During lockdown Frontline fellow Christina took part in a session by Dr Arlene Vetere on systemic working with families experiencing violence. The session came at a really good time and was an important reminder to consider creative ways of working with families and to hold professional anxiety at arm’s length. After reflecting on the challenges she had faced in her own practice in our previous blog, Christina shares what she learnt in the session and why this is of ever-increasing importance, with the pandemic seeing a rise in domestic abuse across the country.
Dr Vetere’s approach focuses on working relationally with both the victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, where this is judged to be safe. As social workers, we know that establishing trust and building a relationship with the families we support is vital. However, it is important to remind ourselves of and discuss this explicitly, to ensure relationship building is at the forefront of our minds. When working with victims of domestic abuse, one way of establishing trust is to help them to understand and navigate the often-overwhelming professional system – ensuring they are clear about what is happening, what may happen and what their choices are.
In the workshop, we had the space to discuss and reflect on some of the tools we can use and integrate into our practice, as well as areas we need to challenge ourselves:
Genograms: We can use genograms to understand inter-generational family patterns and connections and it allows us to gain a greater understanding of the family as a whole, supporting us in building a better relationship with a family. Genograms are also eye opening for families and move the focus from the individual to the relationship. If someone finds it too difficult to talk about themselves in the first instance, focusing on other relationships (such as their parents) can help to open up the conversation.
Gender: We need to keep in mind gender when working with victims of domestic abuse. Male perpetrators for example may assume female social workers are on the victim’s ‘side’ and have a negative bias against men. They need to be reassured that social workers respect men. Similarly, gender stereotypes should be challenged so that both parties see their social worker as fair and understanding. When highly triggered, men may be more inclined to do something active or physical whilst women may lean towards talking things through; this should be discussed and built into sessions.
Working Systemically: A truly systemic approach to domestic abuse involves considerable input from a family’s network. This means liaising with professionals, the wider family, considering a young person’s peer groups and social networks. It can be helpful to work with a ‘stable third’, a person the whole family trusts who is involved in some of the sessions. It could be anyone: a health visitor, school professional, faith leader, youth worker or perhaps a grandparent. This person is key for corroboration of what parents are saying, as well as having insight into the relationship.
Understandably, this can all be difficult during lockdown and working online. Dr Vetere reminded us that we need to slow things down, repeat what a person has said, summarise and clarify when supporting a family online. Use what you have available to work with a family, for example really focus on a person’s language on a call. If someone uses a phrase such as ‘I lost it’, explore what this means, what did they lose?
If lockdown has taught me anything, it is that we need to be creative when working with families experiencing domestic abuse. This is true during lockdown but will also be vital in the future to ensure the best possible outcomes for children and families.
Read Christina’s first blog on the importance of working systemically with victims of domestic abuse and the challenges lockdown has created.