the Counselor’s Experience of Working With Perpetrators and Survivors
of Domestic Violence
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW
from an article of the same title by:
Gillian Iliffe and Lyndall G. Steed,
Curtin University of Technology
Published: Journal of Interpersonal Violence
, V. 15 (4), April 2000, 393-412
What is the purpose of this study?
Research on the effects of domestic violence work on counselors is
lacking. The authors’ intention in this study is to add to the body of
knowledge about the effects of providing trauma treatment by specifically
looking at domestic violence counselors’ reactions. Specifically, the
- How does work with domestic violence clients affect counselors’ sense
of self, worldview, and emotional and physical well being?
- How has work with domestic violence clients challenged and changed
counselors’ practice, and what are salient concerns specific to helping
- How do counselors cope with the effects of working with domestic violence
How was the study conducted?
This study examined the experiences of 18 domestic violence counselors
in Perth Australia. The impact of providing counseling to domestic violence
victims and perpetrators was explored using three conceptual frameworks:
vicarious traumatization (McCann & Pearlman, 1990), burnout, and countertransference.
Vicarious traumatization (VT) directly results from hearing victims’
accounts of traumatic experiences. VT was first identified among rescue
workers. Symptoms of VT are usually short-term and resemble symptoms of
posttraumatic stress disorder. Burnout refers to psychological
and physical symptoms of distress, such as lower self-concept, a loss
of compassion and frequent headaches, and can result from working with
any difficult client population. Countertransference describes
the counselor’s response to clients’ stories that result from the counselor’s
personal issues or needs. For example, a counselor might "shut down"
emotionally and be relatively unempathic to a client if details of the
client’s story too strongly threaten the counselor’s beliefs about the
To be included in this study counselors had to have worked therapeutically
with domestic violence clients, and such clients made up more than 50%
of the counselors’ caseloads. Thirteen female and 5 male counselors from
six different agencies in Perth met criteria and participated in the study.
At the time, all were helping domestic violence clients. Participants
had an average age of 46 years; they averaged 10 years of counseling experience
and 5.5 years of domestic violence work experience. Most reported receiving
about 3.5 days of training about working with domestic violence.
Researchers used a semistructured interview to collect information from
subjects about their experiences as trauma counselors for domestic violence
clients. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Each subject was
asked to read and make adjustments to the transcript of his/her interview
before researchers analyzed subjects’ responses.
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, 1995) was used
to explore and analyze responses. In this method, researchers identified
recurrent themes in the transcripts. Themes were then reevaluated for
clarity and to explore gender effects, rank-ordered, compared to each
other to identify higher order themes, and listed.
What were the study’s findings?
Findings supported prior knowledge that helping trauma victims can
present psychological and physical risk to the helper. Regarding the impact
of working with domestic violence clients, researchers identified six
- Initial impact of domestic violence counseling: Almost all
study participants reported an initial loss of confidence in their counseling
abilities, feeling overly responsible and worried about clients’ safety,
and struggling to remain non-judgmental towards perpetrators and towards
the choices of clients who were domestic violence victims.
- Personal impact of hearing traumatic material:
- Emotional reactions of almost all participants included feelings
of horror, lingering visual imagery of severe abuse, difficulty hearing
about violence against children or recent violence against a client,
and anger towards both perpetrators and the criminal justice system
because of inadequate support and protection of domestic violence
victims. Several reported that it challenged them to maintain a "clinical
distance" that protected them without negatively affecting the
- Physical reactions included feelings of heaviness, nausea, churning
stomach and feeling shaken in response to hearing clients’ stories
of domestic violence.
- Female counselors reported more symptoms than male counselors reported.
In contrast to male counselors, most females counselors reported feeling
emotionally drained and noticed physical symptoms such as headaches,
tension and illnesses that they attributed to doing domestic violence
- Working with domestic violence perpetrators was described as "energizing"
by all male counselors and some female counselors.
- Changes in cognitive schemas: Work with domestic violence clients
changed most counselors’ worldview with regard to sense of safety, trust
and power/control issues.
- Safety: Overall, participants reported feeling "less secure
in the world" and more wary of some people.
- Trust: Female counselors reported being less trusting of men whether
as part of their work or in their private lives.
- Power/Control: Study participants commented that domestic violence
counseling heightened their awareness of power and control issues,
primarily concerning male dominance of women, and that this had a
positive effect on their counseling practices and in their personal
- Challenging issues for domestic violence counselors: Study
participants reported a number of challenges to doing domestic violence
- Male and female participants both reported that engaging perpetrators
in therapy was the most challenging aspect of domestic violence work.
- Confidentiality was reported as complex and challenging because
"the rights of the individual versus the safety of the individual"
at times seemed to conflict.
- To better address the safety needs of clients counseling practices
had to include more in-depth assessment, more flexible work schedules
(e.g. longer sessions), more lenient policies regarding cancellations,
and casework services.
- All participants reported being challenged by ongoing concerns about
clients’ safety because the risk for retraumatization is high among
this client population.
- Many participants reported feeling professionally isolated because
other colleagues did not understand the challenges of domestic violence
- Feelings of powerlessness challenged all study participants. Many
participants believed that such feelings represented a "parallel
process" to the struggles of their clients who deal with similar
- Burnout: Twelve of 18 study participants reported having experienced
symptoms of burnout. Long hours and high domestic violence caseloads
were named as primary causes; lack of training and isolation were reported
as secondary factors to burnout.
- Coping strategies: Professional and personal strategies were
- Debriefing and peer/team support: These strategies reduced isolation
and created a shared sense of responsibility among domestic violence
- Prevention through management of domestic violence caseloads: This
meant keeping domestic violence/trauma client caseloads small. Participants
identified this as one of the most important ways to prevent VT and
- Good self care: This included physical activity, good dietary, sleep
and recreational habits.
- Acknowledging clients’ strengths: This enabled counselors to defer
ultimate responsibility for clients’ lives to the clients themselves,
and to believe that with support most clients can make positive changes
in their lives.
- Socio-political involvement in domestic violence issues: Participants
reported that this strategy gave them a positive outlet for feelings
of anger and powerlessness that resulted from the work.
Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, June 2, 2000