What is Domestic Violence Counseling and How Does It Intersect with ABA?

Domestic violence remains a prevalent and persistent problem in America, affecting millions of citizens every year, whether directly or indirectly. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, every year, more than 12 million people in the U.S. are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner.

How and to what extent domestic violence affects other members in the household cannot be discounted, either. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that a child witnessed violence in 22% of intimate partner violence cases filed in state courts, and among victims of child abuse, 40% reported domestic violence in the home.

Domestic violence counseling is a valuable source of support, acting as a lifeline for victims of domestic violence and those who love them.

What is Domestic Violence?

To fully understand domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence), it’s important to realize its scope. While violence between a man and a woman is most often associated with the term ‘domestic violence,’ this type of violence can be between two or members of any domestic situation, meaning violence that occurs between two or more people residing in the same household. In recent years, it has also come to include two adults in any type of intimate relationship, whether or not they reside together.

Domestic violence includes a pattern of behavior meant to frighten, intimidate, control, physically harm, or deprive, or rob someone of their self-worth. This includes:

  • Physical abuse: Hitting, kicking, slapping, shoving, biting, restraining
  • Emotional abuse: Criticism, name calling, blaming, belittling, vilification, isolation
  • Sexual abuse: Forced sex acts, rape, demoralizing treatment
  • Psychological abuse: Threats of any kind designed to maintain control and frighten the victim to the extent that they are afraid to leave the home, attend school, go to work, or socialize; may include threats against the victim, the victim’s children, family members, or pets, or threats of self-harm
  • Financial abuse: Restricting a victim’s access to finances or financial resources

Domestic violence can happen to anyone – of any gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation. It may include abuse between intimate partners who are living together, dating, or married, or even between family members (parents, siblings, children, grandparents, etc.).

Domestic violence may not always look the same, but in most cases, support and assistance are necessary to break the cycle of abuse and abuse and begin to heal. For example, in the LGBTQ community, domestic abuse may be one partner threating to ‘out’ another partner; it may be an able-bodied partner withholding medicine, assistance, or assistive devices from a disabled or sick partner; or it may be an adult child neglecting to provide care for an elderly parent.

Domestic violence counseling is an important part of the recovery process for victims of domestic abuse. It’s where they can talk about their feelings in a safe environment…where they can begin to work through their feelings of pain, grief, and fear…where they can begin to rebuild their self-esteem and identity…and where they can begin to recognize and break patterns of negative behavior.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA), successfully used for decades with children with autism and other developmental disorders, continues to evolve, with human services practitioners in a wide number of practice settings now using ABA to help people change maladaptive behaviors through positive reinforcement. The use of ABA in domestic violence counseling can serve as a valuable tool for counselors who are working with victims to reestablish healthy behaviors in their lives.

What is a Domestic Violence Counselor?

Domestic violence counselors are mental health professionals who are educated, trained, and licensed to provide support and counseling services to victims of domestic abuse and their loved ones. While most of the time counseling takes place after the victim leaves the abusive relationship, it may also include helping victims recognize abuse in a relationship and gain the confidence needed to end the relationship.

These professionals may be mental health counselors, family and marriage therapists, crisis counselors, psychologists, social workers, or nurse practitioners.

Domestic violence counselors are often employed in a number of settings such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Women’s shelters
  • Nonprofit agencies (national, state, local)
  • Social and human services offices (national, state, local)
  • Private practice
  • Domestic violence hotlines

Domestic violence counselors are also trained to identify the presence of issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome and refer patients to the proper medical professionals.

The Role of Domestic Violence Counselors

Thanks to passage of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) in 1984, the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, and a number of several landmark court cases, domestic violence in the U.S. is a national crime that’s backed by federal laws and supported by comprehensive services designed to protect and assist victims of domestic violence.

Today, domestic violence counseling is part of a broad system of support that’s provided by private, public, and community-based agencies and organizations. From advocacy to intervention to the provision of emergency shelters and temporary housing, domestic violence support is designed to address short-term needs and provide long-term solutions to domestic violence.

Domestic violence counseling is part of the continuum of care for victims and those who love them. It is often provided alongside medical attention, psychotherapy, and other forms of therapy, including crisis counseling. It may also include the assistance of law enforcement and even legal help. It may be offered in the form of intense personal therapy, family and marriage therapy, and support groups. Domestic violence counseling is certainly aimed at survivors, but it also often encompasses counseling for friends and family of survivors and even abusive partners seeking rehabilitation.

Domestic violence counseling helps victims:

  • Come to terms with the abuse
  • Recognize that the abuse was not their fault
  • Work through issues of sorrow, anger, low self-esteem, insecurity, trust, etc.
  • Understand the relationship between grief and trauma
  • Reestablish their life, self-esteem, identity, and sense of power and control after abuse

Open, honest discussions are a hallmark of domestic violence counseling, as are introducing methods of coping with the complex emotions that are often present among domestic violence victims and their families. Journaling, meditation, art therapy, and support groups are often part of a comprehensive program of domestic violence counseling.

