This module presents the different ways of asking about domestic violence in situations where you suspect the presence of domestic violence. Furthermore, first steps after the disclosure of domestic violence are presented.
IMPRODOVA: How to respond to a disclosure
Framework conditions for a conversation on domestic violence
First of all: don’t be afraid to help, even if you don’t know exactly what to do in a specific situation. The important thing is to communicate with the victim in the first place:
- Confirmation that one believes the victim
- Validation of the disclosure decision
- Emphasis on the unacceptability of violence
- Make it clear that the victim is not to blame
- Do not ask questions that could cause stress and a feeling of powerlessness in the victim
Interviewing victims of domestic violence should always be combined with effective intervention, including a supportive response, appropriate care as needed and referral to, for example, the health system or other support services.
How to talk to a victim
Make time for the victim
- Choose a calm and cosy place. Make sure you have the time to listen to the victim if she/he decides to disclose or tell the whole story.
- It is important to raise a suspicion in a sphere of trust. This should happen alone with the victim in a room without disturbance. It is useful, if the person who talks to the victim has the same sex. It is important to be careful and emphatic.
- Let the victim know that you are there to help. Offer a sympathetic ear, and make sure the victim understands you are concerned with her/his safety. Don’t rush the process.
Don’t be judgemental
- Give the victim the full opportunity to speak up. You want to get a good picture of the situation, so you’d better not make comments on what the victim presents. If questions arise, they must be clarifying ones. Questions inducing some kind of criticism must be avoided.
- Let the victims know this is a judgment-free conversation. Offer your support and provide ways to get help. Help them look into available resources. If they’re not ready to talk about it, don’t force it. It’s important to recognize the right time. Encouragement helps.
- Always be open, honest, non-judgmental, empathetic and supportive.
Be aware of the warning signs
- Many victims try to cover up the abuses. You need to be aware of the indicators that could be a possible hint for abuse.
Believe the victim
- … even if the victim’s story seems built up and unreal.
Validate the victim’s feelings
- Sometimes, victims express conflicting feelings about their partner and their situation (guilt vs. anger; hope vs. despair; love vs. fear). Let the victim know that having these conflicting feelings is common (normal). But, at the same time, you should stress that violence is not okay, and it is not okay to live in constant fear of being attacked or hurt. Even if the victim presents reasons for her/his staying with the offender, when fear is present it means the relationship isn’t healthy.
- Without judging, tell the victim that her/his situation is dangerous, and that you’re concerned for her/his safety.
How to talk to a victim
In general, it is useful to use “I-Messages” and other non-violent communication methods. It can be used specifically to solve ambivalences of a victim during the counselling or in case of less time for counselling.
Ask directly about the violence e.g. “Have you been slapped?”
You could start with:
- “I know many women have problems facing violence by their partners or other family members. Could it be, that this is the same in your case?”
- “I now it is difficult to talk about family problems, but I am worried about you.”
Assure the victim she/he is not alone, and that you are not going to be judgemental. E.g.:
- „I know this is difficult to discuss, but you can talk to me about anything.“
- „You are not alone. I’m here for you, no matter what.“
- „You are not responsible for what’s going on.“
- „No matter what you did, you don’t deserve this.“
Express your concern for the victim’s safety
It is important to help the victim recognise the abuse while acknowledging the difficulty of her/his situation. So, don’t be afraid to let the victim know you are worried.
- „I see what’s going on, and I want to help you.“
- „You don’t deserve to be treated that way. Good partners/ family members don’t say – or do – those kinds of things.“
- „I’m worried about your safety, and afraid you’ll get really hurt if there is a next time.“
- „Please, know that if you need to talk, you can always come to me.“
If the victim is not ready to talk about the situation, do not force it. Recognise the right time and let the victim know about it.
- „I’m here to help, and I’m always available, even I understand that you don’t want to talk about it now.“
- „Remember that you’re not alone. I’ll be here for you when you’re ready.“
Let the victim make his/her own decisions
Avoid making judgments about the victim’s ability to make decisions, thus preventing that she/he loses confidence in you. Encouragement and asking is the key.
- „I want to help you. What can I do to support you?“
- „How can I help to protect your safety?“
Provide ways to get help
Help the victim listing available resources (state agencies, NGOs, family members, friends, neighbours).
