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Sept_Oct 13 Currents Domestic Violence and Social Work: How one agency responds
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Facts and Statistics About Domestic Violence

The World Health Organization issued a report in June 2013 summarizing the findings of the first major global review of violence against women and found that 30% (1/3) of women worldwide have been physically or sexually assaulted by a former or a current partner. They recount a global health concern of epidemic proportion.

Domestic violence is a form of gender-based violence that exists within the context of intimate partner, dating, or family relationships with a central dynamic of power and control that is manifest by physical, sexual, psychological, or financial abuse

DV in New York City:

  • 263,207 calls  to the police for DV in 2012 (average of 720 calls per day)
  • 69 family-related homicides in 2012
  • DV survivors comprise the largest cohort of homeless families in NYC
  • The first Family Justice Center for DV which opened in Brooklyn in 2005 saw 53,246 new clients from 2005-12. These are one-stop   comprehensive walk-in services for survivors of DV
  • There are now other Family Justice Centers in Queens, The Bronx and one will open in the fall in Manhattan. These are staffed by numerous CBO’s and professional disciplines including SFF.


Domestic Violence and Social Work:
How one agency responds


Beth Silverman-Yam, DSW, LCSW, Clinical Director, Sanctuary for Families

Here is a description of New York-based Sanctuary for Families (SFF), a comprehensive domestic violence (DV) agency committed to the safety, healing, and self-determination of survivors of DV and other forms of gender-based violence. This article will focus on the role of social workers within SFF’s holistic and varied program of services, providing advocacy and support for clients as they navigate multiple systems.

DV is a phenomenon which needs to be seen in a social context. This understanding shapes the interventions and commitments of all of the social work practitioners at SFF. We are about both personal and social change.


Sanctuary for Families sees clients who are residing in the community-at-large or in other shelter-based facilities. Our staff offer counseling services in English, Spanish, French, Hindi, and Punjabi and are faced with many challenges working with a population that is beset by the layered concerns of trauma, criminal justice, the child welfare system, poverty, community stigma, and mental health. Social workers in DV settings need to be as equally skilled in counseling as they are in systems advocacy, case management, cultural competency, outreach, and training.

Establishing safety plays a primary role in providing counseling to survivors of DV, but safety is not limited to physical safety, it includes emotional and psychological safety. Our role within the context of self-determination is to assist clients to make more informed decisions about their lives, with whom they want to live, and how best to live a life free of violence for themselves and their children. This is not always easy given clients’ ambivalence based on personal feelings, feelings related to the perceptions of their extended family and community, or the safety of minor children. For DV survivors it is important to note that the risk of severe harm or death significantly increases in the period immediately after leaving the abusive partner.

At SFF we work extensively with children and youth, and this is one area where social workers’ system advocacy skills combined with their clinical training are very valuable. On any given day we are speaking with teachers regarding a child’s behavioral challenges. We are writing a letter to be read at Family Court about our perception of the best interests of the child regarding custody or visitation. We are writing an affidavit to support a victim fleeing abuse and seeking asylum. We are speaking to a group of parents at a PTA meeting about the signs of teen dating violence. We are in a room with traumatized children and teens helping them to make sense of what they have experienced and find ways of coping. We help parents and children improve their understanding and communication with one another. We reach out to communities to start conversations about what is healthy and unhealthy in relationships. We visit community meetings, hospitals, social agencies, and court rooms to speak against gender-based violence and educate on how such violence affects human development and functioning.

At SFF we are pushing for the individual, communal, and systematic changes that inform the very social problems we are addressing. We bring social work principles and values into other systems such as the criminal justice, health/mental health, family court, education, and immigration systems just to name a few.


When clients enter Sanctuary for Families Crisis or Transitional Shelter Program, they become a part of a network of holistic services designed to help empower them in a healing process to become independent. Social workers support clients in understanding ways in which violence affects them and their families.

All of our clinical services are available to residential and non-residential clients and are enriched by the presence of a broad range of arts programs and staff who work in collaboration with social workers. Our support groups welcome art therapists, modern dancers, and creative drama therapists on a regular basis to enhance our clients’ capacities for self-expression. Each week, clients are seen individually by a social worker and in our psycho-educational support groups.

We support clients as they navigate difficult bureaucratic systems such as Family Court, Criminal Court, and Public Assistance through client accompaniment and in-person advocacy and testimony. We assist in meeting clients’ immediate concrete needs with an on-site food pantry and petty cash allowances. As a program we face many challenges including the lack of affordable or subsidized housing opportunities for very low-income clients, and unfortunately the paucity of resources often drives survivors back into unsafe conditions.

All of our shelter-based programs are linked with other resources within SFF, which include children, and youth services, legal, and economic empowerment.


Economic empowerment or self-sufficiency is at the very core of SFF’s mission. We know that economic independence is linked with one’s capacity to remain in a violence-free life, to avoid returning to batterers, becoming homeless, or entering a cycle of homelessness and public assistance.

In 2011 we began the Domestic Violence Workforce Initiative (DVWI), a two-phase program including structured career-readiness education and sector-based office skills training. The two main program components include a month-long Career Readiness Workshop and a three month, full-day Office Operations Workshop. Housed within the Clinical Program at SFF, the DVWI is an innovative marriage of social work practice and career development/job training interventions. The program has attracted the attention of homelessness advocates, city and state officials, not-for profit leaders, and policy makers.

Less than three years later 140 client have been placed in jobs.  The program prepares clients for living-wage employment, diminishing their need for shelter and public assistance. We have a 90% completion rate, 70% placement rate and average salaries at $13.00 per hour. We have also seen success in clinical outcomes:  self-confidence, enhanced communication and social skills and an ability to cope with the demands of the workplace. We believe that the strong results in both areas are linked to the innovative synthesis of workforce and clinical services.
SFF’s clinical approach for workforce development is grounded in the view that the prospect of entering the workforce at a living wage will be a critical motivating factor for trainees. The current program modifies the relationship between Sanctuary and the client by bringing the workforce training in-house alongside the traditional shelter, clinical, and legal services we provide to domestic violence survivors.


Every year SFF hosts 14-16 graduate social work interns at its various locations from institutions such as Columbia, NYU, Hunter, and Fordham. Students are engaged in a rich learning environment practicing a broad range of micro and macro level skills required to respond to the complexities of domestic violence. Ultimately, these skills  will fortify them for the demands of our profession.


While there is not one framework for providing clinical services to domestic violence survivors, social workers at Sanctuary for Families draw upon a strengths-based perspective. They bring an understanding of the nature of trauma and its aftermath, a deep appreciation of the nexus of race, class, culture, gender and gender-orientation, an awareness of the need to validate a survivor’s experience while mobilizing resources, and a profound valuation of the role of resilience in the human condition.

Vicarious trauma for social workers and other staff does exist. An alternate dimension, however, is also present: to bear witness and be part of the processes of personal and social change associated with responding to domestic violence is rewarding and inspiring. DV social work draws upon the core beliefs and practices that speak to the best within the profession.


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