Flash Interview with Taryn Lindhorst about her Research on how Frontline Workers Respond to their Clients' Disclousures of Domestic Violence

In February 2010, the WCPC interviewed Associate Professor of Social Work Taryn Lindhorst about her research on how frontline workers in welfare offices respond when their clients disclose domestic violence.  (Read the Flash based on this work here.)

WCPC: How did you become interested in how frontline welfare workers respond to their clients' disclosures of domestic violence?

TL: As a former frontline worker in a health setting that also had many policies to implement, I am interested in how frontline workers understand and respond to policy directives, since they are the ones that actually make policy happen.
Although frontline workers in welfare settings see large numbers of domestic violence survivors, their job is not configured to acknowledge this issue.  It is particularly important and helpful to understand what workers do in situations where they are being asked to implement policies that seem to them to be outside the scope of their purpose.

WCPC: The data set you used of interactions between caseworkers and clients seems to be pretty unique. What is the most interesting or attractive part about working with this data?

TL: These data are the only kind in the country that captures the actual interactions between workers and clients across multiple settings.  These data were compelling because they allowed us to look inside the "black box" of what workers were actually saying to their clients, rather than relying on reports from workers or clients after the fact of the encounter.  This helped us to identify ways in which workers side-stepped addressing domestic violence issues, while nominally looking as though they had responded.

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

TL: The most significant finding is how few clients are identified as having a concern with domestic violence, even though we know they are present in these caseloads.  This particular report shows that even when these women reach out for help (and it was them asking, not workers identifying this need), only a few received what could be termed a "best practice" response to their situation.  I was intrigued with the few workers who really seemed to "get it" in the ways they provided support and help to survivors.

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

TL: I think there are two immediate areas that warrant more research in terms of improving the response to domestic violence survivors who seek help through the public welfare system.  The first would be to understand underlying factors that may differentiate the workers who were able to respond effectively to domestic violence survivors -- in essence, to study the "best of the best" to see how they develop strong communication skills.  The second would be to use the insights gathered from "model workers" to inform the development of an intervention study to improve recognition and response to domestic violence in welfare settings.

WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?

TL: The stakes are high for domestic violence survivors.  Abuse survivors often face severe financial hardship if they leave an abusive partner.  For women with young children and few job skills or other financial resources, the welfare office will be a primary site where they seek help.  Having frontline workers who humanely respond and offer support and safety planning for these women will benefit these clients, their children and others associated with them, potentially preventing death or serious injury in these families.

Ultimately, many of the dilemmas in responding to domestic violence in welfare settings will need solutions at the policy level.  For instance, current welfare policy is focused on the outcome of helping women to leave the welfare rolls through employment.  For some women trying to escape a violent partner, employment may not be the most immediate need.  Until federal policy actually mandates that states account for their work with domestic violence survivors through active reporting requirements, little is likely to change in the day-to-day encounters between frontline workers and domestic violence survivors.