Monday, July 13, 2009

The Growing Chasm Between Domestic Violence Agencies and Domestic Violence Survivors

There is a growing chasm of dissent between traditional domestic violence programs and former domestic violence victims who have independently taken up the cause. The disconnect comes as domestic violence shelters have gone from being grassroots, underground efforts run out of women’s homes to established, government sanctioned agencies who employ many specialized and degreed (albeit, still poorly compensated) “professionals”.

Shelters, in the last couple of decades, have enjoyed status in the community as the darlings of all the service agencies that compassionate individuals and foundations feel good about throwing money at. Shelters also are at the top of the list for federal and state grants and other funding. There has long been an unquestioning faith that these agencies are doing the right thing in the best possible manner. This status brings the inherent problem with growth and acceptance that begins to play out in this evolutionary process. Things are run more as a business instead of a cause. Priorities shift, ethics slide and compassion dulls. Meeting the outcomes and budgets that each funding source demands becomes the central, one-dimensional purpose rather than the diverse, multi-dimensional victims who come to the door. These victims and survivors who feel, at the minimum, slighted and, in worse case scenarios, placed in further danger, are speaking out. Their outrage is justified:

I don’t know if those speaking out against the established domestic violence programs can be called a new grassroots movement. Grassroots implies local involvement doing what needs to be done - hands on, face-to-face - beneath the surface (root level). It seems to me that the cohesiveness and much of the actual advocacy within this group of dissenters is accomplished through the internet. A “web” connected by keyboards and search engines spreading information via blogs, Youtube and internet radio. Many are in the midst of or still dealing with their own victimization. They have been on the receiving end of services and were treated poorly or been re-victimized by an agency. There have always been individuals who are not treated the way they should have been, however the difference now is that they can expand their experience and make it known to the world by reaching out online.

There are calls for more government monitoring. There seems to be a belief that there are no audits or accountability; however that is not the case. There are long horrendous statistical and budget reports and site visits for agencies who receive government funds. Anyone who has been a recipient of Department of Justice or VOCA funds is aware of the hoops that a program must jump through to reach compliance. The bureaucracy contributes to the problem, each funding source with its own objectives and standards. The failing is that it is all on paper and can be tweaked and manipulated. There are no resources for effective monitoring, other than perhaps a couple of telephone “peer reviews”. Confidentiality does not allow interaction with those being served, only anonymous surveys or exit interviews that an agency may self-report.

I have been talking so far about local domestic violence service agencies however many complaints are also directed towards the lack of individual case advocacy from state and national coalitions. My understanding of coalitions is that they are systems change agents not direct services for individuals. Direct service is provided by shelters and other local programs. A state or federal agency’s purpose is not to assist on an individual basis. It would be like going to the USDA and ordering a Big Mac. Their function is legislative change; research for evidence based mandates and to provide training and other resources to local programs. If contacted by an individual they could only provide referrals and connections. These coalitions vary in their effectiveness also but can be credited for many of the current legislation enacted to make batterers accountable and victims and their children safer.

I don’t know what the answer is. There are enough horror stories to create a new class of victimization – maybe Program Abuse & Neglect. The solutions being offered are more government oversight and more money given to individuals. There are hundreds of small programs and organizations being formed online, all asking for donations, all promising to fill the gaps, all wishing to dismantle the current way of doing things and make it better. What will keep these programs from morphing into the very thing they are fighting against? How does a woman who is seeking assistance know who these online advocates are? What their credentials, experience and ethics are? Who are they accountable to? Maybe it is time for mandatory advocate credentialing and a national Code of Ethics such as the one structured by NOVA:

As someone who has worked as an advocate for 17 years, 3 years in a shelter and 14 as a one- person agency within a county government, I am aware of very ineffective local agencies and I am also aware of those that do a phenomenal job with huge populations and limited resources. The difference typically lies at the top. Most agencies are a reflection of their director, board or parent agency. No matter how compliant they are on paper to grantor’s demands, the treatment of victims and their families is only as effective as the personalities and philosophies of those involved. I am also aware of domestic violence survivors who have used their experience to single handedly effect change and made it their life’s mission to help others. Sadly too, I have known survivors who have used their experience as a credential to hide behind while they scammed resources and other victims out of money. While chasm it may be, it is not a clear divide. The bottom line is domestic violence service agencies do not have the funding, authority, equipment or trained staff to function as witness protection programs or body guards and no amount of oversight can change that.

While positive change is often born of dissent, those who assist victims on any level also have to contend with “father’s/ men’s rights groups”, at times, ineffective or abusive police, courts or criminal justice responses and policies, sources of any funds drying up and no resources for educating the upcoming generation who appears to be regressing in the area of healthy relationships and interpersonal violence. . There isn’t the time to fight internally. Injustices must be dealt with swiftly and constructively so the bigger fight can be met with a united front.

As I see it, the more levels of service and access points for a domestic violence victim the better but not to the point that the little money available is spread so thin that nothing works. Many victims will only find assistance with what is available locally so local agencies and good laws that are enforced are critical however there are a growing number of women who seek assistance and referrals via the internet, which reaches more women than ever. As with anything else there are good programs and bad programs just as there are good advocates and inappropriate advocates…on all levels…that will always be as long as human personalities are involved. We must try harder.

Stories of System Failure:

Programs that are Working:


  1. "Grassroots implies local involvement doing what needs to be done - hands on, face-to-face - beneath the surface (root level). It seems to me that the cohesiveness and much of the actual advocacy within this group of dissenters is accomplished through the internet."

