Introduction – Domestic violence in the social sector

Learning objectives

The aim of this section is to give an overview of the different indirect signs of violence, and also to provide information on how to identify clients who have been victims of domestic violence. Another subject is how to support them appropriately. The learning materials are not tailored to the individual situation of different countries; they include rather generic cases that will need local adaptation.


Domestic violence causes physical injuries as well as mental health problems, fear, distress and loss of self-confidence. It causes the feeling of lack of control over one’s body, shame and hopelessness. Victims often leave and return several times before permanently separating from the abuser (Okun, 1986). Women in abusive relationships often report that their partner’s controlling behaviour is more distressing than the physical violence (Bancroft, 2002, Stark, 2007). Victims of domestic violence often need help and support for economic security, safe housing, options for counselling and therapy, as well as guaranteed safety for their children.


Bancroft, L. (2002). Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group.

Okun, L. (1986). Woman abuse: Facts replacing myths. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

IMPRODOVA: What happens when you contact a women’s shelter?

The video demonstrates the procedure in women’s shelters in cases of domestic violence.

Case Study: How social services can support investigations of domestic violence

A woman called the police because her husband has beaten her up. The public prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal procedure because of light physical battery – according to her injuries. A few hours later, after she had gone to a secret shelter, her physical condition deteriorates. A social worker talks to the victim about the now visible severity of injuries. With the victim’s consent, the director of the shelter calls an ambulance and takes photos of the injuries and sends them to the police, because he assumes that, based on the injuries, the crime is more severe than light battery. As the victim is willing to share the information with the police, he is legally allowed to do so. The court, based on the medical report, secured medical evidence, the photos sent by the shelter re-qualified the case as an attempt of homicide. Sometimes proactive action by Social Services is indispensable when dealing with domestic violence cases. They are in close contact with the victim and therefore have important information that could support the investigation. They can help the authorities not only in documenting the injuries in a timely manner, but also by sharing information about the case that the victims are unlikely to have passed on to the police or other frontline responders. Social workers are an important part of interorganisational help networks.

Secret shelters receive domestic violence clients through referrals from call centres or crisis ambulances.


(1) Which additional assistance can be provided to the woman by the social sector?
(2) What information is important to provide to the woman so that she can assess her situation in the best possible way?
(3) Where do you see the greatest challenges for the victim in the coming weeks and how would you meet them?
(4) How would you react if the woman told you during your conversation that she would like to return to her husband?

The answers to those tasks can be found in the following section.

The male perpetrator, against whom proceedings for slight bodily harm were initiated by the public prosecutor’s office, has a criminal record for the consumption of illegal substances. Due to the newly introduced evidence (photos and documentation of the woman’s injuries) in the preliminary proceedings, the public prosecutor’s office now gives the order to arrest the man in the course of the prepared charge of attempted murder. The man is arrested and taken to the local prison. Pre-trial detention is finally imposed due to the risk of a crime being committed, and he is now initially in custody for two weeks. After the initial interview, the social workers in charge contact the victim protection agency in order to clarify any prohibition of contact. In accordance with the legal provisions for victim protection, they would like to report to the victim protection agency, when and if he will be released. The magistrate thinks that it would rather be a case of grievous bodily harm and finally decides to release him from custody due to the victim’s safe accommodation and the man’s cooperative behaviour during the custody hearing. However, after contacting the supervising social workers, who consider the case to be very risky, a provisional probation order is issued. Shortly before the man is released from custody, the social workers contact the probation service in order to ensure a seamless transition from custody to further care. The man is closely supervised by the probation office until the main hearing.


(5) What factors should be taken into account when working with the perpetrator? Which risk factors should be considered by which institution?
(6) What do you do if, in your last conversation before his release, the man tells you that he wants to take revenge on the woman for the fact that he has now been in custody?
(7) What other conditions and orders, apart from probation assistance, are possible in the course of the man’s release?
(8) Consider possible scenarios after his release: what happens, for example, if the man contacts the woman? 

For more case studies and scenario-based learning click here.

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is an abuse of power within a domestic relationship, between relatives or ex-partners. It involves one person dominating or controlling another, causing intimidation or fear, or both. Domestic violence is often experienced as a pattern of abuse that escalates over time.

It is not necessarily physical and can include:

  • sexual abuse
  • emotional or psychological abuse
  • verbal abuse
  • threatening with violence
  • controlling and regulating victim’s everyday behaviour
  • negligence (especially for child or elderly abuse)
  • spiritual abuse
    • including forcing someone to attend religious activities, stopping the person from taking part in their religious or cultural practices, misusing spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to justify abuse and violence
  • stalking and intimidation, including using technology
  • social and geographic isolation
  • financial abuse
  • cruelty to pets
  • damage to property

Power and Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP)

The Power and Control Wheel illustrates the most common abusive behaviors and tactics.

Understanding the Power and Control Wheel

Module 1 provides detailed information on the forms and dynamics of domestic violence.

Forms of violence

Physical violence describes any use of physical force or threat to use physical force which compels the victim to do or to abandon something, to suffer, to restrict or to move her/him. It causes pain, fear or humiliation, regardless whether an actual injury was caused.

