10 Things Every Social Worker Needs to Know About Domestic Violence

By: Mark Sandel

Twenty years ago, little empirical knowledge about intimate partner violence existed, conceptual explanations for relationship violence were not well thought out, and social workers were ill trained for dealing with the problem. Domestic violence, at that time, was private and seen as a family problem and personal issue. Today, students and social workers can benefit from research findings and years of practice experience that were not available two decades ago.

The implications of domestic violence for social workers are significant; many of the individuals we work with will be or have been affected as primary and secondary victims. Many of our male clients have battered their partners. Many of us have felt the impact of violence in our own families.

Social workers must have insight into the problem of domestic violence to effectively work toward ending relationship violence. Interventions that might alleviate domestic violence should be applied at all levels: micro, mezzo, and macro.

Social workers should be aware of the following:

1. Domestic violence is a common crime.

Like all crimes, the exact number of domestic violence assaults is hard to determine. Research indicates that an assault, at a criminal level, occurs at least once in as many as 25-50% of all marriages. Violence occurs in families from every socioeconomic level, race, education level, and community. As many as 40% of the male population may at some point become violent with an intimate partner.

2. Domestic violence is usually gender based.

Domestic violence is a crime against women. As many as 95% of domestic violence offenses involve male perpetrators and female victims. As Steve Storie, a former family violence investigator says, “If you think men are the victims of domestic violence, sit outside the hospital emergency room and watch who gets unloaded from the ambulances.” Yes, women may behave badly in relationships, but they are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Violence also occurs in gay and lesbian relationships, although these incidents may be underreported.

3. It's about power and control, not just conflict or anger.

One of the earliest conceptual-izations of domestic violence was based on a cyclical conflict model known as the “Cycle of Violence.” In her 1979 book, The Battered Woman, Lenore Walker suggested that couples that had experienced violence moved through a predictable sequence of stages or phases.

First, following a violent episode, the batterer, filled with remorse or perhaps fear of losing his partner, would treat the victim very nicely, as if he were courting her. He might send flowers, buy her gifts, or take her to dinner. It was thought that this “Honeymoon Phase” would soon yield to the next phase, “Tension Building.”

During the Tension Building Phase, the couple' differences begin escalating and stressors mount. Disagreements become common. The batterer is easy to anger, and the victim begins to feel fear. Aggression begins to surface in the form of verbal abuse, threats, and other forms of non-violent abuse.

Finally, as a predictable culmination to the tension building phase, there is a brief episode of anger driven violence. As soon as the violent attack concludes, the cycle begins again with the Honeymoon Phase.

Walker' book, while helpful to battered women by bringing attention to the problem, did not fully explain family abuse to those who worked in the field. It assumed that the violence occurred repeatedly, as a result of the actions of both the man and the woman-that it was the conflict between the two that served as a catalyst for the violence. In social work terms, it was a micro-focused interactional model.

In 1986, Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar published Power and Control: Tactics of Men Who Batter (Duluth: Minnesota Program Development), a curriculum for working with batterers. Their approach to battering intervention was developed after listening closely to the stories of battered women, many of whom shared that their stories did not mirror the cycle of violence described by Lenore Walker. Rather than describing a “honeymoon phase,” battered women may see the nice gestures on the part of the abuser as an attempt to control her through manipulation. Instead of a “tension building phase,” there is an escalation in controlling behaviors, from manipulation to intimidation. The violence itself may then be seen as an attempt to control the victim with the use of force.

The constant theme, then, that runs through the lives of all battered women, is control. That is, their male partners are attempting to control them through the use of a variety of tactics, including the occasional use of violence.

The Pence and Paymar model also takes a more “social work” view of the problem, by examining domestic violence as a macro issue. They recognized that the issue of male control over women is a theme that runs throughout our society. One aspect of their model is the development of a “Community Based Response” to domestic violence, which includes policy changes with law enforcement, prosecution, protective orders, the business community, churches and others, as well as strategies to change public attitudes about gender violence and the oppression of women.

4. Domestic violence harms children.

As many as 70% of batterers are also child abusers. Therefore, the population of men who abuse their partners may also be the same population of men who abuse their children. Witnessing abuse is also harmful to children.

According to Barnett, Miller-Perrin, and Perrin in Family Violence Across the Lifespan, children who are exposed to marital violence may be affected in several ways: 1) they are immediately affected by the trauma of the violence, 2) their normal developmental processes are affected, 3) they live in fear for their mother and themselves and suffer other stress related problems, and 4) violent men are their role models. Later in life, adults who were exposed to marital violence as children may exhibit higher risk levels for many problems, including physical and mental problems, chemical dependency, problems with relationships, including violence, abuse of children, and generalized criminal activity.

5. Not all battered women are helpless and weak, and they are not crazy.

In fact, some are downright brassy. Our society has developed stereotypes of battered women as either weak and pathetic or hysterical and crazy. They are generally neither. Women who are battered by a loved one are not that different from women who are not battered, and may exhibit all types of personality characteristics. People who work with battered women often describe them as being strong, as being survivors, not as weak or crazy. Of course, they may be affected by the abuse they suffer, but social workers should always see these symptoms as being caused by the abuse, not causing the abuse.

