often have different characteristics than women who have traditionally accessed battered women's shelters. Generally, battered women who have used emergency shelters and other support services have done so on their own initiative. DSS-involved women, on the other hand, may seek shelter as part of a DSS plan to keep their children safe, and many may not yet acknowledge the danger they and their children face. DSS-involved women are more likely than women traditionally served by battered women's shelters to have active substance abuse and serious mental health problems.(15) They are also more likely to have older children and children with special needs. Finally, many DSS-involved women are teen mothers or may not speak English as their first language.

Other Service Providers

Each area office contracts with local service groups to provide counseling, emergency shelter, and other services to DSS clients. The DVU specialists noted that there are many gaps in services for battered women. As mentioned earlier, providers who are available may not have experience with DSS- involved women and often cannot respond quickly to crisis situations with DSS women. One of the service gaps mentioned by many people was the need for emergency shelters that would take women and families in crisis after hours and on weekends. Social workers in the unit dedicated to domestic violence cases at the Warren Center Area Office also identified several service gaps for the children in these families: daycare, after-school programs, and programs for teen victims and offenders.

Two of the service providers serving area offices in Massachusetts are Common Purpose and Brockton Family and Community Resources. Common Purpose runs batterer intervention programs in the Boston area. The issue of batterer intervention is coming to the forefront in Massachusetts. DSS has found it difficult to hold the batterer accountable, since it cannot mandate his participation in an intervention program. Common Purpose has five groups each serving approximately 80 men. The batterer group meetings are held once a week. The group sessions are very practical, providing tools to help batterers with basic coping and control skills. One of the groups exclusively serves DSS referrals. The other groups consist of men who are court-mandated to complete 80 hours of weekly sessions. Twenty percent of the men in these other Common Purpose groups are DSS- involved, but were not referred to Common Purpose from DSS. Since the DSS-referred men are not court-mandated, they stay in the program for shorter periods of time and are more resistant to the program. The clinical director of Common Purpose also commented that DSS-involved men tended to be more pathological, more dangerous, generally lower functioning, and younger and less educated than many of their non-DSS counterparts. Common Purpose staff are actively involved with DSS workers. They provide DSS with monthly written reports on each person's attendance and level of participation and in some cases have more frequent telephone contact.

Brockton Family and Community Resources (BFCR) has a locally administered contract with DSS's Brockton area office to provide 24-hour coverage for domestic violence cases. BFCR also provides legal advocacy, battered women's groups, batterer's groups, and a visitation center for DSS cases. While this contract is one of BFCR's smallest, it generates the most referrals. At DSS, BFCR was seen as an indispensable service provider capable of responding immediately to emergency situations.

Law Enforcement and Prosecution

Law enforcement response to domestic violence cases varies across Massachusetts. Most District Attorney Offices have a specialized unit to deal with domestic or family violence cases. They also organize community roundtables to discuss domestic violence.

A sergeant with the Brockton police department outlined how the Brockton police respond to domestic violence incidents. The Brockton police assign domestic violence calls to the highest response level to ensure the family's safety. The responding officers have a family incident report that provides a checklist to follow when responding to these calls. The officers look for children present in the home and interview any children separately. The officers file a report with DSS, if necessary, and call shelters for services when appropriate. In addition, all officers have received domestic violence training.

The District Attorney's Office in Plymouth County (where Brockton is located) has started to move forward on domestic violence cases without the victim's testimony. They no longer drop domestic violence cases at arraignment when the victim wants to drop the restraining order. The District Attorney's Office also calls DSS in domestic violence cases to add DSS's service plan to the probation plan.

Outcome and Evaluation Issues

The Department of Social Services' ASSIST (Area-Based Social Services Information System Technology) data system has only limited capability to evaluate domestic violence cases in the caseload. Supervisors can mark domestic violence as a barrier to progress in the case or as part of the service plan, on quarterly Progress Supervisory Review (PSR) reports conducted for each open case in the DSS system. Portions of these reports, however, are not interpreted (or filled out) consistently. As a result, the PSR data provide only a limited picture of how domestic violence is identified in individual cases.

The DVU's director cited several directions in her efforts to assess the effectiveness of the specialists. First, the DVU has begun work on a consumer satisfaction survey to assess how social workers view the specialists. The survey will cover case workers' use of a domestic violence specialist (how they use the specialist if they do and if not, why), reactions from supervisors about consultations with specialists, helpfulness of services provided by the specialist, and knowledge and use of the Domestic Violence Protocol (interviewing strategies, safety planning, accessing other support services). In addition, the DVU wants to standardize and then computerize the intervention forms used by specialists to document case consultations. Information about the number and types of cases for which specialists are consulted could then be aggregated more systematically.

In the past, the DVU has cited three measures used to evaluate the domestic violence program's success: increased ability of DSS staff to recognize the issue of domestic violence in their cases, reduced out-of-home placement through the use of an interdisciplinary response, and an increased level of cooperation between the battered women's service community and DSS. For the first measure, two outcomes indicating that DSS staff identified more domestic violence cases were increases in the number of times that domestic violence was identified as a barrier on the PSR and the number of social workers' requests for assistance from specialists. For the second measure, the out-of-home placement rate was less than the statewide rate in the two area offices that piloted the Domestic Violence Teams (Hangen 1994). While the third measure was not quantifiable, both the unit and the community as a whole agreed that significant strides had been made in bringing together DSS and the domestic violence community.

