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Staying Client-Centered in Family Court: How Safe Horizon Helps

Integrated Domestic Violence Court_Family Court Judge 3

By Madeleine Marrin
April 10, 2019

At Safe Horizon, we take a client-centered approach to working with survivors. In the research and evaluation field, this model is referred to as client-centered practice (CCP). Taking a client-centered approach means that we believe that survivors are the experts in their own lives and are ultimately the ones to make the best decision for themselves. Using CCP, we create a space for survivors to tell their story in their own words, support them in identifying and prioritizing immediate risks and needs, and give them information and choices rather than directions. While we use CCP throughout our programs, this approach can mean a world of difference for survivors at our Family Court Programs.

Family Court Program Brooklyn

Safe Horizon’s Reception Center at the Brooklyn Family Court Program

Safe Horizon’s Family Court Reception Centers are safe, emotionally supportive spaces for children and families to wait for family court hearings. Located in courts throughout New York City, our centers provide supportive services including counseling, help navigating the court process, childcare, and more. Client-centered practice is especially important and challenging, in this environment because parties such as judges, attorneys, and case managers are invested in producing the best possible outcomes for survivors, and often bring their own opinions about how to get there. Safe Horizon Family Court Director Nancy Shea acknowledges that there can be pressure to convince clients to pursue justice in specific ways. It can be difficult for service providers to witness clients making different decisions than they would.

Nancy Shea Queens Family Court Program Director_Edit

Nancy Shea, Queens Family Court Program Director

Client-centered practice enables service providers to refocus the power and decisions on survivors. CCP can empower survivors who may have experienced a loss of choice or control as a part of their experience with abuse and violence. Nancy emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everyone has different priorities and different definitions of risk and safety. “When you meet a survivor, you might assume their biggest priority is avoiding their abuser, but you may find out that they are more concerned with identifying how to co-parent with an abusive ex-partner.” The role of a case manager in family court is to help clients identify ways to stay safe while attending to their priorities, rather than trying to change their minds. Using client-centered practice in family court can be a healing practice in itself.

“Using a collaborative approach, we believe clients are the experts in their own experiences,” explains Dr. Amanda Stylianou, Associate Vice President of Quality & Program Development. “If a client comes to us in our family court programs, we share expertise in the family court system and work together with the client to identify resources and strategies to increase the client’s safety.

At the end of the day, Nancy wants clients to know that they’re in control. “We’re here to listen like a sounding board,” she says, describing case managers’ practice of creating space for clients to reflect on their experiences, priorities, and resources. “We can show you different options if you want to execute one of those we can help you, but it’s all down to you.” CCP always prevails. “At Safe Horizon, we focus on what the client wants.”

  • Madeleine Marrin

    Madeleine Marrin, MSW, is a Research & Evaluation Coordinator at Safe Horizon. As a part of the Research & Evaluation team, she helps support the implementation of client-centered practice across Safe Horizon’s programs. Madeleine also works with the DOVE Initiative, coordinating program evaluation workshops for domestic violence programs throughout New York City. Prior to her work with Safe Horizon, she worked with survivors of domestic violence and other crimes, providing counseling and advocacy as an intern at the Red Hook Community Justice Center.


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