6. Battered women are often blamed for the violence.

Helping professionals, including social workers, sometimes blame the victims of domestic violence for their predicament, reinforcing other messages that our society sends to these women. Ministers may chastise victims for not being obedient wives. Family members may send the message that “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” The children may blame their mother for failing to protect herself. Employers lose patience with battered women for losing time, and terminate them.

Women who are battered are accused of being “abuseaholics” or “jerkaholics”; that is, blamed for seeking out abusive men. The reality is that violence is much more likely to follow the abuser into subsequent relationships than it is to follow the victim.

7. People with disabilities may be at very high risk for domestic violence.

Persons with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged groups in our society, and social workers must carefully screen for domestic violence when working with such clients. They are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and marginalized in society. They are often dependent on family members and paid caregivers for assistance in daily living, and this high level of dependence may be a fertile breeding ground for abuse.

To complicate matters, battered women with disabilities are often screened as inappropriate for shelter services, and the domestic violence community has not done a good job of serving these clients.

Although it is generally accepted that many more women than men are victims of domestic violence, it is not clear how many men with disabilities may be victimized. Since men with disabilities may be as vulnerable and dependent as are women with disabilities, they also experience a high level of risk for intimate abuse.

8. Economics matter.

Perhaps the two most common questions about battered women are “Why doesn’t she leave?” and “Why did she go back to him?” These are not merely questions; they are statements of blame, according to author Ann Jones, in her book, Next Time She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It. The answers to these questions, however, are rooted in common sense.

Women' salaries are significantly lower than men' salaries. When battered women leave, they usually take the children. Childcare is expensive. The conclusion: battered women are often forced by financial realities to stay with the abuser or return to him. Our society has focused on getting the survivor away from the perpetrator, but we have provided very little in the way of financial assistance to allow her to remain independent.

9. Batterers are not all alcoholic, they can usually control their anger, and they are often charming and manipulative.

Men who batter usually do not have generalized anger or aggression problems. They do not beat up strangers, co-workers, or customers. This suggests that men who batter possess at least average anger control skills. The problem, therefore, is not a deficit in anger control skills. It is an issue of choosing not to use the skills they possess with their intimate partners.

The relationship between alcohol and battering is not clear. Obviously, more violence occurs when people drink alcohol than when people are not drinking, but a causal link between alcohol and violence has not been established. A man who batters and has an alcohol problem must get help with the drinking, but sobriety does not carry a guarantee of non-violence. The two issues may be related in many cases, but perhaps not in a causal way.

Social workers who see batterers in their practice must be vigilant about being manipulated. Men who batter are often charming and appealing, and they may be able to manipulate us, just as they manipulate their partners. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN, suggests that certain types of men are less likely to be held accountable than others, including highly religious men, articulate and educated men, men in 12-step recovery, and highly argumentative men.

Research by Ed Gondolff seems to indicate that counseling programs for batterers (Battering Intervention Programs, or BIP) may be of benefit, but they are not effective with every client. The community response to battering may be a key factor in how well these programs work

10. Social change must be a key component in ending domestic violence.

Dallas, Texas, experienced an alarming increase in domestic violence murders that culminated in 1993 when 43 women lost their lives at the hands of male partners. The Dallas District Attorney' office applied for and received grant funding for a massive program to build a community response to domestic violence. Law enforcement officers, judges, lawyers, and probation officers received training on the issues. Social workers were hired as advocates in the domestic violence criminal courts and in the protective order office. A task force was created and social workers were added to the Police Department' victim' response team. Other social workers, trained in domestic violence, were placed in hospital emergency rooms. Civic groups, churches, and nonprofit social service agencies were enlisted as partners. The local newspaper highlighted the issue of domestic violence for an entire year.

Battering Intervention Programs were supported in dealing with perpetrators and holding batterers accountable. A community task force was formed, as was a fatality review team. As a result of these interventions at the community level, the domestic violence murder rate plummeted, averaging just over 19 per year for the next eight years.


Domestic violence may occur at the micro level, affecting one family at a time, but it is also a macro problem, calling for interventions at all levels of social work practice. Yes, social workers are involved in providing services to those directly involved in violent families, but we also must be working at the community level and on policies that will create a society that is less tolerant of domestic violence.

The prevalence of domestic violence mandates that social workers must develop adequate knowledge and skills to respond to domestic violence, regardless of practice setting, in order to respond appropriately to situations related to domestic violence.

Mark Sandel, LMSW, is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of North Texas. He has been involved in the domestic violence movement and battering intervention work for over 10 years, as a program director, facilitator, trainer, social change advocate, and educator. He has also worked extensively in juvenile violence intervention and developed the Juvenile Aggression Management program which has provided services to approximately 2,000 North Texas families. In 1994, Mark was selected Social Worker of the Year for the State of Texas. In 1997, he received a special award from the Dallas County District Attorney' office for efforts in the prevention of domestic violence, and has been honored for the past three years with a ‘Top Prof’ award for teaching excellence at UNT.

Copyright © 2003 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. From THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Summer 2003, Vol. 10, No. 3. For reprints of this or other articles from THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (or for permission to reprint), contact Linda Grobman, publisher/editor, at P.O. Box 5390, Harrisburg, PA 17110-0390, or at linda.grobman@paonline.com.

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