When asked to comment on whether or not they were making a difference, domestic violence specialists saw a difference both in the language of the social workers and in the questions they asked. The more they had worked with a particular social worker, the more the social worker changed how she viewed domestic violence in her caseload. One specialist, for example, commented that she knew she was making an impact when case workers stopped expressing nervous discomfort at the term "battering." Specialists also noticed when social workers came to them more often or earlier to consult about a case.


Massachusetts is quite advanced in its efforts to integrate domestic violence issues within CPS. This is evident in the many activities, projects, and special initiatives underway at the state and local levels. Interestingly, the state's progress also provides a unique opportunity to identify some of the more complex and advanced-stage challenges that inevitably arise when trying to undertake such a systems change. Even with in-house domestic violence advocates in place, Massachusetts is learning that changing CPS case practice around domestic violence requires a great deal of time and commitment. The changes are not happening overnight. The state has also learned that traditional domestic violence programs may not always be the most appropriate for CPS-involved families affected by domestic violence.

Despite these challenges, the benefits to Massachusetts' efforts are clear. Most important are the improved services to children and mothers, both those served directly by the DSS domestic violence specialists and by other CPS social workers who have been trained and are improving their case practice for battered women and their children. Supervisors and case workers themselves also noted that with the additional training and support they are receiving, they are much more confident handling domestic violence issues in their caseload. Finally, DSS Domestic Violence Unit staff are actively building community-wide bridges and encouraging the development of new and creative ways to help families in need. More rigorous evaluation efforts are needed to document and quantify many of these benefits.

It should also be recognized that recent developments in Massachusetts linking CPS and domestic violence issues have occurred during a period of expanding budgets. After many years of trying to bring attention to these issues, DSS staff now have the support of their Governor and legislature, an important advantage.(16) The addition of a line item in the state budget to fund DSS's Domestic Violence Unit was a major step toward linking DSS case practice with domestic violence issues. The addition of federal dollars has further increased funds for DSS's domestic violence program.

Massachusetts offers many features that other communities may want to consider in improving their efforts to integrate domestic violence issues into CPS case practice. These include the state-wide domestic violence unit, which furnishes area offices with specialists who provide training and model best case practice approaches for CPS case workers; area office domestic violence teams, which bring DSS together with the shelters, law enforcement, and other service providers to review specific cases and advise case workers about how best to proceed; a dedicated local area unit of CPS case workers who specialize in domestic violence cases and share their expertise with social workers in other units; and a wide variety of community-based projects, including psycho-educational groups, batterer intervention for DSS-involved men, and specialized children's evaluation services for DSS-involved families.


(1) This site visit was conducted in April 1996. Dana Schultz of Westat is a co-author of this chapter.

(2) Edith R. Hornor, Almanac of the 50 States, Information Publications, Palo Alto, CA, 1995.

(3) Partnership Project on Domestic Violence newsletter, March 1996.

(4) Massachusetts Department of Social Services, Demographic Report on Consumer Populations, July 1995.

(5) In addition to criminal convictions, CORI data reveal all arrests and filings for temporary restraining orders.

(6) These funds, which are separate from those supporting DSS's Domestic Violence Program, are for open-referral contracts for battered women's hotlines and shelters external to DSS. They are distributed to private service providers by DSS.

Although such a dramatic increase in funding was welcomed by the battered women's services community, managing this growth proved to be very challenging. At the same time, battered women's programs were losing many of their oldest and most experienced staff to newly formed domestic violence programs in prosecution offices and other more established agencies.

(7) Recall that the battered women's shelter network is a separate line item in DSS' budget.

(8) Recall that the battered women's shelter network is a separate line item in DSS' budget.

(9) The DVU director has been unable to recruit regular CPS workers from within DSS because the specialists are not state employees but are retained as consultants (and therefore do not qualify for health care insurance or other job benefits).

(10) In fact, these groups were established precisely because shelter workers were unable to successfully integrate DSS-involved battered women into existing shelter-based support groups.

(11) The Domestic Violence Unit is exploring the possibility of formalizing the referral process during the investigation period of a case, but is limited in doing so by the number of specialists available.

(12) Because of the perception that the protocol would increase workers' workload and liability, the social workers' union opposed its adoption.

(13) A supervisor in the Warren Center Area Office established a domestic violence shelter working group as a result of the tension exposed during team meetings between DSS workers and the shelter staff. The group, which meets once a month, has recently started writing a book about the relationship between DSS and shelters in Massachusetts.

(14) It is important not to confuse this single dedicated unit of social workers within one area office in Massachusetts with the larger state-wide Domestic Violence Unit (DVU).

(15) Interestingly, an early assessment of this pilot project found case lengths to be somewhat shorter than those for other clients (Hangen 1994). (At the time, the Warren Center Area Office was called the Solomon-Carter-Fuller (SCF) Area Office.)

(16) One supervisor estimated that half of all CPS cases involve active substance abuse problems.

(17) This support was hard won. In the early days of this effort, there were only four domestic violence specialists spread out across the state. The group was not "allowed" to call themselves a unit and had to meet secretly in a diner in Worcester to discuss various issues!

Where to?

Top of Page

Home Pages:
Human Services Policy (HSP)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)