Thursday, October 8, 2009

Secondary Trauma Among Domestic Violence Workers

I learned early on at Renewal House that having a good team is essential. This kind of work requires a team that functions well together and whose members trust each other, have good communication skills, and a passion for the job. At Renewal House, we are blessed to have a good team. Working with victims of domestic violence is wonderful, difficult work. At times, one can feel overwhelmed by the painful, tragic stories of abuse and violence told by the individuals and families at the shelter, in the community, or on the hotline.

One of the dangers for people working with victims of violence is burning out from listening to the stories. And one of the signs of burnout is complete numbness to all emotions. It can happen gradually over the course of 10 years from listening to horrific stories of violence and abuse, or it can happen in the period of a few short days or months. All of us have different thresholds for exposure to the darkest sides of human behavior – sometimes we can let it go, and sometimes it can overwhelm us and hold us captive.

In Massachusetts, a great deal of work has been done in the field of domestic violence regarding secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is what I have described above – hearing stories of abuse and violence second-hand and being traumatized by it. Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center’s Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery now holds groups for domestic violence advocates to address the issue of secondary trauma. Many of our advocates at Renewal House have participated in this group and have found it helpful.

When I became director of Renewal House four years ago, I was consumed with wanting the shelter to run professionally. I worked with the staff to create new and better ways to track our work. I created a resident handbook that provides an introduction to our program for new guests. I reached out to other domestic violence providers for insight on how things were run at their programs. I tried to bring in as many outside resources as possible. And, overall, it was effective.

But Renewal House not only functions well professionally, it is a faith-based shelter – the only one in Massachusetts – equipping us to both do the work as well as care for ourselves. We minister to ourselves through regular staff meetings and supervision, as well as personal conversations about our struggles and issues. We rely on one another for support. In addition, a volunteer who works as a psychiatric nurse and is a member of the UU church in Chestnut Hill has been leading our staff in a quarterly secondary trauma/self-care group. This provides us with an opportunity to debrief and decompress, address the situations we didn’t have time for in the rush to get the work done, and a time just to be together as a community acknowledging that, together, we are vessels that hold the stories of those we serve. And in these times we can see that we are not alone. We support one another as we continue this journey of walking with individuals and families who have come to us in crisis and need to be heard, respected and accepted.

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