Family violence and social work

By: Fiona Tyler

In New Zealand, 1 in 3 women[1] have experienced family violence, and similar numbers are reflected in countries around the world. Social work in this field takes place both on the micro level, to address the immediate threats that affect their clients, as well as on the macro level to try and combat the systemic, root causes of family violence. All aspects of work in this field are guided by principles of human rights, social justice, equality and social change with a focus on self determination, empowerment and improving the self worth of their clients.

The strengths of this field are demonstrated as social workers work alongside women, families and children as they begin to lead a life free of violence. On the individual level, social work practice spans from crisis intervention to ongoing, therapeutic support. Clients typically engage with these services as response to an episode of violence, so risk assessment and safety planning are fundamental parts of practice. Social workers can bring awareness to the damaging affects that witnessing abuse  has on children, provide ongoing support, psycho-education and facilitate finding refuge, counselling and other services. They advocate for their clients in court and assist them as they take the necessary steps to ensure their safety, such as setting up their own bank account and getting protection orders. On the wider, community level, social workers can advocate for policy changes and bring awareness to family violence through community, educational or training opportunities.

Examples of challenges felt within practice are the accessibility and cost of both refuge and obtaining protection orders, the lack of support for perpetrators and the lack of collaboration between agencies ( Wilson, Smith, Tolmie, &  de Haan, 2015 ) . The greatest challenges, however, are a result of working in a society that doesn’t fully foster the positive changes that clients are making in their lives. This is illustrated through reinforcing traditional gender roles and stereotypical constructions of masculinity and femininity, victim blaming, the normalization of violence and aggression and socio-economic and racial inequalities. These cultural norms and structural inequalities need to be challenged in order to prevent family violence and better support those who are working towards a life without violence (Webster & Flood, 2015).

Currently in New Zealand, an overhaul  of the Domestic Violence Act is taking place to address some of these challenges. Among the submissions were contributions from social workers and their organizations who took the opportunity to share how current policies have affected their and their recommendations to improve future legislation.

Whether you work in this field or not, family violence it is an issue which affects all fields of social work and therefore is likely to affect the people you work with. Being informed about family violence, knowing ways to support those in need, collaborating with other agencies and challenging norms which perpetuate violence are all ways we can support the wellbeing of our communities, regardless of where we practice.


Webster, K. & Flood, M. (2015), Framework foundations 1: A review of the evidence on correlates of violence against women and what works to prevent it. Our Watch, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety.

Wilson, Smith,  R. Tolmie, J., &  de Haan, I.( 2015). Becoming better helpers: Rethinking language to move beyond simplistic responses to women experiencing intimate partner violence. Policy Quarterly, 11(1), 25-33

[1] Family violence is not limited to affecting women, but typically, men are the perpetrators of violence towards women. Due to the gendered nature of the violence, when speaking of victims/survivors of abuse, the term women will be used for this post.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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