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Spring 2024 Issue

Domestic Violence: Simulation Training for Intimate Partner Violence
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 2 P. 30

According to the CDC, approximately 41% of women and 26% of men have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner that affected their lives, such as by causing injury, PTSD, fear, or safety concerns. More than 61 million women and 53 million men have been the victims of psychological aggression by an intimate partner. Annually, millions of adolescents experience intimate partner violence (IPV).1 Despite societal and law enforcement efforts to combat IPV, it’s still widespread regardless of the socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity of the perpetrators and victims. However, IPV disproportionately affects ethnic, racial, and sexual/gender minorities. IPV is considered a public health crisis. Social workers play a key role in offering advocacy, counseling, and other essential services to IPV victims.2,3

Social work educational programs include field placement and in-person encounters overseen by a mentor to allow students to integrate and apply academic education and skills into real-life interactions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic placed restrictions on in-person learning. In addition, social distancing regulations to stay at home resulted in an increase in IPV during the pandemic. Both of these factors led to fast growth in the application of simulation for social work training, as well as interest in its use for training social workers in handling IPV situations and victims. Simulation has been used to train medical students and clinicians, as well as other professions, for decades; the concept of training via simulation is not new.4-6

Simulation does not merely involve role-playing by actors or by social work educators or students, a strategy commonly used in education. It is distinguished from role-playing scenarios by the experience of the student. In a roleplaying activity, a student might be asked to play the role of a client. For a lesson on IPV, a student without life experience as an IPV victim cannot provide a real-life scenario for other participants to adequately learn to respond. Role-playing learning activities often amount to simple script reading of a case study and lack the opportunity for students to make informed decisions about how to respond in that situation.5

Simulation goes beyond role-playing in that it provides an immersive learning experience, allowing the learner to think critically and apply skills and knowledge in their response to the simulation. It’s intended to provide students with new, realistic experiences with clients and the opportunity to debrief about their decisions and actions after the simulation and receive formative feedback. In addition, simulation provides a physically and psychologically safe setting in which social work students can learn how to respond effectively to IPV situations and their aftermath.5,7

Simulations can also help social work students address their biases, better understand how to work with IPV victims, and develop empathy.4,5 A successful instructional simulation activity called In Her Shoes was developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) to educate students about the difficult choices facing women who experienced IPV, such as deciding to leave vs stay in their homes after a violent incident. Developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the introduction of advanced computer simulation technology, the WSCADV simulation kit includes laminated color-coded character cards; large, laminated situation cards (eg, “abuse happens, “social services,” “friends and family”); and station character cards. The cards are used to create a “story” about the IPV victim’s life circumstances. Props may be added to deepen the learning experience. For example, a simulation participant may be asked to carry a garbage bag full of clothes and a doll between stations to simulate an IPV victim leaving home with a child or to put on bandages after an episode of IPV.4

Advances in educational software, virtual reality, and other computer technologies have contributed to the interest in simulation-based training for social workers. Simulations may be developed by simulation training companies or by social work researchers and faculty. For example, social work, nursing, and law faculty and graduate students at a Canadian university developed and evaluated a virtual reality gaming simulation to aid in education about IPV for students in their specialties. The researchers selected social work, nursing, and law because these professionals often collaborate in real-life IPV cases. The simulation involved a complex family case of IPV with a mother, father, 15-year-old son, and 18-year-old daughter; learners could work through different scenarios with each family member. Educational opportunities in the simulation included the following6:

• different access settings, such as a student wellness center, hospital emergency department, legal clinic for IPV victims, mental health center, and child protection services home visit;

• engagement with each character and various practice simulations based on the learner’s specialty;

• racism, gender discrimination, and substance abuse issues to explore learner biases; and

• reluctant victim reporting and mandatory reporting scenarios.

The virtual simulation was used by 60 students and was positively received as a tool for learning how to handle IPV cases and clients.6

Several companies market simulation-based learning for social work education. Simucase is an online simulation learning platform that allows users to perform assessments, identify findings, make recommendations, and provide interventions for virtual clients, says Maura Lavelle, MS, OTR/L, CHSE, director of simulation development at Simucase. The platform combines simulation-based learning with a comprehensive video library, providing training for a variety of fields, including social work. “Integrating simulation into social work curricula allows learners to engage in low-stakes practice, explore areas of practice, expand foundational learning, and gain competency,” Lavelle notes.

Simulation training for social work students can be a valuable tool. According to Allison Nilsen, AM, LCSW, lead learning and simulation developer at Simucase, “One of the greatest challenges we see in higher education is the need to help bridge what students are learning in the classroom with their field experience. Students often say they know the theories they should be using but don’t know how to apply them. Simulation allows them to practice clinical skills and reasoning with a virtual client as many times as they need, building the confidence and competence they need to be effective.”

Practicing with simulations can better prepare social work students, as well as experienced social workers, for future interactions with IPV and related trauma. Simulation training can help them prepare to work with high acuity and vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing crisis and interpersonal violence, without risking harm to clients, Nilsen explains. “Social workers at the forefront of treating clients impacted by domestic violence need access to learning opportunities to maximize outcomes. Both new and experienced social workers encounter clients coping with challenging and complex situations. Simulation provides equitable learning and exposure to specific populations, which can be difficult to teach through traditional methods. Simulation is a powerful way to practice new skills, refresh existing skills, and stay up-to-date with the latest best practices,” she emphasizes.

For example, Nilsen says, the following simulation scenario reinforces practice-based learning. In this simulation, Jessica, an 18-year-old who experienced an altercation with her father about her parenting skills, meets with their Child Protective Services social worker for an initial assessment. Jessica and her parents agree to follow the necessary steps to keep their case voluntary. “In the computer-based simulation, social work students and practitioners must diffuse a crisis situation and practice providing the family’s intervention,” Nilsen notes.

To improve practice skills, the Simucase platform has a comprehensive library from which social workers can select trainings. Learners can choose from a full library of offerings to improve their practice skills. Topics include simulations with both children and adult clients with a variety of issues, including addiction, anxiety, trauma, elder abuse, suicide awareness, and child/family protective services. The simulations address a range of settings, such as the home, community, hospital, school, and private practice. Lavelle and Nilsen note that Simucase developers are experienced social workers who can also work with organizations to create customized simulation trainings to support their specific program’s learning objectives and goals.

With the boost in interest and use from the recent pandemic, as well as the high technology competence of new students, simulation-based training is likely to continue to grow as a learning tool for both new and experienced social workers.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a freelance writer and health care researcher located in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.


1. Fast facts: preventing intimate partner violence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/fastfact.html. Updated October 11, 2022. Accessed February 4, 2024.

2. Pinar G. The role of simulation-based education for domestic violence management. Creative Education. 2021;12:2852-2862.

3. Social work’s role in responding to intimate partner violence. National Association of Social Workers website. https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=WTrDbQ6CHxI%3D&portalid=0. Published 2018. Accessed February 6, 2024.

4. Adelman M, Rosenberg KE, Hobart M. Simulations and social empathy: domestic violence education in the new millennium. Violence Against Women. 2016;22(12):1451-1462.

5. Tortorelli C, Choate P, Clayton M, El Jamal N, Kaur S, Schantz K. Simulation in social work: creativity of students and faculty during COVID-19. Social Sciences. 2021;10(1):7.

6. Jenney A, Koshan J, Ferreira C, et al. Developing virtual gaming simulations to promote interdisciplinary learning in addressing intimate partner and gender-based violence. J Soc Work Educ. 2023;59(sup1).