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University of California Press
Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling

Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling

by Kenneth H. Kolb
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Moral Wages offers the reader a vivid depiction of what it is like to work inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Based on over a year of fieldwork by a man in a setting many presume to be hostile to men, this ethnographic account is unlike most research on the topic of violence against women. Instead of focusing on the victims or perpetrators of abuse, Moral Wages focuses exclusively on the service providers in the middle. It shows how victim advocates and counselors—who don't enjoy extrinsic benefits like pay, power, and prestige—are sustained by a different kind of compensation. As long as they can overcome a number of workplace dilemmas, they earn a special type of emotional reward reserved for those who help others in need: moral wages. As their struggles mount, though, it becomes clear that their jobs often put them in impossible situations—requiring them to aid and feel for vulnerable clients, yet giving them few and feeble tools to combat a persistent social problem.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282728
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/18/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kenneth Kolb is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Furman University.

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Moral Wages

The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling

By Kenneth H. Kolb


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95866-1


Emotional Dilemmas

Staff meetings at SAFE (Stopping Abuse in Family Environments) were typically dry affairs—an agenda of items to cover, a list of tasks to be divvied up, various reports from different offices—but this one felt different. Kelly, a co-director at SAFE, had just introduced a new topic—"service gaps"—and posed a question to the group: "What can we do to keep clients from falling through the cracks?" Cathleen, a victim advocate, spoke first: "I've been having nightmares about not helping women out. I wish the other staff [in the office] knew we were operating at a bare minimum." The counselors who worked upstairs responded with sympathy to Cathleen's plea but did not have an answer to her problem. SAFE had just had 20 percent of its annual budget cut because a source of state funding had dried up. As a result, two of the three advocates on staff had been reduced to part time—leaving Cathleen as the only full-time advocate. "If I'm the only one who is full time, if no one else is around, I feel like it is all my responsibility, and that sucks." Compounding the problem, even though SAFE staffing had been reduced, the incoming flow of calls and walk-in clients continued unabated. Jesse, one of the advocates whose hours had been cut, explained that less time in the office only meant more stress: "I don't have enough time to do all my work.... It takes a toll."

Meg, another advocate, was also worried. She paused for a moment and then started to cry. She apologized for her tears and explained, "I still feel responsible for Shelly." She was referring to a SAFE client who had been murdered the year before. This case occurred long before the recent budget cuts and was seemingly unrelated to the recent staffing problems, but everyone at the meeting understood the connection.

Shelly's case was well known in the SAFE office. Jesse and Meg worked with her and remembered the details well (including the date of Shelly's first visit to SAFE the year before: October 13). Over the past months, I had heard the timeline of her case countless times. Shelly had come to SAFE because her relationship with her husband had steadily deteriorated. He had stopped working because of an injury and was waiting for disability checks to start arriving. He had become abusive with their daughter (pinning her against a wall when she would not turn down her radio), and Shelly did not know what to do.

Meg was the first advocate to work with Shelly. They discussed the benefits and risks associated with a "protective order"—a type of restraining order. Contrary to popular belief, the SAFE advocates were trained to be skeptical of legal solutions and spent a great deal of time warning clients about the potential downsides of bringing in cops and lawyers to help. In plain language, Meg laid out the risks to Shelly: "You could try for a protective order, that is certainly an option to you, but I just want to warn you, it's possible [a judge] could drop it, and he'd be able to come back to the home." Knowing all too well what her husband might do if enraged and emboldened, Shelly decided against a legal strategy. Instead, she went back home to see whether he would calm down. She rested her hopes on his earlier claim that he would leave the relationship once his disability payments started arriving.

Two weeks later, Shelly returned to the SAFE office. Her husband had grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm behind her back. Again, the subject of his rage was mundane: the TV remote control. Shelly walked into Meg's office, exhausted. "She was dressed in sweats and had her hair pulled back and no makeup. She seemed very tired ... very tired ... like she had just had enough." This time, she wanted a protective order. As an advocate, Meg was careful not to fill out the forms for Shelly; she did not have a license to practice law and pointed out the limits of her legal abilities to all of her clients. Meg handed Shelly a clipboard with the protective order paperwork and sat down next to her. She answered Shelly's questions about legal jargon and what a judge might say. Because Shelly expected that her husband would challenge the protective order in court, Meg arranged for a local lawyer to represent her pro bono. A year later, Meg could still recall who was in court that day, where they were sitting, and what they were wearing (for example, Shelly's father wore snakeskin boots). Shelly won her case and was granted the protective order for a year, meaning that her husband could not come near her, her home, or try to contact her. "I remember her being very relieved it was over and smiling. It was the first time I had seen her smile." They talked over the phone a few times over the next week, but Meg never saw her again.