Psychological violence is the conduct and dissemination of information by which the perpetrator of violence causes fear, humiliation, feelings of inferiority, danger, and other psychological distress in the victim, even when committed by using information and communication technology.

Sexual violence is the conduct of sexual content that the victim does not consent to, is coerced into, or, because of their level of development, does not understand their meaning. It includes the threat of sexual violence and the public disclosure of sexual content about the victim.

Verbal violence is part of psychological violence. It includes everything said by the perpetrator to or about the victim in order to harm him or her.

Economic violence is the unjustified control or restriction of a victim by disposing of income or property with which the victim independently disposes or manages, or by unjustifiably restricting the disposition or management of joint property of family members, unjustified failure to fulfil financial or property obligations to a family member, or unjustified shifting financial or property liabilities to a family member.

Neglect is a form of violence where the perpetrator abandons the due care of the victim, which is needed due to illness, disability, age, developmental or other personal circumstances.

Stalking is a wilful repeated unwanted contact, pursuit, physical intrusion, observation, restraint in places where the victim moves or other forms of unwanted intrusion into the victim’s life.

Cautionary signs of violence that might refer to violence in a family

The Client

  • is restless, distracted, confused
  • forgets or postpones appointments
  • is isolated, does not have a wide social network
  • is permanently tired or depressed
  • is angry and impatient
  • is consuming more drugs (alcohol, drug, pills) than previously,
  • reports symptoms that can be related to PTSD (e.g., insomnia, pain, nightmares)

Module 2 discusses indicators of domestic violence in more detail.

How to talk to your client about domestic violence

In any situation that you suspect underlying psychosocial problems, you can ask about domestic violence indirectly or directly. If you have concerns that your client is experiencing domestic violence, you should ask to speak with them alone, separate from their partner or any other family members. It is important to understand that the victim very often blames herself/himself or tries to protect the perpetrator. If a situation makes you suspicious, you can always ask broad questions about whether your client’s relationships are affecting their health and wellbeing. Listen to them non-judgmentally and back them up.

For example:

  • ‘How are things at home?’
  • ‘How are you and your partner (or other family members) getting along?’
  • ‘How do you argue when you are at home?’/’Can you disagree with your partner?’
  • ‘Is there anything else happening which might be affecting your health?’

It is important to realise that some victims, who have been abused, want to be asked about domestic violence. They give hints and are more likely to disclose if they are being asked in a safe environment. If appropriate, you can ask direct questions about any violence.

For example:

  • ‘Are you afraid when you are at home?’/‘Are there ever times when you are frightened of your partner (or other family members)?’
  • ‘Are you concerned about your safety or the safety of your children?’
  • ‘Does the way your partner (or other family members) treats you make you feel unhappy or depressed?’
  • ‘Has your partner (or other family members) ever verbally intimidated or hurt you?’
  • ‘Has your partner (or other family members) ever physically threatened or hurt you?’
  • ‘Has your partner (or other family members) forced you to have sex when you didn’t want it?’
  • ‘Violence at home is very common. I ask a lot of my clients about abuse, because no one should have to live in fear of their partner.’

If you see specific clinical symptoms and you are sure that your suspicions are correct, you can ask specific questions about them (e.g. bruising). These could include:

  • ‘You seem very anxious and nervous. Is everything alright at home?’
  • ‘When I look at your injuries, I wonder if someone could have hurt you?’
  • ‘Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that might be contributing to this condition?’

How to talk to victims of domestic violence is the subject of module 3. For more information, please visit this module.

Responding to a disclosure

Your immediate response and attitude when your client discloses domestic violence can make a difference. Victims require an initial response to disclosure: they need somebody to listen to them, back them up and ensure their children’s safety. They also need to be assisted on a pathway to safety.

  • Believe the client, do not question the narrative.
  • Do not give direct advise or orders what to do.
  • Do not make decisions for your client, but always with her or him.
  • Do not try to mediate between the parties or solve the situation in any other ways.
  • Encourage the victim and raise him or her a perspective beyond the present conditions.


Being properly listened to can be an empowering experience for a victim who has been abused. The key aspect of proper listening is a non-judgmental attitude. Acknowledge that the victim is the expert on the subject of his/her own life and his/her experiences. He/she should not be pushed into making decisions.

Communicate believing them

‘That must have been frightening for you.’

Validate the decision to disclose

‘I understand it could be very difficult for you to talk about this.’

Emphasise the unacceptability of violence, but do not judge the perpetrator

‘Violence is unacceptable. You do not deserve to be treated this way.’

Be clear that the victim is not to blame

Avoid suggesting that your client is responsible for the violence or that they can control the violence by changing their behaviour.

Do not ask questions that might raise the victims’ stress and sense of powerlessness

  • ‘Why don’t you leave?’
  • ‘What could you have done to avoid this situation?’
  • ‘Why did he/she hit you?’

Aspects that should be considered after the disclosure of domestic violence, such as support services of the social sector, are addressed in module 4. Find more information on risk assessment and safety planning in module 5. International standards and legal frameworks in Europe are discussed in more detail in module 6. Module 7 provides more information on inter-organisational cooperation and risk assessment in cases of domestic violence in multi-professional teams.