- „Here is the number to your local domestic violence office. They can help with shelter and counselling.“
- „Let’s develop a safety plan.“
What not to say or do to a domestic violence victim
Although there is no right or wrong way to help a domestic violence victim,
- Bash the abuser. Focus on the behaviour, not the personality;
- Blame the victim. That is what the abuser usually does;
- Underestimate the potential danger for the victim and yourself;
- Promise any help that you can’t follow through with;
- Give conditional support;
- Do anything that might prorogue the abuser;
- Pressure the victim;
- Give up. If she/he is not willing to open up at first, be patient;
- Do anything to make it more difficult for the victim.
Responding to a disclosure
Assessment of the needs and concerns of the victim
When listening to the victim’s story, special attention should be paid to what he or she says about his or her needs and concerns – and what is not said but hinted at with words or body language. You can inform the victim about physical, emotional or economic needs, about the security concerns or social support he or she needs. The following techniques can be used to help the victim express his or her needs and to make sure that you are understanding:
Questions should be formulated as invitations to speak.
“What would you like to talk about?”
Open questions should be asked to encourage the victim to talk instead of saying yes or no.
“What do you think?”
What the victim says should be repeated to check your own understanding.
“You mentioned that you feel very frustrated.”
The victim’s feelings should be reflected.
“It sounds as if you are angry about this…”
The victim should be helped to identify and express their needs and concerns.
“Is there something you need or are worried about?”
What the victim has expressed should be summarized.
“You seem to be saying that…”
There should be no suggestive questions like
“I imagine that upsets you, doesn’t it?”
No “why” questions should be asked, such as
“Why did you do that?”
It might sound reproachful.
The victim should understand that his or her feelings are normal, that it is safe to express them and that he or she has a right to live without violence and fear.
- Believe victim’s experience, being the victim of violence is not the victim’s fault.
- Help is available both for the victim and the person responsible for violence, offer information about supports available.
- Be respectful and build trust.
- Take the victim seriously.
- Take attention and listen to the victim. Active listening for example means paraphrasing and active body language.
- Be empathic. Appreciate the victim’s experiences. Signalize that there is no excuse for violent behaviour.
- Lay off the pressure.
- Be patient and take time.
- Don’t advice like “You should definitely get divorced”.
- Convicting or condemning statements such as “Why didn’t you leave your husband long ago?” or “Why are you …didn’t come earlier?”.
Use of an interpreter
If the victim’s language skills are an obstacle to discussing these issues, a qualified interpreter or representative of the local Domestic Violence Unit should be used. This person should be of the same sex as the victim and sign a confidentiality agreement. During the conversation, the victim should be looked at and talked to. The patient’s partner, other family members or children should not be used as interpreters. It could jeopardize the safety of the victim or they may feel uncomfortable talking about their situation.
Special case: if the victim is a child
Child abuse can occur in countless ways, and the effects vary from child to child. While some children may have bruises or injuries that raise suspicion, this is not always the case. However, the majority of children are less likely to suffer direct physical injury; much more problematic are the long-term effects of violence on the neurological, cognitive and emotional development and health of the child.
There are children who do not want to talk at all. Others disclose domestic violence indirectly by not telling the details unsolicited or in a roundabout way: “Sometimes my stepfather annoys my mother”. The child hopes that the hint they give will be taken up. Many children are insecure because the perpetrator is someone they love.
The child should not be “interrogated”. One should ask simple questions such as:
- “Is there something you’re sad or worried about?”
- “Some kids can get scared at home. What do you believe may scare them?
The child should be reassured. You could say this:
- “I believe you.”
- “I’m glad you came to me.”
- “I’m sorry this happened.”
- “It’s not your fault.”
- “We’ll do something together to get help.”
Marshall B. Rosenberg (2012): Gewaltfreie Kommunikation. Eine Sprache des Lebens. Junfermann
Rollnick/Miller (2012): Motivational Interviewing. Helping people change. Dover Publications
Thought-provoking tasks for social sector professionals
Preparation to identify and respond to domestic violence is paramount.
(1) How well prepared do you feel in this regard and what education and/or training resources are available to you or are you aware of in your area of practice?
(2) Do you have a room where you can speak privately to clients? (Behind curtains or screens is clearly not private or confidential).
(3) In your daily work, how might clients alert you that they wished to speak with you in private?
(4) Do you currently have a clear referral pathway for clients to other services and support?
(5) Do you know what services and supports are available for those who disclose domestic violence daily work, organisation and locality—and are contact details available to you?
(6) Do you know how to make a referral to adult and children’s safeguarding services?