Counseling Today, Member Insights

Screening for possible domestic abuse

Susan H. Robinson October 24, 2011

A Columbus, Ohio, mother and her two children are stabbed to death. A mother and grandmother is beaten and shot to death in Newark, Ohio. A Logan, Ohio, mother with three children under the age of 6 is kidnapped and strangled; her body is dumped in a sewer. The commonalities? Each of the women was from central Ohio, and all were attacked at their home or work. Estranged boyfriends or husbands are facing charges in each case.

These cases happen to have taken place in my county or counties adjoining mine, but many people reading this article will likely be able to recount numerous cases with similar tragic endings that happened in their own localities. The details may vary, but almost all of the cases involve women and children with lives, hopes and dreams that are dashed because someone decided to go overboard in an obsession with power and control.

Many victims and potential victims of domestic abuse have sought help from various sources, including professional counselors. In numerous other cases, friends and family members have expressed concern. It is important for members of our profession to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and to utilize that knowledge whenever possible to reduce the incidence of violent outcomes. We also need to be aware that this violence occurs in traditional and nontraditional family settings, among gay couples and among straight couples. The violence can be parent-to-child, child-to-parent and all other possible variations.

I grew up in an era in which most considered abuse a private matter. My nosy parents taught me otherwise. As an attorney, my father heard stories from his clients and made it clear to me that this behavior was not to be tolerated. Because this was the 1960s, knowledge of the signs of a potential abuser was essentially nonexistent.

Lenore Walker conducted groundbreaking research on the dynamics of abuse, and her first major publication was released in 1978. What followed was mountains of research and the shelter movement taking hold, so this issue became general public knowledge. Or so we thought.

As an adjunct psychology professor at a community college, I routinely include a section on the dynamics of domestic and intimate partner abuse in my courses. This is not a part of the standard curriculum, although some texts do incorporate information on the subject. The Ohio State University has its own policy on domestic and intimate partner violence; my school has drafted a policy that is scheduled to be reviewed for approval Nov. 1.

I started teaching a few months after my distant cousin was murdered. Realizing that it is not in my character to get a huge program started, I looked at that first class and decided, “I can reach these 35 people.” The response has been both heartwarming and scary. I have been told and learned through class papers that various students realized the danger of a situation for the first time after I taught on the subject. One of my students reached out to help a best friend who was in serious danger. I have heard horrific stories of people who lost their lives because of inaction. And people have shared with me how they found the courage to reclaim their own lives.

As a counselor, I am adamant about screening for possible abuse. Clients have come to me indicating they were victims. I have even had some clients who admitted abusing others, took responsibility and indicated a desire to stop. (In those cases, post-traumatic stress disorder was involved, and the problem was very quickly resolved.) It is equally common, however, for clients to recite details that indicate clear abuse patterns, while simultaneously denying the existence of abuse in their relationships. This is when I bring out the Power and Control Wheel, the Wheel of Equality and Respect, the cycle of violence and a list of signs of a potential abuser — the type of information I obtained during my initial attendance at a support group. It is not new information.

Two events were seminal in my becoming so active in this field. The first was my own misguided romance, the second my distant cousin’s death. I met my cousin only once. She had recently married and mentioned having “fallen and broken her nose” two days before the wedding ceremony. Three weeks after our meeting, she was dead.

In my case, I became involved with an extremely (more like insanely) jealous and verbally abusive partner. When I expressed concern to a counselor about the level of jealousy, I was told, “We’ll process that.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize the jealousy as a sign of a potential abuser or his verbal attacks as actual abuse. Yes, I knew it was unacceptable behavior, but I had no idea it could be the precursor to or a sign of serious danger. When we (predictably) broke up, I was blindsided. Safety planning had never occurred to me, yet I wound up leaving my own home, first for several individual nights, then staying with various friends over a two-week period until he vacated. To do otherwise would have meant putting my life at risk.

After the dust ultimately settled, I contacted Ohio’s Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. The staff member who took my call indicated there definitely would be a meeting about establishing mandatory course work on domestic and intimate partner violence. That was in 1995.

I didn’t begin my own graduate studies until September 2001, eight days prior to the infamous terrorist attacks. Never was there any required course work pertaining to the subject of domestic and intimate partner violence. (I took the only elective I saw offered at the time on treating abusers.) At one point, I was even chastised for bringing the matter up. I garnered infinitely more domestic violence/intimate partner violence information from one hour at a support group sponsored by CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence than I did from my three years in graduate school. This is shameful.

Victims seek counseling every day in huge numbers, although they often start out unaware that abuse is an underlying issue for them. Many counselors are veterans of continuing education courses on the subject and read prolifically, providing the expertise these clients deserve. On the other hand, a shocking number of counselors take these victims on as clients when they truly have no idea what they are doing. Many even conduct couples counseling with these clients, further endangering the victims. Clearly, no counselor can be expected to become an expert in everything she or he might encounter. We do, however, have a responsibility to know when to make educated referrals.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel as counselors. In Ohio, nurses have a protocol they are required to follow whenever someone presents in the emergency room — a series of questions they have no choice but to ask. Counselors who do not work in a shelter setting have no such legal guidelines, however.

Nursing is surely not the only profession with such a protocol. Mental health professionals who work in shelter situations are no doubt well-informed and could be a good resource for the rest of us. Screening for domestic and/or intimate partner abuse needs to become a national counselor mandate.

It will save lives. Absolutely.

Susan H. Robinson is a professional counselor who practices in Ohio. Contact her  at

Letters to the editor: