21 Apr Empathy for victims isn’t the answer (but it’s important)
I often hear some version of the following statement from child welfare workers: “I can be empathetic to a victim to a point, and I don’t want to re-victimize her but my bottom line is the safety of the children.” The main implication is that empathy towards victims is inherently in opposition to child safety. Victim advocates tend to believe that the more child welfare has empathy for victims, the less they’ll make punitive decisions.
However, I’ve found that the empathy framework is not the most useful construct when it comes to working with survivors of domestic abuse.
The most useful framework is a comprehensive assessment of survivor’s strengths
A comprehensive assessment of a survivor’s strengths is essential to good child protective decision-making. This kind of assessment is based on the full spectrum of a survivor’s efforts to promote the safety and well-being of her children. This is the 3rd critical component in the Safe and Together model. A holistic assessment creates a foundation that leads to positive outcomes. For example, social workers who have done comprehensive assessments can better see a survivor’s efforts to:
- buffer the children from the worst emotional impact of the violence,
- redirect a perpetrator away from the children,
- placate a perpetrator,
- keep the children’s routine as normal as possible or
- calm him down
Social workers who can identify these efforts know a-lot about a survivor’s active efforts to protect the children. Knowing about these active efforts makes it more likely that they’ll be successful in keeping the children safe and in their own home. Social workers who limit their assessment of protective capacity to “Did she call the police? Will she get a protection order? Is she going to end the relationship/leave?” will be less likely to successfully keep the children safe.
Why Not empathy for victims?
There are many reasons why a comprehensive assessment of survivor strengths is more powerful than empathy for victims. A social worker who has a more comprehensive view (the third critical component in the Safe and Together model) can:
Validate the Victim’s strengths.
Validating her efforts can provide tremendous relief from the guilt, shame and blame she’s likely to be feeling. This identifies the social worker as someone who understands the survivor’s efforts, won’t blame her for their partner’s behaviors, and doesn’t believe she is a bad mother.
Gather more comprehensive information about child safety.
Validating survivor’s strengths is also more likely to lead to disclosures and collaboration. This means that social workers are more likely to receive comprehensive information from survivors.
More efficiently develop more effective safety plans
When social workers collect the full spectrum of information about a survivor’s protective efforts, safety plans will be based on better information and an understanding of what a survivor has already tried. This results in more effective and efficient interventions.
Maintain more children in their homes
When social workers have more information, they can make more informed case decisions about removal and interventions. This can increase the confidence workers have that children will be safe with the non-offending parent.
Partnering with Survivors is the main way to keep children safe
One of the core principles in the Safe & Together model is that partnering with domestic violence survivors is the main way to keep children safe. A partnership with survivors must start with a social worker’s attitude. I tell social workers to always assume the survivor has been safety planning for themselves and their children before we show up to investigate. This attitude helps them identify the ways she is actively engaged in trying to protect her children which is the foundation of that collaborative partnership.
Unfortunately, where social workers often trip themselves is when they start believing that seeing her strengths is the same as 1) saying that the batterer isn’t harming the children and 2) saying that we don’t have to communicate to the survivor our concerns about the children, work collaboratively with her to increase the safety of the children and in some extreme cases remove children. And it is the belief that their choice is between victim empathy or child safety that leads to this lapse in thinking.
victims don’t first and foremost need our empathy
First, they need our educated assessment of their strengths, grounded in a recognition that actively working to keep children safe looks different in different households and communities. Using a framework based on a comprehensive assessment of strengths versus greater empathy allows child welfare to remain compassionate even when the batterer’s behavior requires extreme emergeny actions. For instance, even when the survivor has done as much as is possible for her to protect her children, the children may be at such risk for physical harm that a child welfare worker will need to say—“I see how hard you’ve worked to protect your children, and we’ve tried everything we can to intervene with him and we remain very concerned that your partner will hurt them.”
Skillful assessment of strengths leads to empathy for victims and good decision-making related to child safety. The two are not in opposition. In reality they flow from the same source.
For more on partnering with survivors, take our e-course Partnering with Adult Survivors.