Safety, Risk and Self-Determination:
Client-Centered Practice with Survivors of Domestic Violence
Liz Roberts, MSW, Chief Program Officer, Safe Horizon
At Safe Horizon, we work with tens of thousands of domestic violence survivors every year, through our hotline, court programs, community offices, and shelters. Every day, our clients face choices that range from the difficult to the near impossible. Consider these scenarios:
Lucia reports that she recently broke up with her boyfriend. He responded by forcing his way into her apartment and raping her in front of her young son. Her ACS worker wants her to go into a shelter, but she is unwilling to risk losing her hard-won Section 8 voucher, becoming homeless with her son.
David reports that he is in fear for his life. But he is reluctant to report his boyfriend’s violence to the police, fearing this could expose them both to homophobic treatment.
Dolores thinks a Family Court order of protection might help her stay safe, but she doesn’t want to involve the authorities because she relies on her husband’s under-the-table job to feed her children, and fears reporting the abuse will get him deported.
The survivors who come to Safe Horizon face the risk of abuse, not in isolation, but in combination with many other types of risk: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, substance use, racism, homophobia, lack of legal status, fear of losing custody, special needs of their children, and more.
In response to these complexities, Safe Horizon has implemented a client-centered model for safety assessment and risk management with domestic violence survivors. Our model is built on our 35 years of experience counseling and advocating for survivors of domestic violence and inspired by the work of experts like Jill Davies (whose new book Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex Lives, Difficult Choices is forthcoming in September) and Lauren Cattaneo (a professor at George Mason University whose research focuses on risk assessment and empowerment).
From our practice and research, we’ve learned that domestic violence risk is dynamic and changeable and our ability to predict an abuser’s future actions is limited. We’ve learned that victims’ lives are complex, and that the risk of physical assault is only one of the risks survivors are managing. We’ve learned that safety strategies that work for one survivor—like involving the police, seeking an order of protection, or entering a shelter—may make things worse for another survivor. Our approach places each survivor’s perspective on her situation, options, and resources at the center of the planning process. Our staff is trained to focus on the survivor’s assessment of risk, to ask which risks the survivor prioritizes, and to explore safety strategies—both formal and informal—the survivor is already utilizing. We encourage our staff to take a neutral stance regarding the survivor’s options. This may mean that, instead of advising a victim to go to court and petition for an order of protection, we discuss the benefits and risks of that course of action within the context of that particular person’s life. This sometimes feels counter-intuitive, as if we are taking a neutral stance about abuse. But it is essential, because for all our expertise, we can’t know for certain what will work for any individual victim. What we do know for sure is that persuading the victim to pursue a course of action that doesn’t feel right to her is almost certain to fail, because she is likely to change course soon after our discussion.
When we started down this road at Safe Horizon, we faced skepticism about the need for the initiative. Our staff told us that their work was already client-centered, and that respect for victims’ self-determination was already driving their practice. But when we observed practice across many of our programs, we saw a tendency for staff to promote concrete, formal options, especially orders of protection, police involvement, and domestic violence shelter. Our staff was sometimes out of their depth when survivors wanted to explore informal safety strategies, like having influential family or community members speak to the abuser, or to develop strategies to reduce their risk while remaining in abusive relationships.
We are three years into this initiative now, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that client-centered practice with domestic violence survivors is hard. We have to manage our own fears about our clients’ safety, as well as our assumptions and judgments about victims’ lives and choices. The initiative requires financial investment in training and reflective supervision, capacities that we continue to develop. It requires attention to the impact of vicarious trauma on staff and teams, because unacknowledged vicarious trauma can numb our empathic capacity, or allow our fears for our clients to overwhelm our efforts to be client-centered.
At Safe Horizon, social workers are the backbone of our programs, providing direct service, supervision, and executive leadership. Our social work values—promoting social justice, honoring the dignity and right to self-determination of our clients, and marrying practice and advocacy—are uniquely suited to our work with and on behalf of domestic violence victims.
Yet survivors of domestic violence are far more likely to present in other settings than in our programs. Social workers in every possible practice setting—i.e. clinics, hospitals, private practice, substance abuse programs, child welfare agencies, human resources departments--are seeing domestic violence victims each day. Sometimes the violence is a known factor. And sometimes it is an unacknowledged dynamic, operating behind the scenes. At times, our clients report that workers in these settings continue to rely on concrete, prescriptive safety strategies, rather than exploring risks and options in a client-centered, flexible way.
At Safe Horizon, we believe that our social work ethics call on us to support clients’ self-determination. For social workers who are employed outside the victim assistance field and have not had special training in recognizing the dynamics of domestic violence and providing client-centered assessment and safety planning assistance, this may mean seeking additional training, or being prepared to refer survivors to a practitioner with special expertise. For social workers who specialize in this area, it means engaging in ongoing training, obtaining consistent supervision, and continuing to reflect on our own assumptions and biases.
On the advocacy front, we need to expand the options and resources available to survivors, so their choices can someday be less agonizing. And we should work within every service sector to develop policies and practices that enhance safety and options for survivors.
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