A safe home for all DV survivors

We bring you this post by Kendra Gritsch, our Domestic Violence Housing First program specialist, and Marie Sauter, Advisor to the Director, Pacific Northwest Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, from their blog, Impatient Optimists.

Imagine you live in a home where you don’t feel safe. An abusive partner threatens you and your children – but leaving home means uprooting your child, possibly losing your job, and leaving everything behind. You are stuck: do you choose an unsafe home or no home at all?

Domestic violence has long been a leading cause of homelessness for women and children. Service providers in the domestic violence field are beginning to identify more effective ways to work with survivors of domestic violence who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless – by providing supports specifically tailored to help survivors become safer and more stably housed.

In 2009, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many other partners to launch a five-year pilot project testing the Domestic Violence Housing First (DVHF) approach to promoting survivor safety and stability. This marked a major change in the way service providers work with domestic violence survivors. Instead of imposing a pre-determined set of services that each person may or may not need, along with a set of conditions that must be met before housing is available, DVHF is a survivor-driven approach that asks the individual what they need right now. Survivors get to decide which services and supports they receive, and choose where they become stably housed.

DVHF includes mobile advocates bringing one-on-one services to locations that are convenient for each survivor, flexible financial assistance, connections to other community services, and landlord engagement to remove barriers to housing. This coordinated approach gets survivors into stable housing as quickly as possible – often bypassing the shelter system – and then provides ongoing support as they rebuild their lives.

Thirteen domestic violence programs across Washington State – urban, rural, and tribal – piloted the DVHF approach, and found that a significant majority of survivors either safely retained current permanent housing or quickly accessed new housing. The housing and support from advocates meant that survivors could get a job, enroll in school, and heal from the violence they had experienced. Safe and stable housing let children be children again, so they could stay in one school, have their own space to do homework, and invite their friends over without fear. With a place to call home, survivors and their children went from surviving to thriving.

We applaud these thirteen pioneering agencies and the many others who have followed their lead in Washington State and beyond. A recent investment of $2 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice further validates the work of these pioneers by supporting WSCADV in collaborating with Dr. Cris Sullivan to conduct research that seeks to demonstrate what we’ve learned: DVHF prevents homelessness and increases safety and stability for parents and children who are domestic violence survivors.

Survivors seeking services from four agencies in King County and Yakima County (LifeWire, New Beginnings, YWCA of Yakima and Lower Valley Crisis and Support Services) will be invited to participate in a longitudinal study to better understand how DVHF services can optimize housing stability for survivors and their children. Armed with this research, the domestic violence field will be better positioned to forge new alliances with housing/homeless service providers and attract new resources to support their evidence-based DVHF services.

Every person deserves a safe place to call home. This research will advance our knowledge of what it takes to get us there.

Don’t just be aware, be involved

I’m not a big fan of awareness months. There are so many these days that each month shares a long list of issues to be aware of along with a corresponding ribbon color. There’s even a Zombie Awareness Month. It’s May (gray ribbon) in case you want to mark your calendar.

Every October, when Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes around, I have an uneasy feeling. It’s not that I don’t think that domestic violence awareness is important. Of course it is. But I wonder what we are accomplishing. Does awareness actually lead to behavior change? Researchers say no.

I’ve seen awareness about domestic violence grow significantly over the years. That’s a great thing and it needed to happen. But I don’t want us to stop there. Now that people are aware, I want them to act. I want everyone to realize that they can be a part of the solution. They can learn about the resources out there so if someone turns to them for help they’ll know what to do. They can talk to young people about what a healthy relationship looks like. They can ask a friend “How’s your relationship?” and make chatting about this a normal part of life.

I’m not suggesting we all cancel our Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities. But let’s shift our focus to turning October into Domestic Violence ACTION Month.DVAM-logo

The question can make all the difference

Just imagine you are sitting in your doctor’s office waiting for the doctor and chatting with the medical assistant. Maybe it’s your yearly physical or maybe this is your first visit and you just want antibiotics for a relentless chest cold. All of a sudden she starts running through this list of questions:

  • Have you ever been emotionally or physically abused by your partner or someone important to you?
  • Within the last year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?
  • Since you’ve been pregnant, have you been slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If YES, who? Husband, Ex-Husband, Boyfriend, Stranger, Other? Total number of times?

I would probably answer “no” to all of these questions even if I was experiencing abuse. It is so alienating to boil down the complexities of any relationship to these questions. And besides after I answer these questions, reproductive-coersion-flyerwhat happens? Where does this information go? Will you look at me differently? Judge me and my partner? Do you have any help to offer if I take a risk and tell you anything?

