Feb. 5, 2021

Children exposed to domestic violence tend to fall through the cracks. Angelique Jenney wants to change that

Faculty of Social Work researcher looks to identify and teach best professional practices as part of a Canada-wide study
Angelique Jenney, Woods Homes Chair in Children's Mental Health in the Faculty of Social Work. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Most people are aware that intimate partner violence is a significant problem in Canada.

It’s estimated, for example, that each year we spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence. Statistics also show that half of all Canadian women experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.

One thing that is less often discussed is the impact this violence has on the children exposed to it. Exposure, the term used by experts in the field, indicates that children aren’t just witnesses. They experience violence between their caregivers at multiple levels, from hearing the fighting, trying to intervene, contacting police or family members for help, or navigating the aftermath.

Short- and long-term negative consequences

“We know that when children have been exposed to violence, it's a risk factor,” says Faculty of Social Work researcher, Dr. Angelique Jenney, PhD. “We know it may contribute to multiple short- and long-term negative consequences for many children. This includes various mental health challenges: anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and of course, risks of further victimization and adversity.”

Jenney, the Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health, has done research that shows a concerning number of children and youth who have witnessed domestic violence don’t receive any intervention for it, despite the fact that it is often noted as having occurred by the various professionals involved. 

Jenney thinks the lack of intervention reflects a few things. First, that children often don’t talk about the domestic violence they are living with due to shame, stigma, and a belief that nothing can be done about it. Second, it’s also because professionals don’t always know where to begin with such a complex issue.

If we knew that a child had experienced childhood sexual abuse, we would never assume that we didn't have to eventually address it. We wouldn't just tick off a box and say, ‘They've been sexually abused, we'll just keep that in the back of our minds.'

“We would create an entire intervention plan around that knowledge. But that doesn't happen for children who are exposed to violence at home, even when we know that so many of the same symptomology and outcomes are related to that kind of traumatic experience,” Jenney says.

Jenney's research will capture best practices and approaches from leading practitioners. This knowledge can be taught to social workers and students using simulated scenarios.

Jenney is looking to make a difference for these children through a series of research projects aimed at educating current and future social workers, by capturing best practices, or competencies, with experts in the field. Once these competencies have been identified, her project looks to train social work students and practitioners using simulations that support the practice of these identified skills. 

Simulations provide a safe space to practice skills

She's already piloted simulation-based models of training in a number of different settings — including the faculty’s Trauma Informed Social Work Practice graduate certificate — and says that students have responded favourably to the approach.

Simulations provide a safe space and a standardized experience that allows students to try new skills, make mistakes and learn without the risk of harm. Using a standardized client experience also helps develop practice theory and an evidence base for the approaches that work best in a particular scenario.

Most importantly is that it enables clinicians and students to practise these difficult interventions without risk for themselves or the vulnerability of impacted children.

The work to identify accepted practice competencies is being undertaken as part of a Canada-wide research project that Jenney is working on with gender-based violence research colleagues Katreena Scott, Linda Baker and Peter Jaffe.

The goal is to create consensually identified competencies for social workers and other aligned professions. This national research group has already examined the relevant literature, including practice literature that includes training and field materials created by experts in the field. Using a Delphi method, they’ll take the best practices they’ve identified through coding back to frontline practitioners and researchers to see if they agree.

Eventually the researchers hope to arrive at a consensus on best-practice approaches, which can then be disseminated nationally. As co-investigator on this grant, funded by Women and Gender Equity Canada, Jenney is leading the arm devoted to competencies that pertain to working specifically with children.

Capturing a generation's worth of practice knowledge

An important part of this process will be building on the knowledge of experienced practitioners in the field. Indeed, one of the project’s primary goals is to capture this grassroots knowledge and bring to the forefront the value of the practitioners who work in this area. To that end, the group has identified nearly 100 practitioners from across Canada who represent decades of frontline intervention experience.

With this knowledge, and a recently funded SSHRC grant, Jenney hopes to further refine the simulation scenarios and have experienced practitioners participate in them to identify procedural competencies (what it looks like in real practice) in a collaborative process of analysis and discovery. The end result could be a powerful teaching tool for the next generation of social workers as well as current practitioners.

She believes her inter-related research projects are of vital importance to improving responses for children and their families who are experiencing intimate partner violence. “So much of this work is nuanced and requires years of practice with supportive mentoring and reflective supervision,” she says.

“What if we could identify procedural skills earlier and provide opportunities for more deliberate practice so those skills could be obtained more quickly? If early intervention is the key, then the sooner our graduates have those skills to deliver those interventions, the better the outcomes for everyone.”