Just thought of submitting another reflection on working with family violence. This has been a topic that has held more meaning for me over recent years in practice.
My experience as a social worker has made me realise the complexities of family violence. This work is rendered all the more onerous when as social workers, we have to put on the hat of social justice and determine the level of risk when family violence is present. This risk assessment would involve assessing the intensity of the abuse and how likely it is to happen again. It is also not uncommon for us to have protocols that may include working towards separating the victim from the abusive situation and attempt to influence her to apply for a personal protection order (in the case of intimate partner violence).
There are two main issues that arise from such an approach. The first is that in the course of assessing risk, we may inadvertently ignore the second story – that of the victim’s attempts at survival (Kate, 1998; Sach, 2007). Too often, in safety planning, the social worker may push for plans to keep the person being abused safe without honouring these responses, and even including them in safety planning.
The second issue, is how as practitioners, we may blind ourselves to considerations of gender, race, and culture (Yuen and White, 2007), and accord privilege our own discourse on how family violence should be addressed in the family unit. We are sometimes governed by the protocols that we created (assuming them to be fixed), without acknowledging the unique differences that each case brings, through multiple combinations of personal experiences, race, and culture. We immediately move into practices of seeing the couple separately (when there is violence) without reflecting on the implications on the victim’s sense of personhood.
Yuen and White (2007) discussed how it would be unhelpful to “assume that women can simply leave the relationships if they choose to, or that their lives would necessarily be better off if they did leave an abusive relationship.” The women that I work with were usually housewives who had not been employed for many years. Divorce and separation may plunge these families to further financial and emotional distress.
I introduce the hypothetical case of Siti, a Malay housewife taking care of her 3 children. She had been experiencing abuse from her husband for more than 10 years, which involved incidents where she would be punched and kicked repeatedly.
A possible initial response when working with Siti may involve telling her that she should take steps to end the abuse by applying for a personal protection order (PPO) and then exploring placement in a shelter. This would ensure that she and her children were safe. We would then discuss how important it is for her children not to be witnesses of violence in the home and how she should take steps to care for them by taking action against the violence. When we find that Siti is not keen on this course of action, as practitioners, we may experience frustration with regard to Siti’s seeming unwillingness to take this course of action.
This case vignette is analogous to my own experience of imposing my own expectations and values onto Siti, without considering how issues of culture and gender were intertwined (White, 2007). This activity may lead to mother and victim blaming. As a Malay male worker from a middle class background, I could not even begin to fathom the issues that Siti was facing that made it difficult for her to respond to the violence. Siti may have been someone who had not been employed for years, and may be heavily dependent on her husband for the upkeep of herself and her children. Being part of a minority population in Singapore made it difficult for her to find stable employment in the job market.
Within her own culture, she may face the burden of expectations from her extended family to ensure that her family stays together, and that she stay in the family for the sake of her children. It may be deemed to be inappropriate to take state action against the provider of the family.
How then, as practitioners, can we employ the process of double listening (Sach, 2007; Durish, 2007) to Siti’s stories of survival? After all, we may not have realised that Siti had been surviving in the abusive relationship for more than 10 years. She and her children may have had developed strategies of responding to this violence which included being aware of when her husband comes home in an angered state so that the whole family would avoid engaging with him.
Siti may also have stories of how she had sacrificed herself to be the subject of the violence in order to take her husband’s focus away from the children. This could be evident in situations where he had been upset with the daughter about her recent school result, and how Siti responded by antagonising him so that anger would be diverted away.
As a practitioner, I wonder how we can engage our clients in discussions to come up collaborative safety plan, without having to resort to state means of intervention (for example, applying for a personal protection order). Through collaborative conversations, we could possible identify Siti’s close friends living within the same block who were able to be roped in for further conversations about maintaining safety.
Instead of having protocols which are fixed, I wondered whether we could have maps or principles of assessing and intervening with IPV so that as practitioners we could be attuned to the unique experiences of our clients. When assessing risk, it would be difficult to move away from asking about the violent incident, care has to be taken not to experience re-traumatisation in the context of the re-telling of the violence (McLean, C. & White, M., 1995). The use of externalisation (White, 2007) may be useful in aiding this process.
Principles to adopt when working with IPV
- Important for us not to make assumptions about our clients, their lives and their experiences
- We not only listen to the stories of their difficulties and the violence, but also their responses to such difficulties (double story development)
- Adopt a decentered and influential position (Morgan and White, 2007) where we see our clients as the expert of their own lives and place their abilities, values and skills at the centre of practice.
Currently, I am exploring using the following map as a framework of managing an intervening in risk for IPV, which is currently in its nascent stage.
Map of managing risk in IPV
- Explore the nature and impact of violence on the client and her family members
- Provide crisis intervention for any immediate needs
- Explore client’s evaluations (and justifications of this evaluations) of the effect of this violence in their lives.
- Explore the social context and issues relating to gender, race, and racism that may support or hinder the impact of violence on the family.
- Explore ways of responding or surviving through the violence that showcase unique skills, strengths and abilities.
- Identify and connect with possible allies within client’s informal support network who may be able to contribute as outsider witnesses, or support safety of client.
- Collaboratively document a safety plan, taking note of the skills, strengths and abilities that have been identified.
- Provide continued support through client-centred case management.
Through these practices, I hope to be able to adopt a more respectful and supportive stance when working with persons affected by violence and abuse.
Durish, P. (2007). Honouring Complexity: Gender, culture and violence in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer individuals. In Yuen, A & White, C. Conversations about gender, culture and violence: Stories of hope from women of many cultures. Dulwich Centre Publications.
Kate. (1999). A Story of Survival. Dulwich Centre Publications (eds): Extending Narrative Therapy: A collection of practice-based papers (chapter 9), pp.117-124. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Mclean, C. & White, M. (1995) ‘Naming abuse and breaking from its effects’ an interview with Michael White in White, M. Re- Authoring Lives: essays and interviews.
Sach, J. (2007). Conversations in groups with women about their experiences of using anger, abuse, and violence. In Yuen, A & White, C. Conversations about gender, culture and violence: Stories of hope from women of many cultures. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. & Morgan, A (2006) Narrative Therapy with Children and their Families. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, C. (2007). Working for Gender justice across culture: an interview with Taimaleutu Kiwi Tamasese. In Yuen, A & White, C. Conversations about gender, culture and violence: Stories of hope from women of many cultures. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (2007) Maps of Narrative Practice. Norton.
Yuen, A. & White, C. (2007). Setting the Context: The personal is political and professional. Talking about feminism, culture and violence. In Yuen, A & White, C. Conversations about gender, culture and violence: Stories of hope from women of many cultures. Dulwich Centre Publications.