How do we best empower clients? While working at a shelter for domestic violence victims—a haven for those seeking the independence that was stolen from them in their unhealthy relationships—I found that empowerment was a word that got thrown around a lot, almost like a slogan. But what did it really mean?
After a while, I noticed that our clients were being referred to exactly the same services in every case, despite their varying needs. Everyone is different—everyone has their own stories and strengths—and what works for one might not work for another. I wanted these survivors to learn to help themselves. But we were not treating them as individuals: the staff, following orders, was plugging them into identical resources: public housing, food stamps, etc. It was just the easy thing to do, but it did not help them to help themselves, and it did not give them any immediate relief. It just made them wait.
As advocates, we can be the voice for those who struggle to speak, but what are we saying? With the power to do good comes the power to hold them back. My colleagues and I wondered why we weren’t helping people with job placement, further education, and training in the trades. Social services organizations need to recognize that there’s a fine line between empowering and enabling. Whatever else they’re doing, they should have policies that recognize everyone’s individuality, and that help each person to find his or her own special way forward.