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How to help domestic violence clients during shelter-in-place situations

By Federico Carmona April 13, 2020

It’s heartbreaking to read the variety of articles circulating about vulnerable people trapped at home with their abusers because of shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, experience reminds us of a concerning reality that is typical of these uncertain times: Adverse labor market conditions are positively related to domestic violence. Research conducted after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the Great Recession of 2008 found that economic crises have significant negative effects on the quality of intimate relationships and parenting in working families. Marital conflict, abuse (particularly violent controlling behavior), and a decline in parenting quality are among the harmful effects in families of a macroeconomic downturn.

In my role as a trauma therapist, I have seen dozens of domestic violence clients during clinical intakes and in counseling. I have also read a multitude of articles on the subject about studies and reports from different parts of the world. Shelter-in-place mandates aren’t a good thing for women and children who are the targets of abuse. The anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty of these times can cause negative emotions to churn, leading to behaviors that increase the already-concerning number of domestic violence and child abuse cases. There is no “how-to” manual to deal with the current situation, of course, but the safety of this vulnerable population demands us to do our best.

How can the counseling community help domestic violence clients who are trapped at home with their abusers? I offer a few suggestions:

Reach out between appointments/sessions. One of the critical signs of abuse is the isolation of victims of domestic violence from their networks of love and support. An occasional check-in from us can empower these clients to tell us more about their situations and perhaps even dissuade their abusers from further violence as we keep checking in.

Listen, just listen. People experiencing domestic violence need an empathic ear — someone who will allow them to vent their repressed emotions and feelings without judgment. We are not to offer advice, only listen and empathize. It’s just time to build trust.

Validate clients’ feelings, emotions and beliefs even when they don’t make sense. The best way to build trust with clients experiencing domestic violence is by being present with them. We’re present with them through our vicarious empathy, active listening and compassionate validation. Our empathy is vicarious because it takes an emotional toll to connect with someone’s anguish and suffering. Active listening requires us to be disciplined enough to fully concentrate on what the client is saying rather than on the answer that we might have in mind to their situation. Clients experiencing domestic violence require validation — compassionate validation — because many times, their decisions (or lack of them), circumstances and beliefs don’t make sense to us.

Introduce them to mindfulness exercises. Clients experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they’re worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of and control the incipient abuse. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear.

Mindfulness can help these clients become aware of their emotions, thoughts and bodies to take control of them and find much-needed relaxation. Meditation exercises shouldn’t necessarily be long. There are plenty of sites online with short, simple exercises, from breathing to stretching, that can help clients gain the bodily and emotional awareness they need to function.

Remind clients of their strengths and qualities. One of the benefits of practicing active listening is the ability to notice in clients’ stories what they have forgotten about themselves: their own power, qualities and strengths. By doing this, we help clients not only to survive their circumstances but also to move toward a better future as survivors of domestic violence who deserve lives of meaning and purpose.

Help clients to start a project. Because of shelter-in-place mandates, more perpetrators of abuse are at home all of the time. This increases the emotional state of “walking on eggshells” for domestic violence clients. We can help distract these clients from that state by brainstorming with them or suggesting a project to them. It could be an individual project based on their abilities, strengths and qualities that we noticed in their stories, or it could be a project that involves their children.

Assist clients in making a safety plan. Making a safety plan is incredibly useful. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy. The simplest way of doing this is by helping these clients become aware of their circumstances (call the problem what it is — domestic violence). The rest of the plan might involve:

  • Trying to avoid conflicts and arguments during the mandated confinement
  • Involving their children in most of their home activities
  • Reaching out to relatives and trusted friends (when possible)
  • Being prepared to leave at any moment (i.e., having money, documents, car keys, children’s backpacks filled with some clothes and snacks ready to go)
  • Calling 911 when they feel that they or their children are in danger (even in a shelter-in-place situation, law enforcement will issue an emergency protective order to separate victims from their abusers)

Involve others. We can help our clients experiencing domestic violence to think about the resources they possess to deal with their situation. One of these resources could be men who are part of the couple’s life in some way (e.g., clergy, friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, teachers, bosses).

When families and friends get involved, perpetrators of abuse can sometimes be dissuaded from causing harm to their partners and children. The presence of fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends prompts accountability. Some of these individuals might be willing to offer their support and speak up against the ongoing abuse. Victims of domestic violence can only break their silence and become survivors if they feel supported. We need to be cautious, however, and see each client in their particular context, giving consideration to whether this type of intervention could put them in more danger than they already are.

Help clients build a network of support. Isolation is one of the most critical signs of abuse. It creates a hated dependency on the abuser. Imposed isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are pushed away. Connections are the simplest way to beat domestic violence. It is critical that victims of domestic violence get reconnected with relationships they trust. It is also crucial to get these clients connected with other survivors of domestic violence (via online groups) so they can claim their victory and begin the journey of healing from the trauma caused by the abuse.

Inspire clients to pursue self-sufficiency. Studies show that when women’s wages are relative to those of men in dual-income couples, there is a significant reduction in domestic violence. To be self-sufficient is to have bargaining power. It’s to have the ability to exert influence in the relationship. There are public resources designated to help survivors of domestic violence pursue further training and education with the purpose of becoming self-sufficient. Check with social services agencies about these resources.

These recommendations aren’t intended to override the urgency of calling 911 when someone is facing a clear and present danger at home. Let law enforcement personnel figure out how they will bring individuals and families to safety during shelter-in-place situations. Emergency protective orders are being issued even with the courts closed.

 

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Federico Carmona is a trauma therapist for victims of domestic and sexual violence at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The experience of domestic abuse in his ministry and his own family motivated him to seek specialization in clinical counseling, specifically in trauma, to assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence to reclaim their identity, peace, and lives with dignity and purpose. Contact him at federico@peaceoverviolence.org.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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