Healthy Habits for Survivor Advocates
A series on self-care
By Kristen Tebow (K.T. Wings), Survivor Advocate
Being a survivor working in the direct victim services field is a wonderfully rewarding and satisfying career, but it can also be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. As a survivor, I am well-known for surging full-force into whatever project or case I’m working on while, at the same time, forgetting that I may not have eaten all day, slept in two days, or spent quality time by myself or with friends or family. I oftentimes become so focused on the job that I forget about the realities of burnout – until it’s too late. Your body tells you when you are too tired, too stressed, too hungry – basically too anything. It’s our job to listen and take care of ourselves as we take care of others.
Developing Strong Boundaries.
I put this as #1, because I suck at it. Many, many, many agencies/professors blab on and on about boundaries. Before I began my direct services work, I was extremely sick and tired of hearing about boundaries, because I strongly believe that each and every person is entitled to setting his/her own standards for boundaries. BUT, I quickly learned that there are major safety concerns to consider in the direct services field, lessons the advocates who came before me learned long ago. Here are some rules I try to adhere to in regard to boundaries:
a) When working directly with survivors, always remember that self-disclosure is not required. You do not have to tell them anything not included in the service you are providing. Sometimes it is a good idea to not tell survivors you are a survivor. Also, remember that some agencies do not support survivors working in the field. When deciding to self-disclose at work, please consider the possibility that it could carry heavy consequences. Weigh the pros and cons and talk to a trusted coworker about it.
b) If you don’t want to set a strict “no past survivors on social media” policy, set a minimum requirement for social media. I am someone who has a really hard time letting go, especially if I am the only person in a survivor’s life, so I made myself a little rule. If I have been working with a survivor who has passed all my safety screenings, who wants to join the movement as a leader, and who has requested to add me as a friend on Facebook, I have a minimum requirement of 2 years, and they are added to a “limited profile list.” It is also a good idea to consult your agency’s policy on client/advocate boundaries. I don’t add any clients from any agency I am currently working for.
c) Do not give out your personal information. Google has several resources to get a masked number so survivors can get ahold of you if they are in crisis. Sometimes agencies give out work phones. Don’t give out your address, because sometimes survivors aren’t quite out of the life. I’ve actually had a pimp knocking on my door looking for a survivor. That puts yourself, your family and your dogs at risk.
d) Do NOT answer text messages, phone calls, emails, etc. while you are at home, unless there are extenuating circumstances or crises. It is important for you to have breaks and for survivors to understand that they need to figure things out without you if they can. Your family needs you just as much as the survivors need you.
e) Know when it is time to be done. I can usually recognize the signs that I need a break, when I remember what I am supposed to do without looking at my schedule or my email. Other times, I find myself obsessing over things I can’t control, and I wear out my friends and family with all of my “problems.” These are flashing signs of being NOT HEALTHY. When you begin to take your work home with you, it’s time for some self-care. If it’s happening so frequently that it becomes your personality, it’s time to find yourself in another part of the movement. Maybe providing direct services isn’t for you. There are a billion and a half other parts of the movement that can use your knowledge and skill set.
a) If you choose to self-disclose about your survivor status, talk to consulting agencies about your boundaries to prevent them from outing you. I recently worked on a case alongside a faith-based organization I had previously consulted with. These ladies were very excited to work with me on this level and disclosed to the survivor that I am a survivor before I arrived on site. The survivor had, unfortunately, experienced issues previously with a survivor advocate in another state and ended up in a worse situation because of those issues, therefore she was less inclined to even talk to me. My boss eventually understood that the disclosure happened before I even arrived on site, but it cost me a promotion due to being “too visible.” Not cool, I know. But if I would have been clearer about my presence as a survivor advocate in the community, the situation may have been avoided.
And speaking about working with other agencies:
b) CONFIDENTIALITY is extremely important. Survivors have to know that their business is not going to be blasted all over the community. Many of the agencies I have worked with employ confidentiality policies that prohibit ANY disclosure of any kind without the permission from the survivor. Of course, mandated reporters would need to be clear up front when it comes to reporting child and adult abuse and suicidality. Advocates are not always mandated reporters, so take a look at your state’s legislature and agency policies. This is a great site to see if you are a mandated reporter and trying to figure out the responsibilities and stuff à Click Here
c) Collaborating with other agencies is an important piece of the victim services puzzle. When working with survivors of trafficking, it is important to develop a positive relationship with all agencies who could potentially come into contact with survivors: law enforcement, medical agencies, social service agencies, DCF, and others. Some agencies I have worked for have confidentiality agreements set into place with DCF and the police department that allows additional disclosure to ensure collaboration on cases. For instance, I do not have to get a new release each month from a survivor on a collaborative case. I make sure to speak with survivors about this early on in the case so they are aware. In addition to working collaboratively on the cases, it is important to foster healthy relationships with other agencies, because they will send you referrals if they like you.
d) Dress codes do not always have to be followed. Sometimes business casual can put you more at risk when you are out on site. I’ve had an experience in the past where I went on site to talk to a survivor, and the pimp spotted me from around the corner. I was wearing a pantsuit and was easily identifiable as a helper or cop. The next time I saw the woman I was out there to see, she was in the hospital, beaten to a pulp. Dressing up out in the field can also raise questions and attention that could breach confidentiality. Talk to your supervisor (or use your best judgment) about these safety risks and work together to develop a strategy to minimize the risks by trying to blend in with the environment.