Dangerous dynamics: The impact of violence on practice
Updated: 14 May 2013
What's Important To Us
There are many dynamics impacting on safe social work practice. It’s important that we use supervision to manage the impact and, if necessary, seek additional support. In order to manage the emotional impact of the work we do we need to understand how exposure to violence affects practice. Violence can take many forms and its impact may vary. This information draws on the work of Tony Morrison, Chris Goddard, Janet Stanley and Robert Carew and though often directed at child protection staff it is important for everyone to be aware of.
Physical assault usually results in the worker/s receiving some support and protective action although psychological violence and intimidation of workers may have an even stronger and more subtle impact. Psychological violence is treated as ‘just part of the job’. Many workers, though, find threats like ‘I know where your children go to school’ have a huge impact on them.
A relatively minor incident may evoke in the worker a memory of a previously unresolved traumatic event and therefore a strong response by the worker. The opportunity to successfully work through and resolve these events is important.
Multiple forms of abuse
It is crucial to recognise that an abusing family/whānau may not have directly threatened the worker, but the whole atmosphere of working with a family/whānau known to engage in multiple forms of violence will be intimidating. Research has found that families/whānau severely abusive to a child often engage in multiple forms of violence, including self-destructive behaviour, violence to other family/whānau members and to other people in the community. Despite this, almost no workers take action against those who offend against them. A failure to take decisive action can only compound feelings of helplessness in workers.
Social workers will be familiar with the term Accommodation Syndrome, used to describe the desensitisation of worker/s to the degree of risk inherent in situations. In such situations, even highly skilled and experienced social workers can minimise the high level of violence in the families/whānau with whom they work, return children to or maintain children in violent households and fail to adequately intervene in the violent issues in the family/whānau. This happens at an unconscious level and could be explained by reference to the Hostage Effect (see further down).
These effects are most likely to be true where the social worker has experienced a level of violence over the past six months from the children, young people and family/whānau they work with, perhaps has unresolved trauma of their own and has feelings of or actual professional isolation. Social workers need to be aware of the syndrome and of the actions they can take in terms of both the safety of the children and young people they are working with and their own personal safety.
The Professional Accommodation Syndrome
Tony Morrison’s model is designed to understand the behaviour and response of organisations to staff under stress. It involves looking not only at the primary impact of dealing directly with abusing families/whānau, but also the secondary impact on staff that comes from the organisational and managerial responses to these staff.
Morrison (1993) argues that when social workers are struggling with the stress and trauma of working in the field of care and protection, the response of their organisation is crucial to combating the difficulties workers experience. Failure of organisations to learn how to combat the alienating environment of social work will result in defence mechanisms of denial and minimisation.
The five stages of the ‘Professional Accommodation Syndrome’
Many staff do not tell of the emotional impact of this work upon them and agencies covertly restrict permission for staff to disclose. Staff do not want to talk about feeling abused by the work they do.
Agencies have false expectations that staff should be able to look after and protect themselves. The assumption is that uncomplaining staff are coping. Myths support the idea that staff always act in a logical, professional adult manner, whatever the conditions. Thus staff who are feeling helpless, or affected by dealing with child abuse, feel ashamed because adults and agencies despise helplessness.
Entrapment and accommodation
Staff must see their profession/colleague/agency as good/caring, because the alternative is too awful. Thus, they make the adaptation that being abused must be my fault. If I were a better worker this would stop. The result is that they are trapped in a value distortion.
Disclosure or telling the truth will be seen as unprofessional and weak and denial as being strong and coping. This results in a splitting inside the worker to contain the worker’s divided self – resulting in a range of deep and conflicting feelings. These may include rage and anger against colleagues or managers whom the worker assumes must know that they are so distressed. It may also lead to destructive or self-destructive behaviour by the worker and thus to self-distrust, which may itself result in over-dependence on, or persecution of, colleagues and children, young people and families/whānau they work with.
Delayed or unconvincing disclosure
Disclosure may be triggered by inter-professional conflict, outreach, training or through a third party, for instance, a colleague. When disclosure of the worker’s distress is triggered by inter-professional conflict, this may be displayed through acting-out behaviours such as fight – volatility, anger, aggression – or flight – sickness, resignation or immobilisation.
The danger is that the underlying/latent distress or disclosure, which has precipitated this acting-out behaviour, will be invalidated precisely because of the outward behaviour. ‘She should never have become a social worker anyway – she was never up to it.’ Alternatively, if the accommodation is through working harder, becoming more professional, then agencies may similarly invalidate the disclosure for the opposite reason: ‘How can this worker be so affected by the work when his performance is so good?’
The delayed or unconvincing disclosure by the worker, met with disbelief, scepticism or punishment by the agency, is followed by the retraction from the worker. This is the only way the worker can survive, especially when support has been removed. ‘Oh, I am fine now; it was nothing to do with my work’. Of course, the simple retraction carries more credibility than the complaint to the agency. It confirms that feelings are not to be trusted.
Stanley and Goddard (1993) identified a number of factors that can be associated with hostage theory as a means of explaining the dynamics which can occur between worker and client and the special stresses that can develop in some of these relationships where the parent is violent towards others as well as towards the child:
- The worker may not be taking action appropriate to the severity of child abuse and general violence in families (minimisation).
- The rationality of the worker’s belief that they are ‘safe’ when they know the child, young person or family/whānau they are working with has been violent.
- The practice of frequent movement of cases between workers increases fragmentation of the plan.
- Minimisation of the nature of disturbance/incidents of violence in the case reports.
- The existence of inadequate information, which exacerbates feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and isolation.
- Workers blamed themselves when problems/issues arose, rather than examine the family/client.
- Interventions tended to be focused on smoothing things over with minimal confrontation and the need for empathy stressed.
- Time spent on alienating environmental stresses meant that any severe violence and personality disturbance was unaddressed (concrete solutions).
- Existence of a circular pattern of failing to address the fundamental problems, followed by feeling of helplessness and denial on the part of the worker.
The Hostage Effect
The Hostage Effect is also called the Stockholm Syndrome. Its effect is greatest where the worker is subject to a combination of violence while experiencing isolation from support. It refers to the special paradoxical relationship which develops between captor and hostages and was first used to describe the reaction of hostages during a bank robbery and hostage situation in Stockholm.
Goddard, C.R. and Carew, R.M. (1988). Protecting the child: hostages to fortune? Social Work Today, 15, pp. 2-14.
Morrison, T. (1993). The emotional effects of child protection on the worker. Practice 4:(4): pp. 253–271.
Stanley, J. & Goddard C.R. (1993). The effect of child abuse and other family violence on the child protection worker and case management. Australian Social Work, 46(2): pp. 3-10.