The link between domestic violence and homelessness among women has long been established. In the nation’s capital, more than half of homeless women interviewed in a recent study said they had experienced domestic violence.
And yet advocates say many of the D.C. agencies tasked with helping the city’s most vulnerable residents lack clear policies for how to handle reports of domestic violence.
Of 22 District agencies that frequently interact with survivors of domestic violence, including homeless women, only two indicated they have policies that instruct staff on how to respond to reports of domestic violence from members of the public, according to a report released Wednesday by the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Such overarching domestic violence policies are rare in jurisdictions across the country, but the District has an opportunity to be at the forefront of adopting such guidance, the coalition said.
“I think too often domestic violence gets pigeonholed as a public safety issue,” said Andrea Gleaves, strategic partnerships manager for the coalition. “But the reality is that it impacts people across their life span. It touches school, it touches the workplace, across the board.”
As the number of people seeking assistance for domestic violence in the District has continued to rise, city services and programs have been unable to meet the high demand, according to the coalition, which represents 16 nonprofit organizations focused on eliminating domestic violence.
In 2017, the D.C. police and the Office of Unified Communications reported 35,909 calls for services for domestic violence, an 11 percent jump from 2012. Calls to abuse hotlines, both locally and nationally, have spiked in recent months, particularly amid the #MeToo movement and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault.
So the coalition decided to pursue a “litmus test” on the city’s ability to respond to the growing need, said its executive director, Karma Cottman. It identified 23 agencies that domestic violence survivors often turn to for support, and asked each one to complete a survey on how it responds to disclosures of domestic violence from both staff and members of the public.
Of the 22 agencies that responded, only the D.C. police and Child and Family Services identified specific policies on addressing domestic violence reports from the public. Additionally, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority provides “direction” to management on how it should respond when a member of the staff comes forward about experiencing domestic violence, according to the report.
“I hope that it sort of rings some alarm bells and lets people know that there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Cottman said. “We’re at kind of ground zero, and we’ve got a lot more to do in terms of our response.”
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office had instructed his team to create a new Districtwide policy for supporting employees experiencing domestic violence.
The policy, which was underway before the survey, will go into effect Jan. 1, 2019, and will apply to all 35,000 District governmental employees, Donahue said in a statement to The Washington Post. He said the policy will be “based on established best practices that center on the needs of survivors,” and added that Bowser has invested more than $43 million in domestic violence programs across the District over the past four years.
The D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence commended the forthcoming policy, and that 22 of the 23 agencies it contacted responded to the survey; only the D.C. Housing Authority failed to give a response. But the coalition argued that each city agency still needs its own policies tailored to how it interacts with members of the public reporting domestic violence — particularly agencies like the Department of Human Services.
Such policies should guide staff in how to respond to survivors and alleged offenders of domestic violence and how to ensure that interactions with domestic violence survivors are trauma-informed and survivor-centered, the coalition said.
In focus groups with survivors, the coalition learned that the Department of Human Services is one of the most common initial points of contact for those experiencing domestic violence. Many survivors first seek assistance through the Department of Human Services’ Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the central point of intake for families experiencing homelessness or risk of homelessness in the District.
According to a recent survey of homeless women in the District, nearly one-third reported domestic violence as the cause of their homelessness or housing instability, and more than one-third of survivors fleeing violence said they did not know where to get help. More than half of respondents said they had experienced violence or threats to their safety during their current episode of homelessness.
Testimonies from survivors in three focus groups held by the coalition indicated mixed levels of support at Virginia Williams, according to the report. While some said the center was essential in helping connect them with safe houses or other housing resources, several others said staff lacked sensitivity in discussing domestic violence and that staff even suggested that they return to their abusive homes. Many said it depended on the day and the person — an inconsistency that the coalition argued could be addressed with a clear-cut policy.
“In no way should it be based on luck that a survivor is able to feel safe and supported by a district agency that is there to support them,” said LaToya Young, housing systems coordinator for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Dena Hasan, director of policy and program support for the Department of Human Services, said that while the department does not have an overarching policy on domestic violence survivors, each of its individual programs do guide staff in how to address domestic violence reports. Whenever someone arrives at Virginia Williams, an assessment form asks them to self-report if they are experiencing domestic violence. If a person indicates a history of domestic violence, they are quickly routed to the District Alliance for Safe Housing, which is located at Virginia Williams.
Hasan said the department plans to continue to work with the coalition, particularly on training case workers in how to talk about domestic violence without being offensive.
“A trauma-informed approach to that type of conversation is fairly difficult,” Hasan said.
Nicole, a 26-year-old pharmacy technician and mother of two living in the District, said she sought help last year after her then-partner tried to choke her and threatened to kill her and her two children. Nicole said that although she had an apartment at the time, the man had punched a hole in one of the windows, and the lease was due to end soon. A friend suggested she go to Virginia Williams.
While the center helped connect her with a caseworker and housing options, she said, no one asked her whether she had experienced domestic violence or was in fear for her safety.
“I didn’t know that I could bring that up to them,” said Nicole, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used out of fear for her safety.
“I don’t want to say I was ashamed. I’m a tough person,” she said, but “a lot of things I don't feel comfortable talking about.”
The topic did not come up until many months later, this year, when her lease ended and she no longer had a place for her and her kids to live. A caseworker suggested that she go back to living with her previous partner.
“The whole conversation just rubbed me the wrong way,” Nicole said. Since then, she has changed case workers. Although she said she now feels that she’s getting the support she needs as a survivor, she said she wishes she had been connected with the resources sooner.
“I just wanted somebody to talk to about the situation,” Nicole said. “I just kept blaming myself. . . . Maybe I said something wrong?”