Over the next week, Shelly's husband violated the terms of the order (and was arrested) twice: the first time for entering her home when no one was home and repeatedly firing a gun into the walls and ceiling; the second time, for contacting Shelly by phone. On both occasions, he posted bail ($10,000 for the second violation). At this point, Meg was trying to keep in continual contact with law enforcement and Shelly's lawyer, but there were gaps in communication. Shelly had stayed one night in SAFE's emergency shelter, but she had not told Meg. The shelter was located only a few miles from the main SAFE office, but staff members in the two locations often went days without seeing or speaking to each other. Unfamiliar with her case history, Christina, the shelter director, respected Shelly's decision to leave after one night. She thought it would be "disempowering" to force her to stay (even though she admitted she was tempted to tell Shelly not to leave).

A day later, the husband approached Shelly outside her workplace, killed her, and then turned the gun on himself. Meg learned of the news while in court helping another client obtain a protective order. They were before the same judge who had presided over Shelly's hearing.

In their private interviews with me, Meg and Christina speculated what they might have done differently had they known more details at the time. They knew that Shelly's husband's first arrest had been for firing a gun inside the home, but they did not know that he had been on the phone with her at the time when the shots rang out. They later learned that he had been trying to scare Shelly into believing that he had just killed himself while she was on the line. Additionally, local law enforcement suspected that he was suicidal, but they were unsure and thus did not place him under forced supervision. Had they known about the phone episode, they might have acted differently. Finally, while law enforcement officers in a different county were monitoring his whereabouts—they knew that he had moved into a hotel—they did not realize that he was staying in a room only a few hundred yards from Shelly's job.

In the staff meeting, Meg's tears about the year-old case had brought the discussion to a halt, and Kelly—her boss—quickly interjected to soothe her: "It was not your fault.... She was offered a lot of services.... Don't claim responsibility for something he did." Meg stopped crying, but more from fatigue than because of the words of comfort. In the previous year, she had heard all these lines before. In private, Meg told me that she still felt guilty. She wanted to believe that she had done everything she could have for this client, "but I can't do that in this case." To the rest of the staff at the meeting, she looked up from her tissue and apologized for bringing up Shelly's case once again: "I probably couldn't have prevented her death, and I know that ... and I know I keep bringing her name up, but this week is the anniversary of when she came in." It was October 12.

Jesse was not ready to move on to the next topic on the meeting agenda, either. She had also worked on Shelly's case. Her part-time status was partly because of the budget cuts, but not entirely. She was still in college. Fifteen years younger than Meg, she offered the same services as the other advocates: she answered the hotline, met with walk-in clients, and accompanied clients to court as they interacted with the assistant district attorney's office. Yet, she complained that her on-the-job training did not prepare her for the pressure she felt when dealing with such a vulnerable clientele: "Every client who has come in since ... I worry is going to be another Shelly. I worry whenever a client comes in with the same stalking history or tells you where to look for their body if they are killed." Tears started to well in Jesse's eyes, too. I saw that the tissue box on the table was empty and felt like I should do something to help her. Just a few weeks earlier, I had been joking with Jesse in this same room. Upon hearing about my plan to conduct research at SAFE, Jesse teased me that because I was a man I must be scared to be around a bunch of "man-hating feminazis." We had laughed a lot that afternoon. But now, sitting in the same chair, Jesse's mood was starkly different. I quietly got up from the table, grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom, and handed it to her. She smiled for a moment, continued to sob, and stared blankly at the floor.

Kelly offered Jesse roughly the same words of encouragement that she had to Meg, but she was also aware of the time and wanted to move through the meeting agenda. Shelly had not been the first SAFE client to be murdered. Kelly had been in this line of work for nearly three decades and remembered when legal, medical, and social service institutions were indifferent (at best) and hostile (at worst) to the needs of victims. She knew what Meg, Jesse, and Cathleen were going through. She prompted the rest of the staff to brainstorm possible solutions. "What can we do?" she asked the group.

Answers included diverting other staff (from the shelter or the counselors' office) to help the advocates or reducing the number of hours the agency was open to the public. Within moments after each suggestion, it became clear that each solution would have created another problem. The advocates welcomed more help to greet and process new clients but worried that those unfamiliar with their special duties might miss subtle clues that clients leave for the well-trained eye. They argued that a simple phone call to SAFE requesting the address for free legal services might be a subtle cry for help that the counselors or shelter staff members might not recognize. Additionally, even if they could process all the clients in their caseloads, where would they meet with them? The SAFE office had only a few private rooms for use at any given time. Kelly mentioned the possibility of changing its message to clients: "If we can't offer all of these services, should we be advertising them?" Despite being offered a way to reduce their workload, the advocates quickly said "No"; turning clients away was not an option. To them, shutting the door on women who need help was unthinkable. They wanted a different solution, but they did not know what it was. Meg asked bluntly, "Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?" to which Kelly responded, "Not any time soon."

