FACULTY BLOG: “What are you afraid of?” Owning our fears as a step toward partnering with adult survivors
by Beth Ann Morhardt
As a Safe and Together Trainer and former child welfare Domestic Violence Consultant, I have consistently focused on self-care as an integral piece of domestic violence-informed case practice. When working with families to improve the lives of children we are often confronted with extraordinary pain and suffering. The harm perpetrating parents create for their children and caregiving parents is also harmful for us. We see firsthand the emotional and physical injuries and scars that coercive control leaves in its wake and we are too impacted. Some of us are aware of that impact, while others falsely believe we can be repeatedly exposed to something so dreadful and simply “leave work at work”. Although in the short term we may feel this is possible and maybe even helpful, the reality is that denial of our own impact negatively impacts us personally and professionally. Often our domestic violence case practice, in particularly our ability to partner with adult survivors, suffers.
Recently, while facilitating a training with social workers and social work supervisors, I was struck by the depth and intensity of their response to a guided conversation about how fear and exposure to others’ trauma impacts case practice. I was sharing with them two particular interactions I had with a DCFSW that guided how I began to integrate self-care consultations. In preparation for one particular home visit a social worker insisted that this mother “just doesn’t get it!”. This was common language for this social worker, who really struggled with domestic violence cases. She disliked these cases and truly struggled with how to work with both perpetrating and caregiving parents. In my experience, “She just doesn’t get it” usually meant mother was not presenting in an expected or stereotypical manner. The default position often was she must not understand the severity and seriousness of the coercive control. This particular mother had been severely strangled, to the point that when we met with her about 10 days later there were still visible bruises on her throat. During the assault her seven-year old daughter had heard noises and entered the room. Seeing her mother’s boyfriend pinning her on the bed and strangling her, the little girl ran out of the home screaming for help which caused a neighbor calling 911, resulting mother being saved. The perpetrator was arrested, incarcerated and unable to make bail.
As we sat with the woman, she talked some about the assault but much more about the relationship. She did so calmly and directly. She did not pretend there were no issues nor did she deny her pain. She provided clear and abundant information about his pattern of coercive control and tools she had used to ensure her children’s safety and well-being. The absence of emotion was clear and so I asked her about what she saw and heard at home as a child. Often times, in my years of experience, adult victims/survivors of childhood abuse, have normalized those experiences. So, when directly victimized again as adults, they can present less distressed and emotionally expressive than other adult survivors. This does not mean they enjoy it or seek it out. It simply means the shock of it is less and so the presentation differs. This mother shared with us that she had been exposed to her father, stepfather and one of her mom’s boyfriends physically assaulting her. She continued to share that her Mom was the strongest woman she knew. Her words told me she only saw her mother as strong and not as anyone’s victim. This meant she too would identify with a position of strength not vulnerability or victimization. In and of itself, seeing one’s self as strong is a strength. Unfortunately, in child protection cases it is often misinterpreted as a lack of understanding of the harmful impact exposure to domestic violence has on children. Specifically in this case, despite her calm demeanor, this mother was open to learning about impact of domestic violence. She was also willing to support her children in getting outside help if they needed or wanted it, or if the department recommended it. A safety plan was developed with, and signed by, mother.
On the drive home I asked the social worker how she felt it went and she said she felt okay about it but the mother “Still doesn’t get it”. Since that was not at all my experience, I asked her what specifically made her believe that. Again she told me that she had spoken to mother directly about the perpetrator’s danger to her and her children and mother did not understand her concerns. I asked her what exactly she said to mother. She yelled “I told her ‘What part of he is going to come back here and kill you and wipe out your whole family don’t you get?!’”. I paused, then asked if she yelled it at mother like that too. She informed me that she yelled at mother exactly like she just did, maybe even more loudly. I told her to pull the car over and we sat on the side of the road and processed many of her feelings about this case. I asked her what part of yelling at the client was helpful for her. She thought for a bit, then smiled at me and said that judging by what I was saying and the look on my face she thought it probably wasn’t. This gave us both a bit of comic relief that allowed us to continue talking about mother, the perpetrator and mother’s childhood abuse. We spoke directly of the woman’s willingness and ability to safety plan and how those actions and the social worker’s accurate assessment of mother’s ability to keep children safe were the keys to child safety and well-being.
Fast forward to a few months later, this same social worker and I are on our way to another home visit. As always,in the car, I asked what she hoped to get from this visit and how I could support her. She responded that she wanted to be sure she did not make a safety plan that punished this domestic violence survivor because she really believed in her parenting skills and the protective factors she had been making to keep her baby safe. She stated her concern was that the mother was living with the father and paternal grandparents. The social worker was not convinced grandparents would intervene if father’s violence escalated. I assured her that she, the mother and I would work together on a plan that would not punish her. I also validated her goal of partnering with the mother from a strength-based position was a positive one.
