How to Become a Domestic Violence Advocate or Counselor
March 10, 2021
Domestic and intimate partner violence is so pervasive, it has become a critical problem in the United States.
Victims of domestic violence are impacted physically, mentally, financially and socially by their abusers. Domestic and partner violence can include violence, sexual violence, stalking, and other kinds of psychological and physical aggression by a current or former partner. Partners need not have been sexually intimate with each other for the violence to be classified as domestic or intimate partner violence.
Domestic violence victims face serious challenges in overcoming emotional and physical trauma, escaping their abusers and changing the patterns of abuse. Although men are also victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, women are impacted in greater numbers. Here are some key statistics about domestic violence according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence study:
- Nearly 1 in four women and 1 in 7 men experience severe physical violence by a partner in their lifetime.
- Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people each year.
- Nearly half of all women and 38.6% of men were between the ages of 18 to 24 when they first experienced violence by a partner.
Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Domestic Violence Counselor or Advocate?
Becoming a domestic violence counselor is not for everyone. Working with victims can be daunting and upsetting. With this in mind, individuals who head into this field should ask themselves, do I have the resilience and tenacity to help and advocate for victims of domestic violence? Can I handle the stress and personal impact this kind of work may have on me?
If the answer is yes, becoming a domestic violence advocate, social worker or counselor may be right for you. Domestic violence social workers, counselors and advocates help victims change their lives and overcome their circumstances. They may provide them counseling, help secure protections for them, access resources like housing and help them gain independence with employment. Importantly, they can not only make a difference in the lives of those abused, but in the lives of family members and children who may also be traumatized.
What kind of degree or credentials are required to become a domestic violence advocate?
It Depends on Your Counseling Role, and Where You Work
Like other counseling fields, counselors working in the field of domestic violence often hold advanced degrees in psychology, counseling and social work. Having these kinds of advanced degrees may position a counselor for greater responsibility, counseling at a higher level and a better salary. However, having a masters or advanced degree may not be necessary to work as a counselor in this field.
That’s because there’s a lack of national and state standards for counselors and advocates in domestic violence. Furthermore, individuals who were domestic abuse victims themselves, often may play an important role in modeling how a victim may overcome their abuse. In fact, in many treatment settings counselors are former victims. They have turned their own experience with adversity into an opportunity to counsel others facing the same challenges. This is a common model of practice in many treatment facilities focused on recovery from problems such as gambling addiction and substance abuse. Facilities often rely on multi-disciplinary approaches, and utilizing the counseling skills of someone in “recovery" can be very helpful.
As we said, at present there are no national standards for counselor training in the field of domestic violence. This means credentialing and training requirements vary by state, by employer, and the role performed by the provider in in this field. Not all settings require formal education or training. Not all states require domestic violence certification.
You will need to do your homework to determine where you want to work, and the role you want to play in this specialized field. Depending on what that is, and your career goals, a Master’s degree may be worthwhile.
Help Wanted: Why the Clinical Skills of a Masters of Social Work (MSW) Are Needed, and are a Career-Booster
While it’s true that domestic violence counselors come from many backgrounds, some treatment settings require or strongly prefer counselors who hold state licensure as a mental health counselor or a MSW.
Masters of Social Work students are in high demand because they are uniquely positioned to pursue specialized training in the field of domestic violence through coursework in their academic setting, and even more so in the field work assignments they secure. For example, a MSW candidate might focus on developing strong clinical skills – such as providing counseling and psychotherapeutic services – and then find a domestic violence setting in which to become highly specialized.
The benefit of pursuing the MSW is that graduates are eligible for state licensing and certification, (albeit, this is a broad certification as a licensed social worker, not as a domestic violence counselor) and that MSW’s are a highly regulated profession. Again, that certification may be highly valued in certain settings.
Those wishing to become certified as a MSW in their state should check with their state's licensing or social work board to learn of the necessary requirements. Obtaining such social work licensure and developing a specialized expertise as a domestic violence social worker is of high value because it ensures a standardized level of training and education.
Importantly, the MSW is a highly versatile and well-respected degree. MSW’s are also well positioned to go into public policy and advocacy for victims and fight for social justice in a variety of ways. The tools provided to a social worker can be applied in many settings, and across many populations. In fact, it is possible to springboard from work as a domestic violence counselor to other counseling positions in related fields and facilities.
Interested in exploring related social work careers?