I have spent a large portion of my career working with domestic violence programs both from within and as a part of the community. There have been a lot of changes over the years that have increased access to domestic violence programs that have made big differences in the lives of survivors who seek a safe environment in which to focus on the next steps in they want to take in order to be free of abuse.
In the past, many domestic violence programs were guilty of restricting access to survivors who were using drugs or alcohol or who had a mental illness. I remember talking to one program many years ago that had a policy that a person who had used alcohol or drugs in the past thirty days would not be allowed into shelter until she had thirty days clean and sober. I informed them that I knew that half their staff would not be able to get into shelter if needed. Eventually, programs realized that expecting a survivor to get clean and sober who was self- medicating the effects of trauma or living with an abuser who used drugs or alcohol as a means of control was unrealistic and was, as Patti Bland of the National Center on DV, Trauma and Mental Health puts it “actually placing the program in the position of colluding with the abuser.”
Another positive step we have taken is the realization that even though domestic violence programs are not (and should never be) clinical programs, we can provide support services to survivors who are experiencing effects of trauma that have often been seen as mental health issues. Programs no longer ask about medications as a means of determining if a person has a mental health issue and then using that as an excuse to screen someone out of shelter. It can’t be done and, fortunately, is not being done.
However, I feel that some programs, after all of these positive changes, forget that we still need to be diligent in looking at the things that may still be happening that set up barriers and decrease the probability that a survivor will seek services from a domestic violence program. Programs are often so overwhelmed by the ongoing failures and barriers within their community and society that they become complacent and forget to focus on the barriers that may be generated by the domestic violence program. Here are a few areas that need to be considered in order to truly reduce barriers and provide victim-center services:
Comprehensive Safety Planning vs. Refusing to House Survivors Who Live in the Same Town/City as the Shelter: Whenever a program says that they cannot house a survivor and her children because she and her abuser live in the same town as the shelter they are setting up a barrier. The program is forcing a victim to choose between her job/home and her and her children’s local support and safety. We are saying that in order to receive services she needs to give up even more than she already has to at the hands of the abuser. Solutions to this issue would be to investigate the “open shelter” concept in which the community is well aware of the location of the shelter, thus encouraging neighbors to report suspicious activity, and making safety planning a high priority in order to be able to assist the survivor in being able to access local resources and maintain employment while still living in the same community as her abuser. This will reduce transportation issues for court and visitation also. Yes, there are times when a victim needs to leave the area for her safety, but this should be her choice.
Case Management vs. Support Services: I am concerned about the concept of “case management.” As the executive director of a community mental health program I once worked for said “people are not ‘cases’ to be managed. They are to be supported.” If we start looking at victims as cases we are in danger of limiting the services we provide to a menu rather than taking a victim-centered approach to supporting the person in the decisions she makes for her future. We are also in danger of moving to a more clinical approach that looks at symptoms and issues rather than coping skills, victim needs, and systems of oppression and barriers in the community.
Modeling DV Programs’ Services After Homeless Programs: When we start to provide services in the manner of homeless services we are in danger of forgetting about the issues of domestic violence and trauma. I have seen program staff become too eager to move the survivor to housing while not addressing the issues of domestic violence and trauma. Programs need to go back to their mission statement and review the primary purpose of the organization.
The best way to look at services in a program and determine whether or not the services are a barrier to survivors seeking safety is for staff to put themselves in the shoes of the victim. We often do an exercise called “In Her Shoes” to point out the barriers and difficulties in the community, but we also need to do the same for our programs. Ask yourself, “If I was a woman in danger, would this program meet my needs for safety, connection, and stability?”