Domestic violence counselors also help patients implement realistic, short-term, actionable goals that are focused on recognizing negative behavioral patterns and replacing them with new, positive behaviors. ABA is often used in this context, with domestic violence counselors employing behavioral techniques that help victims break cycles of negative behavior. While ABA therapy may look different from one victim to the next, the overreaching goal is to first help victims to recognize distorted or unrealistic thinking and then to change that thinking by replacing the negative behavior associated with it.

A good example of utilizing ABA in domestic violence counseling would be a woman who became socially withdrawn after years of emotional abuse. The counselor would first begin by helping the woman identify the reasons she isolated herself (feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem from being repeatedly told she was worthless). Then, by completing a number of actionable goals (e.g., having coffee with a friend, going to a book reading at her library) arranged between the counselor and the woman, she would begin to realize her self-worth. The feelings of confidence gained from completing these small, actionable steps would serve as positive reinforcement that would eventually replace the painful feelings the woman felt for so long and the maladaptive behavior (isolation) that resulted.

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How to Become a Domestic Violence Counselor

In most cases, domestic violence counselors are clinical social workers or mental health counselors, both of whom are usually educated at the master’s level and state licensed to practice.

Typical degrees relevant to this kind of work include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • MA/MS in Clinical Counseling
  • MA/MS in Counseling Psychology
  • MS in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling
  • MA in Counseling or Mental Health and Wellness

Within these programs you’ll often have the opportunity to take a number of courses aimed at domestic violence counseling, such as:

  • Victimology
  • The Family System
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Women in the Community
  • Crime and Community
  • Responding to Child Maltreatment

You may also further specialize your degree in domestic violence counseling by choosing domestic violence counseling settings to satisfy the degree’s practical requirements.

Mental Health Counselor State Licensing Requirements

After completing your master’s degree in a counseling related field, you’ll need to complete two years of post-master’s clinical work under the supervision of a licensed clinical mental health counselor and take either a state-developed exam or the National Counselor Examination through the National Board for Certified Counselors, which many states use for licensing purposes. Depending on the state in which you practice, you’ll likely be licensed as one of the following:

  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CMHC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • National Certified Counselor (NCC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

You can learn more about state licensing requirements to become a mental health counselor here.

Social Worker State Licensing Requirements

Depending on the state in which you live, you may be licensed as a social worker at the bachelor’s or master’s level. However, if you want to hold the title of clinical social worker, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in social work and then complete at least two years of post-master’s clinical experience.

You’ll need to take the national examination through the Association of Social Work Boards to earn state licensure to practice. Most states license social workers at a number of different levels:

  • Bachelor’s-level social work associates
  • Master’s-level independent licensed social workers
  • Advanced generalist (requires an MSW and at least two years of post-degree experience in non-clinical settings)
  • Clinical social worker (requires an MSW and at least two years of post-degree experience in direct clinical practice settings)

You can learn more about state licensing requirements to become a social worker here.

State Certification and Training Requirements

In addition to holding the proper state license to practice as a mental health counselor or social worker, some states also require domestic violence counselors (and any other staff member working directly with domestic violence programs participants) to complete a mandatory course of training (usually about 40 hours) in domestic violence counseling.

For example, in Washington State, all staff members who provide direct treatment services to participants in domestic violence counseling programs must complete an initial 40 hours of domestic violence training through an established domestic violence victim or survivor services program, including the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Thereafter, staff members must complete an additional 30 hours of training annually.

Likewise, in California, all domestic violence counselors and advocates working out of shelter programs, counseling centers, hospitals, and mental health programs must complete at least 40 hours of training that meets California requirements for counseling and individual case management.

Check with your state licensing board for more information on domestic violence counseling requirements.

National Certification Opportunities

While strictly voluntary, adding a national designation to your resume is an excellent way to position yourself as a leader in your field.

Both the social work and counseling professions offer national certification:

Given the fusion of ABA therapy into domestic violence counseling, earning national certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board is a great way to complement your domestic violence counseling practice.

Currently, you must complete a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis and a defined supervised practical experience to qualify for BCBA certification. You may also qualify by completing a degree in one of these three areas and completing a Verified Course Sequence later on as a post-graduate stand-alone course sequence.

But a variety of other professionals in the human services field, including domestic violence counselors, will soon be eligible for BCBA certification. In January 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up the BCBA to a wide variety of master’s-level practitioners in the human services field. In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS have already removed the degree restrictions, allowing counselors, social workers, and other professionals to complete the VCA now. And then, in 2022, you’ll have the option of satisfying the experiential and exam requirements necessary to earn the BCBA designation.

Domestic Violence Counselor Salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned the following salaries at the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles, as of May 2021:

  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile: $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Domestic Violence Counselors earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • Utah: $66,190
  • Alaska: $65,090
  • District of Columbia: $64,920
  • Rhode Island: $64,640
  • New Jersey: $63,430

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Domestic Violence Counselors, according to mean salary, were:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $74,560
  • Carson City, NV: $73,200
  • Reno, NV: $71,690
  • George, UT: $70,630
  • Salt Lake City, UT: $68,370
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.