I then asked her, “What are you afraid of?” Even today, I am unsure what prompted me to ask her about her fear, this was not something I had done before, not with her, not with any social workers in my office. Her response was “Today or in general?” I was struck by the question as I had not even considered fear in general but I was able to respond “Both, let’s start with today”. She repeated her fear about punishing Mom and we went over that again.
When I asked her about her fear in general, she stated something that forever changed my domestic violence consultation practice. She grew more quiet and slumped in her seat. She said “I am afraid I am going to be the one who makes a safety plan for this mother that gets her killed.” I will never forget it or how I felt when I heard her honest words. I had not thought of her previous victim-blaming and frustration toward mothers as fear-driven. Yet, seeing, hearing and feeling her raw emotion, it became crystal clear.
I immediately apologized for not having asked about her fear sooner. I told her I wished I had a skill, tool or anything that would guarantee this mother, or any mother, would not be murdered. The reality was that the only thing we have, if/when a batterer utilizing coercive control makes the choice to try to kill his partner is the hope that he fails in his attempt and we can then intervene. The perpetrator is solely to blame for his actions, not the mother nor us. We talked about how partnering with a caregiving parent on a solid safety plan is something we can do to assist her and the children. I also shared with her that as a domestic violence advocate I had lived through the murder of a client and if that was something she ever had to face, I would do all I could to provide support and share the ways I coped. I thanked her for being honest and we continued on to meet the mother at the home.
Once there I watched her partner with this domestic violence survivor in a way I had never seen her do. When we returned to the car she thanked me for helping her with that plan because she felt it was a good one. I laughed and told her it was all her and the mother. I commented on my experience of the visit. I had introduced myself and my role but then simply observed social worker and the mother create the plan. All I did was watch and validate. Initially, she was resistant to this perspective, yet when we reflected over the visit she was able to see that it was indeed all her and the mother partnering together for the safety and well-being of the children. With her fear expressed and some honest support she was able to navigate her domestic violence case practice in a new, empowered and more effective manner.
It was not a miracle cure, but it was a pivotal moment for this social worker and it shifted how I practiced within my office. I was able to look back and see office-wide domestic violence case practice differently. I stopped waiting for workers to bring their fear to me, I would ask directly, “What are you afraid of for these children? For this family? For yourself?” Assessing for their fear and impact became an integral piece of my practice. I committed to creating a safe space for them to acknowledge fear, which allowed them to clear up emotional and critical thinking capacity in the space where fear had settled. They were able to build new skills and focus their energy on case practice that supported child safety and well-being. When given the opportunity to talk safely, they were able to lessen the fear that clouded their judgement on domestic violence cases. This allowed them to open to new and creative ways to work with families living with domestic violence. When we are unaware of fear it can truly wreak havoc on our decision-making skills. In domestic violence case practice, it makes it more difficult to differentiate between cases with homicide indicators and cases where those indicators are not present. If we are hyper-alert because we are afraid every case is going to be the case where a perpetrator kills the caregiving parent, we make it almost impossible to create child-centered partnership. If we rant at a mother because we are afraid, we are engaging in domestic violence destructive case-practice and we miss opportunities to partner in a way that focuses on child safety and well-being. If our secondary trauma is unexpressed and/or invalidated we meet each case with “here we go again”, and we miss key assessment information and partnering opportunities. Our fear and its impact cause us to miss information or assess information inaccurately, as we are focused on what we are afraid of and not the unique pieces of the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control.
As a Safe and Together Model Trainer, when I work with groups and openly discuss the issue of fear and impact of our work on case practice, there are always powerful interactions. Workers and supervisors share their own experiences. There are some times tears and always mutual acknowledgment that fear and its impact are real. Workers share past and current experiences and we openly talk about how decisions based in fear are harmful. I have yet to meet a single word or exchange spoken in resistance to the importance of self-care as it relates specifically to domestic violence- informed case practice. In fact, the opposite occurs. I hear many expressions of thanks. In the recent group when several people were openly shedding tears, I offered to stop if it was too uncomfortable. I was quickly reassured that the tears were because it hit so close to home and was needed, so I was asked to please keep going.
And keep going we must. We must stop hiding our fear. Domestic violence case work within child protection services is hard and scary work. It is also important and much needed work. We cannot take the fear out but we can create space to speak it and work through it and we must do that as we continue to work toward more empowered domestic violence-informed case practice.
Beth Ann Morhardt is a Safe and Together Institute faculty member. She trains and provides case consultations in the US and abroad. You can follow Beth Ann’s personal on Twitter account @bethannempower .