This meeting said a lot about the emotional dilemmas of advocacy and counseling at SAFE. At every turn, it seemed like the staff faced impossible predicaments. They felt overwhelmed by their workloads, but they did not want to limit their availability to clients. They secretly wished that their clients would sometimes make different decisions (like stay in the shelter one more night), but telling them what to do would mean abandoning the "empowerment" philosophy in which they believed so strongly. They were leery of legal remedies, but they also saw courtrooms as one of the few places where they could help their clients in what they called "concrete" and "tangible" ways. They needed the help of (mostly) men in law enforcement and other organizations to assist their clients, but they also worried that opening their doors to any and all men might invite trouble.

Despite the remarkable ingenuity and problem-solving skills of the staff, these quandaries kept popping up, time after time. By the end of the meeting, the advocates reported feeling a little better; they felt relieved that at least others in the office now understood what they were going through. Yet, in the coming days and weeks, their anxieties would eventually return. Cognitive solutions—"Think about it this way"—or emotional ones—"Don't feel bad"—may work in the short term, but neither added new staff or more hours for existing staff. The reason for this was simple: the agency could not afford them.


The current scholarship on domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA) offers plenty of answers regarding how and why women like Shelly are abused, raped, and murdered every day, but it does so by focusing primarily on victims and their abusers. These studies typically ask questions such as, "Why is there so much abuse? How can it be stopped? Which policies deter violence better than others?" These questions are important. We need to know which services work better than others. However, this line of research largely sidesteps the workplace experiences of the people who deliver them: victim advocates and counselors. If we want to understand why some forms of help are more effective than others, then we should probably know more about those doing the helping.

The stories of advocates and counselors offer insight into DV and SA from a different perspective. In what ways do advocates and counselors find their work rewarding? In what ways do they find it disheartening? What kinds of relationships do they have with their clients? What challenges do they face at work, and how might their jobs set them up for these experiences? In this book, I relay events from their perspectives and put their experiences into a wider, sociological context.

Victim-service providers are often depicted as especially caring and compassionate—somehow different from the rest of us. But, in many ways, their experiences are typical and ordinary: the result of a group of people claiming a common identity, working under similar conditions, seeking to solve routine puzzles with limited tools. They interpreted their successes as individual achievements (which made them feel good), but this meant they also saw their failures as a product of their personal shortcomings (which had the opposite effect). My analysis focuses on the bigger picture. I argue that their self-doubts, worry, guilt, and confusion were not because they had somehow failed to learn how "to cope." I also refute the notion that their stress and tears were signs that they should have somehow worked harder or studied their training manuals even more thoroughly. The real reason they kept facing the same dilemmas again and again is that they worked in an emotionally risky arena, often with few and ineffective solutions for their clients and themselves. Their experiences were unique, because SAFE was its own place, but they were also patterned, because they were fighting the same fight as hundreds of other agencies like it. By focusing on the experiences of victim-service providers, I can show how emotional dilemmas can be structured into particular kinds of work.

This book is not the first to study battered women's shelters or victim support agencies (Loseke 1992; Dunn 2002; Martin 2005), but it is unique in that it captures how the inner lives (emotional experiences and identity) of those who work there are shaped by wider forces beyond their control. The jobs of victim advocates and counselors—as we know them today—did not exist fifty years ago. They were an outgrowth of a second-wave feminist movement concern that women who had been abused were being mistreated by the primary institutions (legal, medical, and social service) that have traditionally served their needs. The women who founded places like SAFE decades ago believed there was a better way, and they set out to design and administer a qualitatively different kind of help. This meant different services and different standards. This had consequences for the people receiving services (the victims) as well as those providing them. The questions I ask focus on how those decisions and patterns set in motion long ago intersect with the individual lives of advocates and counselors today. For example, how might the policies put in place to ensure that victims are not told what to do unintentionally make the job of the service provider both easier and harder? I observed a wide range of emotional experiences among staff members at SAFE (sympathy, guilt, frustration, compassion, and elation); how might those feelings be built into the demands of their jobs?


Excerpted from Moral Wages by Kenneth H. Kolb. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Emotional Dilemmas

2. Moral Wages

3. Empowerment in Practice

4. Difficult Clients

5. The Allure of Legal Work

6. Men at Work

7. Managing Dilemmas and Retooling

Appendix: Fieldwork Methods




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