Domestic Violence Services Must Renew Their Social Change Roots
By Shanti Kulkarni | June 21
Mary and her children arrive at a domestic violence shelter in the middle of the night. The staff welcomes them, knowing their stay cannot extend beyond 90 days. Mary speaks limited English and fears the police. She does not drive and has small children. The shelter staff knows that there are few resources to offer her in the community.
Over time, the staff expresses concern about her disengagement with program services. Mary has stopped attending English language support groups. She has trouble getting to the job interviews that the staff sets up for her. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she worries about her children’s safety when left with unknown caregivers. She spends most of her time in her room or on her cell phone talking with family members who live far away. The staff wonder about her lack of motivation; perhaps she is depressed. They refer her for counseling services.
At the end of her shelter stay, she has neither a job nor housing. Mary leaves the shelter with a safety plan and returns to her abuser.
For Domestic Violence Services, Newer is not Necessarily Better
Fifty years ago, Mary would probably not have access to a domestic violence shelter at all. Shelters in most communities today are the legacy of feminist activism that launched present day domestic violence laws, policies, and services. Early services were commonly provided by formerly battered women and were deeply rooted in a mutual self-help philosophy that prioritized collective action.
Early services were commonly provided by formerly battered women and were deeply rooted in a mutual self-help philosophy that prioritized collective action.
Over time, activists successfully secured federal funding streams that promoted the stabilization and growth of domestic violence services across the nation. Domestic violence survivors and their children thus had increased access to domestic violence services.
At the same time, federal funders prioritized services that were more formal than informal, more professional than grassroots, and more social service than social change oriented. As a result of these structural changes, and unlike earlier service providers, current mainstream domestic violence services generally neglect key issues that intersect with and exacerbate domestic violence: lack of work and childcare, isolation, and trauma from sources other than immediate violence.
Specialized services alone cannot significantly contribute to the safety and well-being of survivors who also contend with poverty, racism, and community disenfranchisement in addition to domestic violence. When survivors seek help, they are typically offered available services: temporary shelter, safety-planning, counseling, legal advocacy, and case management. Unfortunately, the resources that might make the biggest difference for survivors like Mary are usually not on the menu.
Specialized services alone cannot significantly contribute to the safety and well-being of survivors who also contend with poverty, racism, and community disenfranchisement in addition to domestic violence.
Domestic violence programs do not exist in a vacuum; rather these programs are embedded in communities that lack basic resources survivors desperately need. However, the gap between survivors’ actual needs and what domestic violence programs offer can be reduced through survivor-centered, full-frame (holistic), culturally-specific, and trauma-informed services. My own research supports the adoption of intersectional, trauma-informed domestic violence service approachesthat encourage personalized and structurally targeted solutions that seek to directly tackle survivors’ most complex and seemingly intractable challenges.
Returning to Grassroots Service Models
Some domestic violence programs have recommitted to the earlier strategies that better served the most marginalized survivors. These grassroots domestic violence programs have remained attentive to the unique needs, strengths, and challenges of survivors within their communities despite broader service trends. These programs illustrate domestic violence survivors’ needs are better met when programs do the following:
1. Expand survivors’ roles
Organizations can provide a variety of mechanisms to facilitate meaningful survivor participation, including establishing advisory boards, hiring peer support specialists, creating speakers’ bureaus and tenant groups, and organizing policy advocacy Entre Amigas, a gender and health education program of La Clinica de Puebla in Washington, D.C., trains “promotoras,” or peer community health workers, often domestic violence survivors, to deliver wellness services. These promotoras provide support groups, advocacy, education, and positive social networks for immigrant survivors. They work with survivors wherever they are personally, linguistically, and culturally.
2. Strengthen funding streams for survivor-centered, full-frame, culturally-specific, and trauma-informed services
Domestic violence programs need adequate resources in order to provide quality services. Advocates must possess understanding about how intersecting oppressions, such as gender, race, and homophobia, impact survivors and negatively shape experiences with helping systems, and then actively work to overcome these consequences. Organizational contexts that allow advocates to practice in ways that are truly survivor-centered and trauma-informed are fundamental, which means leadership must embrace, model, and support intersectional feminist values. This organizational commitment requires funders who understand and value these service models. Fortunately, some domestic organizations are finding success in educating existing funders and seeking non-traditional funding sources that are better aligned with these service models.
3. Forge cross-sector advocacy
Many advocates lack deep expertise in areas such as affordable housing, racial justice, education reform, immigrant and LGBTQ rights, and economic development. Survivors’ needs are more fully served through non-traditional cross-sector partnerships. The Domestic Violence and Homeless Services Coalitionin Los Angeles was established to increase “access to safe housing and supportive services for survivors of domestic violence and their families.” This coalition includes domestic violence programs, homeless serving agencies, the housing authority, legal services, and other key governmental and non-governmental partners. The coalition has improved knowledge of domestic violence, trauma, homelessness, and housing issues across systems; strengthened coordination and working relationships among partners; and ultimately is improving survivors’ access to longer-term housing and related resources.
4. Build knowledge through evaluation and research
Too often evaluation is imposed through external funder requirements, which domestic violence programs experience as a form of ‘hoop jumping.’ However, program evaluation can be a meaningful strategy to ensure organizational self-accountability and improvement related to intersectional trauma-informed approaches. Evaluation data can help programs determine successes, challenges, and unintended consequences. Evaluation processes also allow survivor feedback to influence services.
Some programs have begun to partner with domestic violence researchers in mutually beneficial ways. For example, the Domestic Violence Program Evaluation and Research Collaborative (DVPERC) was created in 2011 to advance domestic violence research and practice. The Boston-based collaborative has expanded to include 17 regional domestic violence programs and researchers from two universities. Their work has resulted in new research validated tools that programs can use to measure their own effectiveness. As an on-going collaborative, they continue to identify and respond to emerging issues around domestic violence survivor needs and service delivery.
Domestic violence service delivery emerged from feminist values and principles around empowerment and self-determination within a larger feminist analysis of systemic gender oppression in both the so-called public and private spheres.
If the domestic violence field embraces intersectional service delivery, programs will revive foundational commitments to survivor-centered and trauma-informed services premised on avowedly anti-oppressive politics. Innovative strategies can center the needs of the most marginalized and at-risk domestic violence survivors.
At this political moment, domestic violence programs must critically examine current services, listen to diverse survivors’ expressed needs, and act to narrow the gap between the two.
Shanti J. Kulkarni is a Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.