Part 2: How can I help a woman disclose abuse?
In Part 1 of this FAQ, I explored some of the reasons why many women find it hard to talk about their experiences of abuse as well as why they need to share this information. This week, I’ll provide tips for supporting women so they can disclose abuse.
Your job to help a woman open up about her experience starts well before you meet with her and extends beyond the end of your meeting.
Before the meeting
Ensure you understand the dynamics of abuse and the potential safety issues for women who have abusive partners and ex-partners.
Before you meet with an individual woman for the first time, look at her file if she has done her initial intake with someone other than you. This will enable you to greet her with some familiarity about her basic situation, which will make her feel more comfortable.
Setting up the space
Creating the right physical environment is important to help women feel comfortable. Of course, many of you are working in situations where you won’t be able to do much about this. Meeting with a woman in a family court hallway or waiting area is not conducive to creating a sense of privacy and comfort, and there may be nothing you can do about this.
Nonetheless, consider these tips so that you can integrate as many of them as possible into whatever space you have and so you can think of them if you are ever offered the opportunity to have designated space.
Privacy is very important to most women. If at all possible, when you are meeting with a woman to hear her story of abuse, use a space with a door that can be closed and with no windows that allow other people to look into the space.
Along with privacy, most women need to feel safe. Where you can, set up your meeting space so the woman’s back is not to the door or any windows. You can help her feel emotionally safer by having information about woman abuse, including posters on the walls, in your meeting space.
Comfort matters too. Chairs that let a woman spread out or curl up, a blanket she can wrap around herself, objects she can hold or play with, access to something to drink, a set up where you are not behind a desk: all of these will contribute to a space where it feels comfortable and safe for her to talk to you about difficult things. Make sure there is lots of Kleenex readily available.
You need the space to work for you, too. Set up your chair so you can easily take notes while remaining connected to the woman (i.e. try not to have to turn your back on her to make your notes). Have a clock positioned so you can see it to keep track of the time.
Women feel more comfortable when they know what to expect. Start out by letting the woman know how long you have for your meeting, what your goals are and how you plan to structure your conversation. Ask her for her goals and, where they are different from yours, blend them together.
Let her know that she is in the driver’s seat in terms of how the meeting flows, but that part of your job is to keep her on focus so you achieve the goals you have just agreed on for the meeting.
Make sure she understands the level of confidentiality you are able to offer her.
Have her sign any forms you need: release of information, confidentiality disclaimer, etc.
Explain to her how you plan to take notes, what the purpose of them is and who (if anyone) you will share them with.
Tell her you can take brief breaks if she needs them. Let her know where the washroom is and point her to the box of Kleenex.
Take a few minutes for some “small talk,” because this will help ease her into the more difficult topics you will have to cover. If you sense that she is too uneasy to have a lengthy discussion about the abuse she has experienced, ask her if this is so and offer to reschedule the meeting for another day, if that is possible. It may not be, especially if she has a pressing legal issue that cannot be put off. In that case, assure her that you will be respectful of how she is feeling.
This primary purpose of the meeting is to get the woman talking generally about her memories of the abuse she has experienced. Details and possible third party evidence will come in subsequent meetings. Gathering this initial information will help you start building a relationship of trust with the woman, help you support her in putting together her court documentation and assist you in working on a safety plan with her.
Often, women find it easiest to start by talking about what has happened most recently. You might want to ask:
- Why did you make an appointment to see me?
- Why did you come to the family court today?
- Why did you come into the shelter?
- Has something happened recently that led to our meeting?
Or, she may prefer to avoid talking about the immediate past. You can help her get started by asking:
- How did you and your partner meet?
- What attracted you to him?
- What was your relationship like at the beginning?
- Did it change? When? How?
This can help lead her into talking about the negative as well as the positive aspects of her relationship.
If you are meeting with a woman who does not seem to want to talk about any of this, you could ask her questions about her family, her children (if she has them), her job, where she lives. From there, you may be able to lead her towards the kinds of questions listed above.
From here, you can move on to questions such as:
- When did you first realize your partner was abusing you?
- What made you decide to leave?
- Do you have any concerns about your kids?
- Have you ever talked about the abuse with anyone before now?
- Are the police involved? (If her answer is yes, then you can ask her whether charges have been laid, what the bail conditions are, etc.)
What you want to get from this first conversation is a general sense of the history of the abuse, the tactics her abuser used (physical, emotional, social, financial, sexual, etc.), whether there is ongoing post-separation abuse and what involvement the children have had. (Have they witnessed the abuse directly or indirectly? Have they been abused themselves?)
You don’t need to talk to her about how this information needs to be organized for her court documents or exactly what information is needed for which purposes. Just let her talk. Don’t worry about inconsistencies or gaps in her story or about whether she tells it in chronological order for now.
If she focuses in on particular incidents, make note of this: it probably means that those incidents had special significance for her, and you may want to revisit them in a later appointment.
While you want her to direct the flow of the conversation, you should keep things more or less on track. You may need to remind her of how much time you have and the goals you set at the beginning of the meeting. If you only have 15 minutes left and she is still telling you about her honeymoon, rethink your goals but also encourage her to give you some headlines about what happened after the honeymoon, too.
You need to take careful notes but not become so focused on this task that you lose your direct connection with the woman. Perhaps you want to use a standard template with tick boxes for some information.
You can make brief, point form notes, but be sure of two things:
- Include enough information that you will remember later what the woman told you
- Turn your point form notes into a longer narrative soon after the interview so the details are still fresh in your mind
You need to make enough notes that you can build from them a list of questions to ask the woman at your next meeting. By the second meeting, you need to be getting details and starting to put her story in chronological order, so your notes from the first meeting have to let you do this. For example, in the second meeting, you may need to ask her:
- Can you remember where you were living when he pushed you down the stairs? Did you have any children then? Were you working? Was he?
- When we met last time, you said you think you went to the hospital twice when he hit you. Do you remember what hospital? Did you get stitches (or a cast or have surgery, or . . . )?
- I am a bit confused about what order some of these events took place in. Let me ready you what I wrote down when we met last time and you can tell me if I got it right.
In the second meeting, you will want to talk to the woman about the court documents she will need to complete, so your notes should be comprehensive enough to provide a starting point for this discussion and the woman’s own work on those documents.
Let the woman know that you need to end your meeting in 10 minutes and you want to take some time to review what you have talked about, clarify anything that is not clear, answer questions and make a plan for your next meeting.
You should be able to review your notes very quickly and provide the woman with an overview of your conversation. Ask her if what you have said fits with her memory of your discussion. If not, clarify or add her comments to your notes. Ask if she has any final questions before your meeting ends. You may be able to answer them or you may have to tell her you are writing them down and will answer them the next time you get together.
Commend the woman for her openness and let her know that you know how hard this must have been for her. Encourage and suggest some self-care activities for her after the meeting.
Decide on the agenda for your next meeting and, if possible, set a date and time for it. If there are tasks you want the woman to complete before you meet again, review these with her and give her a written list of them. Give her a copy of the Gathering Evidence Tip Sheet listed above and encourage her to read it.
Tell her you are looking forward to your next meeting.
Before you put away your notes from this meeting, read them over again. If you cannot create your formal notes at this time, make additions, if you need to, to these notes to prompt your memory later.
Be sure to put your next appointment with this woman in your calendar. If you need to book the space where you met, do this.
If you have any homework, put the time for this in your calendar.
Take a few minutes for yourself before you move on to your next appointment. You will have been affected by listening to this woman’s story and you need to clear your head and engage in your own self-care.