Contextualized Assessment with Battered Women: Strategic Safety Planning to Cope with Multiple Harms
Lindhorst, Taryn, Nurius, Paula, Macy, Rebecca J., Journal of Social Work Education
NEARLY 25% OF WOMEN experience some form of physical or sexual assault, or both, by a partner in their lifetime (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000b). Annually, between 1.5 million (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000b) and 2 million women (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980) are assaulted by a current or former intimate partner. The need to provide effective safety planning to battered women is also fueled by the robust evidence of health and mental health consequences of intimate partner violence such as physical injury (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000b), depression (Campbell & Lewandowski, 1997; Golding, 1999), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Golding, 1999; Herman, 1995), as well as the radiating impact on children and others close to the abused woman (Riger, Raja, & Camacho, 2002).
Because violence against women is so widespread and represented among the clientele of varied social service providers, we believe it is critical to see contextualized assessment and strategic safety planning with battered women as a function of all social workers (much like assessment for child/elder abuse or suicidality). Moreover, evidence indicates that many endangered and battered women do not access services from domestic violence specialists but do encounter a range of other social service providers (Macy, Nurius, Kernic, & Holt, 2004; Tolman, 2003). We are concerned here with efforts in the foundation social work curriculum to prepare entry-level generalist social work practitioners for that moment when they begin to suspect that a woman is being threatened or abused by someone she knows.
Traditional safety planning is a vital component of helping battered women in crisis to achieve safer situations. Safety planning is a crisis-oriented approach that focuses attention on immediate safety needs and whose intent in practice is often toward having the woman leave the relationship. See Table 1 for typical issues covered in safety planning. While leaving an abusive relationship is an important option for victims/survivors, applying this as a prescription to all women can be harmful, as it neglects the complexity of the choices facing many women and implies that women who return or who stay with an abusive partner have failed at leaving. Many women will choose to stay with their partners and work to end or diminish the abuse (Campbell, Rose, Kub, & Need, 1998); for others, leaving does not end the abuse as the batterer continues to stalk and endanger the woman (Fleury, Sullivan, & Bybee, 2000). Other women will leave and return to the batterer several times in the course of deciding to continue or end the relationship; and for some women, leaving poses more risks, both in terms of harm from the batterer (Campbell, 1992; Goetting, 1995) and social and economic costs, which women may see as more burdensome than the abuse (Peled, Eisikovitz, Enosh, & Winstok, 2000; Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998).
Safety planning will be most effective if it occurs within a contextualized assessment process that illuminates the deeper struggles and multiple harms that women balance when making decisions about continuing or ending relationships. Traditional safety planning is a necessary but insufficient strategy for addressing the complex needs of women who are in varying degrees of relationship to the batterer. As Peled et al. (2000), note
It is commonly assumed that freedom from violence entails leaving the abuser .... Recent literature on social work intervention ... with intimate violence ... often uses the rhetoric and ideology of empowerment as an important guiding principle. However, in the context of battered women who stay, the concept seldom is carried beyond the ideological and prescriptive levels. Attempts to operationalize the means by which those women can become empowered are scarce. (p. 12)
In this paper, we provide a heuristic model for operationalizing an empowerment approach for working with battered women. …