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How to Become a Certified Domestic Violence Counselor

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Becoming a certified domestic violence counselor will qualify you to counsel and empower survivors of emotional, psychological, sexual and physical abuse. Certified domestic violence counselors possess the skills and knowledge to stop the multigenerational cycle of violence through intervention and prevention efforts.

Contact your state mental health licensing board for information on state certification and licensing requirements, which vary widely from state to state. National certification for domestic violence counselors is voluntary.

Understand the Nature of Domestic Violence

To be an effective domestic abuse counselor, you must understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence in society and be able to distinguish myths from facts. Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, falls on a continuum of severity and frequency of occurrence. Forms of domestic violence include physical assault, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression with intent to inflict harm and control another person. Knowledge and empathy are gained through real world experience, volunteer advocacy, shelter and crisis line work, classroom instruction, internships and postgraduate work.

Learn Facts about Domestic Violence

Domestic abuse workers and domestic violence counselors must know the facts about this common, but often hidden, social problem in order to effectively intervene and plan prevention programs in the schools. Domestic violence affects millions of intimate partners and families, making it one of the most pressing issues in society. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25 percent of all women and 10 percent of men experience physical assault, sexual violence or stalking over the course of their lifetime. The World Health Organization indicates that exposure to domestic violence increases the risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

Research the Job of Domestic Violence Counselors

Learn about the day-to-day challenges and rewards of being a domestic violence counselor to help you decide if this emotionally intense work is a good fit for you. Resilience, emotional strength and personal boundaries are needed to handle the horrific stories of violence that you will repeatedly hear in your role as a domestic violence counselor. In addition to counseling clients in your office, you may also provide medical or legal advocacy and testify in court as an expert witness, depending on your employment setting.

Earn a Domestic Violence Certificate of Completion

In states like Illinois, anyone interested in becoming a paid or volunteer domestic abuse worker must complete a minimum of 40 hours of training and take a knowledge-based test. Illinois residents may become Certified Domestic Violence Professionals after completing training, documenting 150 hours of supervised experience and taking a test. Training programs must be approved by the Illinois Certified Professionals Board. Required 40-hour training topics cover many aspects of domestic violence:

  • Overview and history of domestic violence.
  • Power imbalances and control dynamics.
  • Criminal and civil laws related to domestic violence.
  • Safety plans and risk assessment.
  • Working with special populations.
  • Client confidentiality.
  • Self-care and personal boundaries.

Gain Experience as a Volunteer or Intern

After completing the required training, volunteers and college interns can deepen their knowledge of domestic violence by putting in hours at domestic violence shelters, crisis lines, hospitals, schools and nonprofit organizations. Some interns arrange to be placed in human service agencies that have specialized units, such as adult protective services and child protection, that handle reports of neglect, abuse and assault. The hours must be supervised, documented and signed by an agency official to meet domestic violence certification requirements.

Earn a College Degree in a Related Field

Many domestic violence counselors are licensed mental health professionals with a master’s degree or a doctorate in social work or psychology and specialized training, along with certification in domestic violence. A bachelor’s degree in social, work, psychology or nursing with coursework in domestic violence will qualify you to work in some states as a nonclinical advocate in domestic abuse organizations. Professional credentialing organizations, such as the National Association of Forensic Counselors, limit national domestic violence counselor certification to those who hold a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or other advanced degree in a related field.

Complete State Requirements for Certification

Licensing and certification requirements for working as a domestic violence counselor vary from one state to the next. Employers may establish additional requirements for working or volunteering with their agency. State certification typically requires at least 40-hours of classroom instruction covering specified topics, such as dynamics of domestic abuse, civil and criminal law, confidentiality, self-care and community referrals. For example:

California state law defines a domestic violence counselor as a person who has completed a 40-hour training course and works or volunteers at a victim services organization, such as domestic violence shelter. Training course participants receive a Certificate of Completion that must be provided when applying for paid for volunteer positions at a domestic violence organization in California.

New Jersey Domestic Violence Specialist (DVS) Certification training entails 170 hours of instruction; site visits to shelters, courtrooms and substance recovery groups; and 1,000 hours of direct service.

Consider Voluntary National Certification

Despite the prevalence of domestic violence in society, national standards for education credentials, training hours and certification of domestic violence counselors are inconsistent and inadequate, according to a 2014 article published in Psychology Journal. Certification is important because it ensures that practitioners are properly trained to help, and do no harm, to vulnerable clients. If you meet the certifying organization's educational qualifications, you may wish to pursue national certification even though it is not required.

For example, the National Association of Forensic Counselors is an organization that offers a nationally Certified Domestic Violence Counselor credential. Applicants must hold a state license or certificate if required in their state to work with those in domestic violence situations. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum education level needed for NAFC nonclinical certification. Other requirements include 180 hours of domestic violence training, 4,000 hours of supervised practice, references and a passing score on the NAFT certification exam.

A master’s degree is required for NAFC certification to practice at the clinical level. Applicants must possess 270 hours of domestic violence training and 6,000 hours of supervised practice. A passing score on the NAFT certification exam is required along with references included with the application.

Graduate Domestic Abuse Counselor Certification

Graduate certificates are available to law enforcement officers, mental health counselors, social workers and clinical nurses who hold a bachelor’s degree and want to learn more about intervention, treatment and prevention. For example, UMass Lowell offers an online Graduate Certificate in Domestic Violence Prevention that is geared to professionals working in nursing, adult protective services, child protection, addiction recovery centers, battered women’s shelters and law enforcement agencies.

Fulfill Certification Continuing Education Requirements

Human services professionals need ongoing training to stay current with best practices, changes in domestic violence statutes, and culturally specific community resources. Licenses and certifications must be renewed, according to applicable state laws. Renewal forms and requirements are less onerous that initial applications, but you will likely be required to show proof of ongoing professional development activities.

For example, Domestic Violence Professional Certification in Illinois is good for two years, at which time certification must be renewed to continue working in the field of domestic violence counseling. Documentation of 30 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) earned within the last 24 months must be submitted with the renewal application. One CEU approximates one hour of instruction.

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About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd brings vast hands-on experience to her writing endeavors. Along with general knowledge of human resources, she has specialized training in affirmative action, investigations and equal opportunity. While working as a dean of students, she advised college students on emerging career trends and job seeking strategies. As director of equal opportunity, she led efforts to diversify the workforce and the student body.