I have to admit it. There have been times in my life as a direct service provider that I have said “if I am working harder than my client, there is something wrong.” What I am realizing now, though, is that the fault was not with my client. It had to do with my expectations and the fact that I was focusing on my goals for her, rather than letting her define what success meant. Even if we had come to an agreement on the goals, there is a good chance that the client was submitting to what I was promoting. Survivors are very skillful at deferring to others in order to feel safe in a relationship in which they perceive the counselor/shelter manager/advocate may have “power over” or access to things that the survivor needs.
In a study by the Full Frame Initiative in California, available here http://fullframeinitiative.org/how-do-survivors-define-success-report-recommendations/ it is noted that too often we define success based on our own expectations or the those of our funders and we forget to ask survivors how they define success for themselves. We can get so caught up in promoting an end to the abusive relationship, permanent housing, employment, parenting skills, etc., that we end up creating a menu of goals for survivors to choose from rather than sitting down and really delving into what is meaningful for the person. The above mentioned study found that a change in the abusive relationship was considered success by only 7% of the persons who participated in the study. In fact, “across all survivor responses, they most often credited themselves, family members, and God/faith as the top enablers of moments of success, as well as the top supports for coping in between.” “This is not a wholesale dismissal by survivors of the importance of services, but a reflection of the place that services and professional relationships hold in achieving personal success.. . . clearly services and formal supports help survivors take steps towards that ‘authentic self’ but they are not the only or even most important factor.”
We work very hard to be empowering in our work with survivors and feel that the support and services we provide are a way to do so. However, we forget that empowerment can be brought forth in a person through strong connections in the community. Isolation, a tool of the abuser, may have limited connections and through new connections the survivor may be able to find herself and be engaged in ways that are more meaningful than those we can provide in our structure and limitations. We also know that in our best efforts to provide support through empowerment we still are trying to help survivors navigate systems that are less than empowering and are often abusive. This can lead to stalling and disengagement if survivors feel this is all we have to offer.
The Full Frame Initiative study recommends that “programs do ‘success planning’ in addition to “safety planning” based on survivors’ idea of success. Practitioners should learn to ask about what successful relationships and opportunities survivors do have.” We can also provide more opportunities for success in non-traditional support groups or by increasing engagement within the community. These will provide those “moments of being connected” and “belonging to something bigger than me”, and “accomplishment and opportunity” that survivors seek.
The full report will give you recommendations for moving forward.