Domestic violence isn’t exactly a sunshine-and-rainbows field in which to work. But Amy Dilworth, the executive director of the Family Justice Center, says she doesn’t bring her work home with her. She prefers practicing yoga, playing with her dog, and meeting her friends at the Stir Fry Cafe when she’s not working.
“Some people are made for this work, and some people are not,” she says. “I have a way of being able to not carrying them with me all the time...I think that’s a special talent, to not sit and ruminate on [victims’] stories.”
Dilworth, who wears striking pink-green-and-blue glasses, calmly relays scenarios of women being unable to leave their abusive partners for fear of not being able to provide for their children, or being severely beaten by their partners. The Knoxville native, 49 says she never intended to go into such a field. In fact, her bachelor’s degree is in dance education. Through a friend, she learned about dance therapy, and began pursuing that at the University of Tennessee. But when she started enjoying the therapy part of the equation more and more, she applied and was accepted to the Community Agency Counseling masters program in the department of psychology.
Her first introduction to the issue of domestic violence was at her internship at the Family Crisis Center, a long-standing service of Child and Family Tennessee, a local nonprofit organization. While there, she got some hands-on experience in counseling clients, responding to crisis calls, and the day-to-day work involved in keeping the organization going.
After earning her master’s degree in 1996, Dilworth started her career as a therapist at the Project Against Sexual Abuse of Appalachian Children. There, she worked with children who were victims of sexual abuse, their parents (who weren’t the abusers), and the sexual abusers themselves.
“I learned that you can’t turn people into monsters in your head. That we’re all people. It’s a matter of choices in life,” she says. “Everybody has the capacity of being a Hitler or a Gandhi, or somewhere in between. It’s those choices that we make that take us down those paths.”
After a stint at The Camelot Difference in Oak Ridge, where she was the director of the therapeutic foster program, Dilworth worked as an investigator for Tennessee Protection and Advocacy Project, an independent state agency (with offices in West, Middle, and East Tennessee) that protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. There, she gathered statements and evidence in cases of alleged abuse and neglect of people with disabilities in prisons, jails, and mental health institutions in the region.
It allowed her to “take off the advocacy hat that I was used to, and put on the very objective investigator hat and not make a decision or judgment about what had happened until all the evidence had been assembled.”
Despite her extensive and varied career experience, Dilworth initially balked at being asked to move from program manager to executive director of the FJC in 2006—she was worried her lack of experience as a director would hinder the organization. Now, though, she says it’s been the most rewarding job she’s had.
“It was a scary first few years,” she says. So she worked with mentors and sought guidance on how to be a leader from the Knoxville Leadership Foundation. “Things just got better, and easier, and it’s been a fun job. It’s been a challenging job. It’s been an exciting job. It’s been a satisfying job.”
Throughout her career, Dilworth has kept a foot in the domestic violence circle, leading support groups through Child and Family Tennessee, a nonprofit that offers various family support services, on the side.
“Group work tends to be very inspiring,” Dilworth says. “It is working with women who want to move forward and who can and will accomplish things beyond anyone’s imagining.”
And keeping the good in mind is part of what has kept Dilworth drawn to helping victims of domestic violence.
“I am compelled by the positive stories I see of amazing women who have been through things that I could not even imagine... The abuser has little to no importance in their world now, and they find ways to empower and help others. One story alone like this is reason to keep going but I know dozens and dozens,” she says.