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Avoiding victim blaming language in social work practice with domestic abuse

The impact of language when working with victims of domestic abuse was the focus of a joint session at the Social Work Show in Manchester.

29/10/22

Avoiding victim blaming language in social work practice with domestic abuse

Leanne Droogan and Beth Hudson, Social Workers with Wigan Council, discussed non-victim blaming language in a trauma-informed approach.

“Words that come to mind when we think about how a victim of abuse of domestic abuse may feel: fearful, trapped, coerced, abused, belittled, judged, isolated, frightened, controlled, unsafe, and manipulated,” Ms Droogan said. "Yet we continue to expect them to make disclosures, make decisions, take control, and protect and implement safety for themselves."

“As practitioners, we need to be clear about what we expect of them. Is it achievable? How do we bring it about safely for the victim and the children?”

Both said that the term ‘victim’ is problematic. Beth Hudson said that for someone experiencing domestic abuse, “to start to think of themselves as a victim can itself be really traumatic. So from the start, we need to recognise that actually just reconciling those experiences can be really difficult. There's a huge motivation of fear.”

She said that fear of the abuser is an obvious issue but social workers ‘also need to think what fears we may induce. “We rock up and we want to talk about all these experiences, [but] domestic abuse quite often is shrouded in secrecy, shame, guilt; it happens behind closed doors. When we want to lift the lid on that and talk about it, that is really scary, and actually quite dangerous in some circumstances.

“Research tells us that when we're working with individuals who have experienced abuse, it can have a huge impact on their parenting. [It affects] their capacity, their emotional availability, their physical availability, but also actually how able are they to meet their children's day-to-day needs? Are there limitations on finances? Are they prohibited from going to health appointments, from leaving the home, from engaging with professionals or going to school meetings?”

Physical reactions have a major effect too. Where there is domestic abuse, the brain’s stress response is constantly triggered but never progresses to the stages of resolution and rest.

“Constant stress messes up the predictions of what is and what isn't scary, and [the brain] starts to send false alarms.”

Alongside awareness of potential triggers, Ms Droogan said, “we must use our professional curiosity to explore their experiences. [Social workers] are very good at gathering information to think about what happens next. What we are not very good at is the analysis, of really thinking about what’s going on and using that slow thinking and reflection, to really understand the lived experience of the victim and the children.”

The way professionals respond to victims can lead to secondary abuse, such as in the language they use in writing up case files.

“When those files are requested in court, documenting language that makes that victim complicit to their own abuse -- words like provoke, or minimising, or ‘she's denying that there's domestic abuse’. It is going to result in the defence using that language in order to reduce that sentence for that individual. We as practitioners don't want to be responsible for somebody's not getting justice for the abuse that they've suffered.

“If we're using victim-blaming language people will not feel safe enough to be able to access those services to increase safety and reduce the harm. Because particularly if we're using language that then labels and puts that blame on to them… it's going to continue the trauma.

Ms Droogan concluded, “We must be mindful of how we are talking about the people we’re working with. Language is really important, taking the emphasis off the victim and placing it on the person that is showing the abusive behaviours. And the impact of non-victim blaming language is that it allows them to access the correct support. [That means] asking people how they see themselves reflected in assessments. We want to see that they recognise themselves in their own assessments, that they recognise themselves in the plans, and that it's meaningful to them and their families. And that actually, we are being led by them. We are not doing to, we're doing with.”

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