So What Do You Do Exactly? Social Work Edition

Welcome back to So What Do You Do Exactly?, my series on jobs in which I try to understand how other people spend their time. This week, I talk to Kate W, a social worker in Dallas who counsels survivors of domestic violence:
What’s your official title? Domestic Violence Coordinator at a domestic violence agency in Dallas, TX.
What would your title be if it actually captured what you do all day? I am kind of the renaissance woman of the domestic violence world. I’m an advocate/counselor hybrid. Primarily I do therapy and counseling with survivors, but I also do legal advocacy, employment advocacy, community education, fundraising, etc.
What’s a sample day? There is no sample day! Things come at me from a million different directions and my planner is my best friend. For example, here’s yesterday:
Started the day at a planning meeting about a fundraising/awareness walk that a bunch of agencies in the area are putting on. The walk, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, is to raise awareness about sexual and gender violence. Quite literally, men will walk a mile in women’s shoes (STILETTOS!). We already have a couple of police chiefs and the District Attorney participating. Tough guy cops in their uniforms wobbling along on red stilettos? Awesome. At yesterday’s meeting we walked the course and planned logistical stuff about volunteers, the emcee, etc.
I left that meeting to haul my you-know-what to my office to see a couple clients for counseling. Quick lunch with my coworkers, then another client. The last few hours of the day were spent doing paperwork (from the day’s counseling sessions), returning phone calls, prepping handouts for an upcoming training I’m doing on teen dating violence, planning what to discuss at the shelter support group the next day, and organizing logistics for a family outing (to a baseball game!) for residents at our emergency shelters.
Is there a typical client at your facility? If not, what’s the range we’re talking about? Our clients here in Dallas are mainly Latina. I certainly don’t think that has anything to do with the prevalence of domestic violence in those situations, but it’s a matter of culture. In Asian (and this includes Indian and southeast Asian cultures) cultures, domestic violence is considered a “family matter” — and women either a) don’t see it as a problem, or b) can’t seek help. In the latter case, seeking help or leaving an abuser likely means being disowned from both families (your own and the abusers)…..financially, emotionally, etc. In that way, the disparity is very obvious.
Aside from that, the range is huge in every sense of the word. I have had clients from  age 16 to 70, clients who have been in relationships for two weeks and clients who have been married for 30 years. It’s been a challenge for me to counsel the women who are old enough to be my grandmother; these women have so much to teach me. But, at the same time, they come to me with their heart in their hands looking for understanding and guidance. Oof.
Some women have masters degrees (or more) and make (or made….before leaving the abuser) six figures. It is alarming to see how much a woman loses when they leave an abusive situation. These women talk about how unfair it is that their abuser stays in the house, keeps his job, keeps his friends, etc. The women feel like they fled, and often left everything behind, birth certificates, pets, drivers licenses. Sometimes they can’t return to jobs, because the abuser would know that location. They are quite literally starting a life from scratch.
How do you separate the painful and emotional parts of your job from your own life? This is by far the toughest part of my job. My job comes with a lot of crisis intervention and truly heart breaking stories, but it is also interspersed with other stuff (like prevention trainings, community awareness stuff, etc.)  I could never do the hotline manager’s job full time, but I admire her so much since she faces crisis 100% of the time*.
Self-care, setting boundaries, and self-monitoring were talked about a lot in my graduate program [MSW]. At the time, they were the kind of discussions that made all the students roll their eyes and start checking Facebook….but now? I get it.
Boundaries are so important, and it takes a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness to identify what your specific boundaries are. I do not get my work email sent to my phone. When I leave work (even if it’s 8:00 at night), I need to be able to leave work. I do not listen to the news on the way home — music only. We also have a rule around our office that no one eats at their desk. Physically separating ourselves from our offices where we face all the crisis and pain is really important. We talk about stupid stuff at lunch–the Bachelor contestants or Youtube videos. And exercise is my lifeline; I count on the endorphins as my “reset” button after a tough day.
Lastly, I think I’m incredibly lucky to be working in a place where there is so much collaboration and sense of community. Whether it’s having someone to bounce ideas off of with regard to an especially difficult client, or my boss telling me to take a nap on her couch, we look out for each other. I never feel like I’m alone or unprepared for a situation, and that’s a big part of what keeps me motivated.

You went to grad school in Chicago with a bunch of Chicago social workers, but now you’re in Dallas. How’s the transition been? Culture shock is an understatement, personally and professionally! Most of the professional shifts have been little details, laws about mandated reporting of child abuse, details about how to go about requesting a protective order, etc.
In terms of bigger things, I think the two important ones are funding and gender roles. Illinois is known for how many state-funded social service programs exist. There are thousands of organizations funded by the state to do everything you can imagine. With that being said, Illinois is way way way overstretched, social services are not getting paid by the state, and organizations go under on a daily basis (with next-to-no notice). It’s a horrifying place to try to work! Texas also gets a bad rep for not funding social services. To an extent this is true; there are fewer funding sources to go around and the state does not pass them around freely. I am learning, however, that these funding sources are more stable than those in Illinois. So, once an organization has funding, they can count on that funding to be around for a reasonable amount of time.
In terms of gender roles, I think there is a southern mindset about male-female relations that is not as present in a place like Chicago. In my personal life, that means getting used to total strangers offering to carry my groceries in the name of chivalry. But in my work, the differences are more shocking and less charming. I have female survivors who have never handled money, never made a personal decision for themselves, and who have to grapple with the idea that they did not do anything wrong to warrant abuse. This idea of the strong male protector or “head of the house” is not a problem in a healthy relationship — to each his own — but when physical or emotional violence gets involved, a male-dominant worldview can make domestic violence even more difficult to escape or change. It is hard for me to help clients separate the abuse from “normal” dominant male roles (which don’t seem “normal” in my experience).
Is there one policy, law, educational option, etc that you would implement if you were the President that you think would severely cut down on domestic violence? Oh lord, there’s no clear and concise answer to this! Like I said above, DV affects so many different people from so many different demographics , you’d need 100 laws to even scratch the surface. And even then, it’s something that has been so enmeshed in society for so long…. I’m not sure any law or education option would lessen the prevalence. There are lots of things that could be done to protect those who do come forward, changes in prosecution practices, protection for survivors, educational or employment options for survivors, immigration policies for illegal immigrants who do come forward…..the list is endless and overwhelming.
*Go here for the national domestic violence hotline.
Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Think Tank Edition
Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Model UN Edition


Filed under Chicago, Gender

4 responses to “So What Do You Do Exactly? Social Work Edition

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