The Social Work Response to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)

By Adam J. Pearson

social work
Photography by Kirk Mastin of a woman in Chennai, India, who stood by herself away from her family during the Pongal New Year’s celebration. Later, she started swimming. “She is symbolic of a younger generation of women in this part of India who are breaking from tradition and finding independence,” the photographer said. 

IPV as a Social Issue

Intimate partner violence (IPV), that is, violence in romantic or sexual relationships remains highly prevalent in the United States and Canada; a critical review of the research by Whitaker and colleagues (2006) estimates that 22% of women experience abuse by a partner in their lifetime as do a significant minority of men. IPV can have significant physical and psychological consequences on survivors, which range from post-traumatic stress to chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and reproductive health issues (Kendall-Tacket, Marshall, & Ness, 2003).  In addition, when IPV occurs in the context of adolescent relationships, it has been found to be associated with increased rates of school failure, alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and risky sexual behaviour (Ackard, Neumark-Sztainer, & Hannan, 2002).

Intimate partner violence is embedded in a number of social contexts with complex interlocking dimensions; these include the influence of parenting styles, school experiences, potential genetic risk-factors, and unresolved mental health issues for perpetrators, the need for psychological, educational, and social work interventions for survivors and perpetrators alike, and legal and criminal issues that frame the prosecution and handling of cases (Whitaker et al., 2006).  Because the issue is so multifaceted, effectively addressing it involves complementary initiatives on the part of individuals in a variety of domains and settings including social workers, psychologists and psychotherapists, specialists at shelters for battered women, police officers, lawyers, policy developers, psychoeducators, and coordination of families, groups, and communities (McCollum & Smith, 2008).

Social Work Interventions for Survivors and Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence

Social workers play a pivotal role in providing services for both survivors and perpetrators of intimate partner violence. For survivors, they offer direct services that range from couseling and support in both shelter programs and private practice settings, court advocacy, and prevention services through social justice community organizations and coalitions (Danis, 2003). Whitaker et al. (2006) conducted a meta-analysis on preventive interventions, which found that they typically include educational presentations, professional development and training, organizing speakers for social groups, and conducting discussion groups to change beliefs and attitudes towards IPV.

In addition, social workers also provide voluntary and court-mandated intervention programs for perpetrators. A meta-analytic review of batterers treatment programs by Babcock, Green, & Robie (2002) found that they range from feminist psychoeducational men’s groups, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) men’s groups, anger management and social skills training groups, and in specialized cases, couples therapy.  In their work with both survivors and perpetrators, social workers help people to address their feelings, values, cognitions, and learned behaviours surrounding  IPV and connect them with organizations, medical and mental health resources, and social work programs to support them (McCollum & Smith, 2008).

In conclusion, IPV is a multidimensional social issue and adequately addressing it requires the collaboration and coordination of professionals in a number of fields. Social workers make significant contributions to this process; as professionals who are dedicated to the practical achievement of social justice, their responses play a central role in addressing the needs of survivors and perpetrators alike.


Ackard, D. M., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Hannan, P. (2002). Dating violence among a nationally representative sample of adolescent girls and boys: associations with behavioral and mental health. The journal of gender-specific medicine: JGSM: the official journal of the Partnership for Women’s Health at Columbia6(3), 39-48.

Babcock, J. C., Green, C. E., & Robie, C. (2004). Does batterers’ treatment work? A meta-analytic review of domestic violence treatment. Clinical psychology review23(8), 1023-1053.

Danis, F. S. (2003). Social work response to domestic violence: Encouraging news from a new look. Affilia18(2), 177-191.

Kendall-Tackett, K., Marshall, R., & Ness, K. (2003). Chronic pain syndromes and violence against women. Women & Therapy26(1-2), 45-56.

McCollum, E.E., & Stith, S.M. (2008). Couples treatment for interpersonal violence: A review of outcome research literature and current clinical practices. Violence and Victims, 23, 2, 187-201.
Whitaker, D. J., Morrison, S., Lindquist, C., Hawkins, S. R., O’Neil, J. A., Nesius, A. M., & Reese, L. R.  (2006). A critical review of interventions for the primary prevention of perpetration of partner violence. Aggression and Violent Behavior11(2), 151-166.

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