Counseling clients: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t dunk his head under and make him drink,” a wise professor of mine would say to us grad students who were learning to be counselors. She made sure we understood our role as a guide, not a savior. Empowerment, not rescue is the goal. I could not do the work I do everyday without this understanding. I can see 100 success stories and that one client, that one family that isn’t a success story would break my heart in two if I didn’t have this understanding at the core of my being that I am here not to work miracles and save clients from themselves, but to empower them and provide resources for change if and when they want it. Working in the field of victim advocacy, sometimes I wish I had a magic wand and I could save people from their circumstances, their abusers, and sometimes even themselves.

Sadly, some clients will not choose change. Children are drug along for the ride. They don’t get a choice. My heart breaks for them the most. If they are being abused, neglected, or are in danger, I make DFCS reports. I lift them up in prayer. And that is the extent of my reach. That is all I can do. I have to know my place. I sleep well at night knowing that I am doing something, even if it isn’t a something that boasts a 100% success rate. I remind myself of all of the amazing success stories I have witnessed and sit in awe reflecting on some of the amazing women and families I have had the privilege to watch overcome and thrive.


How do we measure success? One thing I have learned is that success isn’t always radical change or what I picture as “success” in my mind. Sometimes, it is small changes that keep a woman and her children safer and more stable than ever before. Sometimes its safety planning and “advocacy beyond leaving”. Sometimes its attending support groups and finally she has a group of women to lean on as she plans how and when she will leave.  For many women, coming into safe shelter is a huge leap of faith and courage which provides her children with a safe home where she doesn’t have to “walk on egg shells” in fear for the first time. Success, to me, is anything that helps the family move forward towards safety, stability, and empowerment rather than backward into abuse, violence, chaos and instability.

Every case is different. There is no cookie cutter victim. There is no cookie cutter survivor. Did you know domestic violence affects women of all races, socioeconomic classes, vocations and levels of education? There is no stereotypical victim. Women transition from victim to survivor  in their own time and on their terms. It is a truly beautiful transformation to witness. We see her walking with a confident assurance, her head held high and a smile on her face with no fear in her eyes for the first time. Women come back and tell us about their accomplishments which range from getting her own place, to getting her GED, to getting her degree, to getting a great job. These women have a desire to pay it forward and help others.  It is an honor to be able to even play a small role in that process.

Each day I wear many hats and try to ask “what does this family need to heal?” I work with the whole family. You can’t help kids if you don’t help their mothers. I am officially a Children’s Advocate, but I work with mothers just as much as I work with children. I get to see the family living day to day and address any issues that come up. I give as much as I can to guide and empower clients to move forward. Sometimes the most valuable help I give is not my counseling skills, but the fact that I am a mother who has struggled financially myself and I know my community resources like the back of my hand because I’ve used them. Relating to her mother-to-mother and providing her with assistance resources, brainstorming options, etc. is sometimes more important than any specific counseling intervention. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A woman can’t think about her emotional state if she and her kids are hungry or she is worried about how to pay the light bill. We take care of first things first. Sometimes doing homework with teenagers or kids who have been so distracted and traumatized by the violence at home that they are unable to concentrate in class is what I do for hours each afternoon. Sometimes I connect mothers with financial assistance for daycare so that she can find a job for the first time. Every other Wednesday I pick up and unload a food bank order and stock our food pantries and freezers. Many days I draw or paint or play in the sandbox or the dollhouse doing play therapy with children who tell me horrific things and I tell them “its not your fault” and help them to talk about their feelings knowing they are now safe to say what they truly feel. All of this is therapeutic. I love not being confined to seeing my clients just 1 hour per week. I can provide them with more “intensive care”, but that also means I bond with them more closely and I have to keep my role as guide in perspective.


Sometimes, a client just will not drink the dang water that is right there in front of her no matter how gently or strongly we nudge. No matter what resources are provided. There will always be those clients (who are the minority thankfully) who choose drugs, alcohol, the abuser, lying men, old habits, etc. over safety and stability. I am on the outside looking in and can clearly see the grave error they are making. They can’t. I have to remember times in my own life when I couldn’t see my own errors because I was right there in the thick of whatever I was struggling with. I have to remind myself that we all have free will and our reasons. I don’t judge, but my heart just breaks for the kids. I will defend an adult woman’s right to make self-destructive choices all day long, she is a grown woman after all and to view her like a child would be disempowering. But, when I see her children suffering from these choices, I feel so many things from anger to heartbreak. To learn more about how domestic violence affects children see: I see the trajectory of that child’s entire life changing when they remain in a violent and chaotic home. I see that child being at-risk for going down the same or an even worse road. Would she want this for her son or her daughter? I’m sure she would say “no, never” but so much of a child’s future is written during childhood. Children are resilient and can heal when they are in a loving, safe and stable environment. It is the kids who never fully escape an environment of chaos, instability, neglect and violence who cannot heal. They never have the chance to. It is like having a broken bone that is never set in a cast. The body just grows it back together the best it can, in a crooked way that gives the child a limp for the rest of his life. So the cycle of violence perpetuates…

I wish I didn’t have to ever see what were once devoted and loving mothers go down the black hole of meth, heroin, cocaine, and prescription pill addiction, unaware that their kids are being pulled into the black hole right along with them. I wish I didn’t have to ever hear a woman’s horrific abuse history and then see her walk out and go back to her abuser or to another abuser. But, I tell myself and my coworkers, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.” How can I compete with the rush of hard drugs or the allure of a man’s promises if that is what she is looking for? I can only hope that some seeds have been planted that might grow in a different season of her life. My mama told me “Jen, some people just have to learn things the hard way. You’re one of them.” I was. I get it.

May the clients who got away rise like the phoenix out of the ashes and try again, fly again one day. May their children have people in their lives who will be their guardian angels until then.  “He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” Psalm 91:4 Amen. Selah.



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