    To speak for the group of women I advocate with, and for myself, we do not only advocate through the internet. We write and speak out through the internet, but our advocacy goes far deeper than that. My area of interest is in advocating for new DV legislation. One of my new bill proposals has already been introduced this summer--an extension on the statute of limitations for cases involving DV, and there are more to come for my state. On a daily basis, not only do I discuss the resources failing victims on my site, but I do get involved with my local Assemblymen/women to try and suggest new DV legislation that women are in desperate need of. I have also met with members of CVB, the police department, and shelters to speak out about the gaps that need to be filled and the overall DV response from agencies, hospitals, and police officers.

    I consider myself a part of a large group of women that have been noticing the serious flaws in the system and have the courage to speak out against the agencies that claim to help, but are not prepared to. As a group, connected by the internet, we write and voice our experiences on this matter but we are also involved at the local level, trying to bring about change and trying to stand up for the many women who are too afraid too--and there are many. On our own time, we collect money for the very agencies that ignore us, and we collect phones for DV victims and send them to the shelters, we donate clothes to the shelters, and whenever a victim in need needs a good resource, we try to provide them with the best. This is what we all do at the local level, we are not a group that just sits and writes on the web, it goes deeper and our service is free and time consuming.

    I appreciate the post, although I felt it necessary to clarify the movement we are making against domestic violence in our communities, as well as on the web.

  2. Maria,
    Thank you for clarifying. You make the point better than I. I am also a local advocate and someone who advocates online. One of the points I was attempting to make was that both approaches are supportive of the ultimate goal- safety for dv victims and their children- and one approach shouldn't cancel another out but build upon it. We must speak out against poor and ineffective treatment as it occurs without professing a blanket indictment of all agencies.
    Since I have been publishing on the 'net I have had a victim angry that she couldn't get her rent paid by her local program She was from another state and knew nothing about me She launched a campaign against me, under the impression that I am part of some evil dv shelter network and we kill women "faster than their batterers do" (I don't work in a shelter). She pulled quotes from several online advocates, some who I consider (online) colleagues, to back this up. That doesn't bother me but the divisiveness it implies does, I'm afraid it damages those who are doing good work, too.
    Locally, we have a shelter program that is very unprofessional and, at times, dangerous. It is because their umbrella agency doesn't take dv seriously. I have gone to their funding sources and they have been sanctioned a couple of times. Recently our local Judge became so enraged that he has told them if they wish to "play at" legal advocacy then they would have to receive training...guess who is charged with training them?? It is a slow, frustrating process but it is making a difference in the big picture.
    My intent in the post was to basically outline what reasonable expectations should be given the structure we have to work with and that, hopefully, we are all on the same team, not to diminish each other but enhance each other.
    Thanks so much for the insight, my wish is that all advocates can continue the conversation and scrutinize ourselves, also.

  3. Thank you sooooooo much! Finally the silence is broken with good, sound insight, advice and direction is given.

    I held the position of a Board Member and the "hands-on" Treasurer of our county DV agency and I've kept this controversial issue to myself, only sharing with immediate friends.

    Thank you for stepping up to the plate and hoping that others will become educated about a subject prior to jumping on the band wagon. Most of these followers truly do not understand the system and what is required or how it even works.

    Again, thank you. If there is ever a time that you would like to chat please feel free to contact me,

    Take care and STAY SAFE!

  4. what band wagon is she referring to?

  5. Thank you for publicizing my blog.

    Positive change toward violence prevention has mainly been achieved by brilliant people who have experienced domestic violence and who have decided they're going to make a difference for those walking in their shoes.

    My name and credentials are on my web site along with a clear statement of purpose and vision.

    In the five months that my site has been live, I have been blown away by the talent that has surfaced. . .people are floating solutions and exchanging ideas. . .some are in a place where it is safe for them to reveal their identities. . .some are not.

    Yes, some people are still at a point where being articulate is not possible. But, I think we still need to hear them. We cannot be defensive.

    I believe that the money to fund change is out there. Philanthropy has become results oriented. In these rugged economic times, all non-profits are going to have to prove their effectiveness before the donations will flow in.

    I write my blog because the status quo doesn't work. It hasn't worked for a long time. We all know it is time for change. So, I hope we'll be able to work together for the most optimal solutions.

    To that end, I believe we need to hear everyone's voices or our solutions will not be the best. Our resources are scarce. We must leverage them wisely.


  6. Thank you for publicizing my blog.

    I don't write anonymously. My name, credentials, vision, and purpose are clearly stated on my web site.

    I'm going to take issue with the suggestion that those of us calling for change need to educate ourselves. And, I'm going to suggest you read the investigative journalism piece in the August issue of O Magazine (page 154).

    The only donations I request on my site are for established agencies that have a proven track record of effectiveness.

    I do what I do 24/7 because people I care deeply about are dead. They are dead because people being PAID to protect them didn't.

    Positive change toward violence prevention happens because brilliant people like me contribute our talents and resources to bring it about.

    I believe we need to hear the voices of everyone. I believe we need to work together. If we don't, we'll miss something important.

    Funding for non-profits is increasingly results-oriented. Effective agencies will find more funds flowing their way while ineffective agencies will find their doors are no longer open.

  7. Caroline,

    You make perfect sense, and your comments are brilliant and progressive. I too take issue with this
    "Most of these followers truly do not understand the system and what is required or how it even works."

    I challenge people that make these statements to further explain to those who "do not understand the system". "The System" is in place, or should be in place, to PRIMARILY help DV victims. That is their purpose, simply. I would like an explanation addressing this issue and I am interested in those who make excuses for systems that aren't working in this country.


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