Working Within Domestic Violence Shelters

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This paper explores the obstacles that advocates face while working within domestic violence shelters and how they cope with their experiences and daily challenges. American society relies on domestic violence shelters to provide a safe haven for victims of domestic violence, though their necessity over-expands past the boundaries of a safe place to sleep. For domestic violence shelters to function as an integral part of the human services field, advocates working within the shelters must find ways of rehabilitating victims in order to eventually reintegrate them back into society. This paper will delve deeply into the ways in which advocates face challenges within their roles as well as explain the tools and resources necessary for victims to return to society as survivors.

An Exploration of Advocate Roles and Survivor Needs While Working in Domestic Violence

American society relies on countless programs and resources within the human services field to serve specific human needs that are not being met. Domestic violence shelters are pertinent to the human services field and society as a whole – countless women and children become victims of domestic violence and must rely on shelters and their staff for immediate assistance. The roles of workers within domestic violence shelters require advocates to be resourceful and patient as the magnitude of their role in a victim’s life is based upon helping the victim reintegrate into society as a survivor. While the obvious focus of domestic violence shelters is based upon the victim and their story, we mustn’t forget the intricate roles of the advocates; though they are not the victim, their experiences within their job require skills and resources at both the micro and macro level. Advocates working in domestic violence shelters must traverse through the daily challenges and copious amounts of heartache and stress in order to play their very instrumental role in a victim’s life. As they play their part in other people’s lives within the domestic violence shelters, advocates must find resolutions of challenges and recognize rewards of advocacy, recognize survivor needs and resources all while understanding their role’s impact on survivors to both empower and instill hopefulness.

Challenges and Rewards of Advocacy within Domestic Violence Shelters

Advocates working within domestic violence shelters work tirelessly with victims in order to give them the tools and resources they need to survive. They are not only responsible for victims needs in the present, but also at the macro level of preparing victims for the future and successful reintegration back into society. It is not unexpected though that advocates face mental, social and physical challenges – all which can lead to advocate burnout without proper precautions. In a study considering the experiences of advocates in domestic violence shelters, Merchant and Whiting found that “Challenges fell into three categories: managing shelter shock, letting go of being the hero, and balancing advocate roles” (Merchant & Whiting, 2015). In their study, Merchant and Whiting interviews nineteen participants who were either current or former advocates of domestic violence shelters, which averaged to have worked as an advocate for 5.4 years (Merchant & Whiting, 2015). Including the three major challenges they noted, it was concluded that an important factor in how advocates coped was majorly dependent on how much support they received from their shelter, as “Those in less-supportive shelters expressed more frustration and were more likely to leave the domestic violence field” (Merchant & Whiting, 2015). When shelter cultures were supportive and resourceful, advocates were more likely to stay within their position.

Hearing client stories was a major source of shelter shock as the constant emotions of listening to victims all while managing their endless list of duties proved to be overwhelming. Through interviews with advocates, some noted that they weren’t prepared for the intensity of hearing victims’ stories. Advocates coped with this challenge through supportive co-workers and employers as they noted that “Receiving support from co-workers helped advocates feel less alone, while those who coped privately felt more isolated” (Merchant & Whiting, 2015). It was also found that shelters with positive culture had supervisors who were directly involved with their staff and had a vision for their shelter as “Shelter visions promoted teamwork by providing a common goal while also allowing advocates to identify their niche in the vision” (Merchant & Whiting, 2015). Many advocates faced challenges internally with wanting to be the hero yet were often disappointed with the outcome – many victims of domestic violence either are not ready to leave or there was constant red tape when accessing resources. Most of these advocates reported that once they came to terms with not being a hero for all, they were better able to cope and understand that they weren’t always to blame when a victim returned to their abuser. The most notable challenge that advocates face is the threat of burnout. In a study examining burnout among advocates in domestic violence shelters, it was found that there are three contributing factors associated – emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Babin, Palazzolo, & Rivera, 2012). Merchant and Whiting’s study relates closely with Babin, Palazzolo and Rivera’s findings of the leading causes of burnout. Without proper resolution of their challenges, advocates are at high risk for burnout. Babin, Palazzolo and Rivera’s findings on social support were congruent with Merchant and Whiting’s, as “Perceived informational support and perceived emotional support were positively related to one another, and both types of support were negatively related to all three dimensions of burnout” (Babin, Palazzolo, & Rivera, 2012). Thus, there is a heavy emphasis and need for shelter support in order to reduce the challenges of advocacy. This proves that it is crucial for advocates to have a proper support system in order to help victims be coached, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society with more tools than they had prior to the shelter.

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Survivor Needs and Resources within Domestic Violence Shelters

When a victim of domestic violence enters into a shelter, they are seeking more than just asylum. It is pertinent for victims and often their children to gain the tools and necessary skills that will best equip them for re-entering society as a well-prepared survivor. In a study across eight states, victims reported that upon entering a shelter their highest needs fell into the categories of “Safety, Information, Self-Care and Connections, Community Resources, and Children” (Sullivan & Virden, 2017). For advocates to effectively help victims, they must understand these needs and provide tools to accomplish client goals.

