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Empathy for victims isn’t the answer (but it’s important)

by David Mandel

During Safe and Together trainings,  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 revictimize 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 often also focus on the importance of greater empathy on the part of child welfare, believing that greater empathy will lead to less punitive decisions.

I’ve found that the empathy framework is not the most useful construct when it comes to the intersection of child maltreatment, domestic violence and child welfare decision making. The most useful framework is how a comprehensive assessment of survivor’s strengths is essential to good child welfare decision making. It is an assessment of a survivor’s strengths based on the full spectrum of a survivor’s efforts to promote the safety and well-being of her children (the 3rd critical component in the Safe and Together model) that creates a foundation that leads to positive outcomes.   Social workers who can see a survivor’s efforts to buffer the children from the worst emotional impact of the violence, redirect a batterer away from children, placate a batterer, keep the children’s routine as normal as possible or calm him down all as part of her active efforts to protect the children are more likely to be successful in keeping children safe and in their own home than 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?”

Why?  A social worker who has a more comprehensive view (the third critical component in the Safe and Together model) can:

  • Validate the survivor’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 the batterer’s behaviors, and doesn’t believe she is a bad mother.
  • Gather more comprehensive information about child safety.  Validating survivor’s strengths is more likely to lead to disclosures and collaboration.
  • More efficiently develop more effective safety plans based on better information and an understanding of what a survivor has already tried.
  • Maintain more children in their homes based on more comprehensive assessment of protective factors.

One of the core principles in the Safe and Together model is that partnering with domestic violence survivors is the main way to keep children safe.   And this partnership starts with a social worker’s attitudes.  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.  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 erroneous belief that their choice is between victim empathy or child safety that leads to this lapse in thinking.

When it comes to child welfare agencies, victims don’t first and foremost need our empathy.  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 the victim and good decision-making related to child safety. The two are not in opposition.  In reality they flow from the same source.

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