Current healthcare research shows that both finding the right way to ask and connecting a patient to resources is the two-step golden ticket for effective support.

Offering support starts with showing you have some idea about what living in a coercive and abusive relationship might feel like. Futures Without Violence offers a Safety Card with these questions:

Ask yourself: Are you in a healthy relationship?

  • Is my partner willing to communicate openly when there are problems?
  • Does my partner give me space to spend time with other people?
  • Is my partner kind and supportive?

If you answered YES to these questions, it is likely that you are in a healthy relationship. Studies show that this kind of relationship leads to better physical and mental health, longer life, and better outcomes for your children.

Ask yourself: Are you in an unhealthy relationship?

  • Does my partner shame me or humiliate me in front of others or in private?
  • Does my partner control where I go, who I talk to, and how I spend money?
  • Has my partner hurt or threatened me, or forced me to have sex?

If you answered YES to any of these questions, your health and safety may be in danger.

Their information also includes national hotline resources and where to get advocacy services.

I may still hesitate to answer these questions, but I know that the person in front of me is ready to have a deeper conversation and has some resources. Screening for, asking about, or listening for abuse in a relationship is not an end in itself. Providing support and connection is what survivors tell us they want.

If healthcare professionals really want to help, they have to take the time to learn the right questions and get comfortable connecting their patients to advocacy services. Consider helping by taking a stack of Safety Cards (they’re free) to your next doctor’s appointment.

Great expectations

Our Fatality Review project just issued its annual report of the number of people across Washington State who died as a result of domestic violence last year. I drafted a press release of the findings before I ever saw the report. I planned to fill in the exact numbers once I got them from my colleague, but figured I already knew what the stats were going to tell us. 2000FR-Cover

We’ve been collecting this data since 1997. And every year, the numbers are eerily similar to the last. It seems no matter what else happens in a year—other violent crime going down, the economy getting better or worse, new laws passed—the domestic violence murder rate stays relatively steady. It’s incredibly sad, and I guess I’ve been feeling pretty hopeless about it.

But this year turned out to be different. A total of 35 people died in domestic violence fatalities. This is significantly fewer than the 54 deaths the year before, and the lowest in the 17 years we’ve been keeping track. I had to re-write the press release, but also re-think my assumptions.

Even though I truly believe domestic violence is preventable, and I see great work happening all around me, at the end of the year I don’t expect to see that reflected in the homicide numbers. Why not? I suppose it has to do with how complex the problem of domestic violence is and the slow pace of social change.

Every single life lost to domestic violence is one too many, and my heart aches for all those we lost this past year. But I feel encouraged at the same time. Maybe this is the start of a trend. After decades of work to end domestic violence, maybe it is time to expect change.

News you can relate to

Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

When a friend turns creepy

We bring you this post from Summer Carrick, our Crossing Borders project coordinator.

Here is the scene…

Two of your friends start dating. They fall in love, but instead of coming back to the surface they stay immersed.

In a weird way.

In a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, but you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Then you notice that she grows more silent, and he does all the talking. You see less of them. She seems nervous. She makes excuses for him. Her face is stressed. The energy does not feel happily in love, rather, it’s just…tense.

So, what do you do when you are sitting at dinner and he starts to belittle her?

You would think after 12 years of doing this work, I would have the answer. Instead, I fight with what I was socialized to do (nothing, none of my business) and what I want to do (support my friends to have a happy relationship).

But, how?

Many research hours later, this is the best I could find:

– I talk about it when things are good and we are just talking naturally about his relationship.

– I am direct and clear about what I have seen and how it impacts ME as HIS friend.

– I’m not judging you, friend, but this is what happened and how I experienced it.

– So now that you know it’s not working for me, is it working for you?

– I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to be a friend and support you.

– Just know that I’m not willing to watch you be a bully.

If all of that is too much and I don’t know what to say, I default to the truth….I care and I am concerned.

And yes, I’ve seen my women friends using abusive behavior too. I’ve seen it in straight and queer relationships. And you know what?  I’m not scared to call those women out on it. And when I do, they have always gone straight to critical reflection and apologies. So why is it that when I have tried to have this kind of conversation with men, they have become defensive or downright scary? The best I can come up with is the way we socialize men. The scary reaction may be why we avoid talking to men about their abusive behavior. And the cost of that is much too great. So, as scary as it seems to care and be concerned, we can’t afford the alternative.

-Summer Carrick, the coordinator of our Crossing Borders Project