Victims entering shelters are often accompanied by their children. In instances such as these it is vital to note that children are also victims of domestic violence and both parent and child may need additional resources such as parent-child therapy. Advocates can provide this training through specialized programs such as Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) (Keeshin, Oxman, Schindler, & Campbell, 2015). A study where researchers examined the use of PCIT, specifically Child Directed Interaction (CDI), found that many mothers living in shelters exhibited parenting behaviors that “Include harsh or abusive parenting practices, including increased use of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment” (Keeshin, Oxman, Schindler, & Campbell, 2015). Through this program, mothers and children were coached on positive communication, enabling them to safely express themselves and strengthen their relationship with one another. The research concluded that “Mothers in our series were able to learn, practice, and utilize the components of CDI” (Keeshin, Oxman, Schindler, & Campbell, 2015), which empowered the parent-child relationship and prepared them for life after the shelter.

Domestic violence victims have also expressed a high need for self-care and community. Many women who have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual assault may have little to no knowledge of what a safe sexual relationship should be. Advocates who are able to provide resources such as a Pleasure Centered Education Program (PCEP) can not only educate victims on sexual relationships, but also empower them for future relationships. Women in these programs are able to explore what a positive sexual relationship should look like. Many participants within the study on PCEP reported that “They felt more powerful and in control of their bodies and sexuality when armed with increased knowledge about their sexual anatomy and appropriate expectations for pleasure” (Tambling, Neustifler, Muska, Reckert, & Rua, 2012). Programs such as PCEP help victims with not only self-care and information but community as well. Women participating in this study concluded that they felt a higher level of community as they were able to speak openly and confide in one another (Tambling, Neustifler, Muska, Reckert, & Rua, 2012). Most notably though, women who had more access to these programs and were provided a safe experience with the advocates were more likely to report that they gained a sense of hopefulness and empowerment.

Impacts of Advocate Roles on Survivors: Empowerment and Hopefulness

The programs previously discussed shed tremendous light on how survivors gain security and empowerment through group settings such as the Pleasure Centered Education Program as well as the Parent Child Interaction Therapy. Both studies showed results of women feeling more positive and hopeful after having access to the resources such as these programs and the help of advocates to give them the tools they need to survive and live a life of hopefulness. As advocates rely on emotional support from their coworkers and supervisors, the more positive their training and support are results in a higher reward value. In a study on vicarious resilience within domestic violence advocacy, researchers found that while it was important for shelter supervisors to provide proper trauma prevention training for advocates, it was more crucial to “Educate themselves in order to explicitly address vicarious resilience in trainings and develop organizational practices that facilitate growth” (Frey, Beesley, Abbott, & Kendrick, 2017). Researchers found that when advocates were able to grow personally and professionally through the success of their clients, they were better equipped for the challenges of advocacy. This in turn created a cycle – a victim becomes empowered and hopeful through the empowerment and hopefulness that the advocate exerts and vice versa. Additionally, in Sullivan and Virden’s study, they concluded that “Survivors’ increased hopefulness and confidence in their abilities were predicted not just by how helpful staff were but how they were treated while in shelter” (Sullivan & Virden, 2017). This proves the importance and impact of advocates on survivors, as their treatment of clients has the ability to both empower and instill hopefulness upon them.


Advocates working within domestic violence shelters face endless challenges both personally and professionally. It is often that advocates must navigate through the personal stress and crisis their position entails, all while at risk for burnout. Only through proper resources, training and shelter support and culture are advocates best equipped to overcome the challenges within their roles. Their job is to not only help victims survive through safety, but also through providing tools and resources for them to best prepare for life after leaving the shelter. It is noteworthy that while many advocates are working one on one with clients, the small groups of advocates working together are often reliant on one another to build each other up and work as a unit. It is not without a supportive and communicative group that they function to provide safety to the many victims that they serve. As advocates in domestic violence shelters work tirelessly in this realm of the human services field, their importance to society is significant. With the proper support, advocates are able cope with and recognize the challenges and rewards of advocacy to best meet the needs of survivors, and to empower not only themselves, but also their clients.


  1. Babin, E. E., Palazzolo, K. E., & Rivera, K. D. (2012). Communication Skills, Social Support, and Burnout among Advocates in a Domestic Violence Agency. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 40(2), 147-166. doi:10.1080/00909882.2012.670257
  2. Frey, L. L., Beesley, D., Abbott, D., & Kendrick, E. (2017). Vicarious Resilience in Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Advocates. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practive & Policy, 9(1), 44-51. doi:10.1037/tra0000159
  3. Keeshin, B. R., Oxman, A., Schindler, S., & Campbell, K. A. (2015). A Domestic Violence Shelter Parent Training Program for Mothers with Young Children. Journal of Family Violence, 30, 461-466. doi:10.1007/s10896-015-9698-6
  4. Merchant, L. V., & Whiting, J. B. (2015). Challenges and Retention of Domestic Violence Shelter Advocates: a Grounded Theory. Journal of Family Violence, 467-478. doi:doi:10.1007/s10896-015-9685-y
  5. Sullivan, C. M., & Virden, T. (2017). An Eight State Study on the Relationships Among Domestic Violence Shelter Services and Residents’ . Journal of Family Violence, 32, 741-750. doi:10.1007/s10896-017-9930-7
  6. Tambling, R. B., Neustifler, R., Muska, C., Reckert, A., & Rua, S. (2012). Pleasure-Centered Education Program: A Comprehensive Approach to Pleasure-Oriented Sexuality Education in Domestic Violence Shelters. International Journal of Sexual Health, 24, 267-289. doi:10.1080/19317611.2012.715119
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Working Within Domestic Violence Shelters. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“Working Within Domestic Violence Shelters.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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