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Shelters play key role in helping domestic violence victims, study finds

by Colin Poitras - March 30, 2009

As state lawmakers discuss a proposal to keep Connecticut’s 18 domestic violence shelters staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, researchers at the School of Social Work’s Institute for Violence Prevention and Reduction have stepped in to supply key information to the debate.

Institute Director Eleanor Lyon went to the Capitol earlier this month to supply lawmakers with the results of the nation’s first multi-state study of the effectiveness of domestic violence shelters in providing women with the services they need.

The study, Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences, was conducted by the Institute in collaboration with the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. It was based on a survey of 3,410 individuals served by domestic violence shelters in eight states, including Connecticut, during a six-month period in 2007-2008.

Overall, the study found that domestic violence shelters in Connecticut, as well as nationally, play a key role in helping protect victims and in providing important services.

One hundred percent of the domestic violence survivors surveyed in Connecticut said they received all or some of the help they needed with restraining orders, understanding domestic violence, safety planning, and child custody and welfare issues. Ninety-four percent said the staff made them feel welcome, while 91 percent said the staff treated them with respect.

“This study shows conclusively that the nation’s domestic violence shelters are meeting both the urgent and long-term needs of victims of violence, and helping them protect themselves and their children,” says Lyon. “Victims attribute meaningful change to the help they received at the shelter, but they also see areas where there is room for improvement.”

In Connecticut, currently only two domestic violence shelters have staff on duty 24 hours a day. Part of the problem is funding. The state of Connecticut provides about $3 million in annual funding for its 18 domestic violence shelters.

Of the $3 million, about half comes from the federal government’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. Individual programs must raise the rest of the money needed for their operations themselves. Funding has not kept pace with the increasing cost of operations in recent years, forcing many shelters to reduce staff.

A bill proposed by Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, calls for funding the shelters so staff can be on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The state Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates it would cost about $3.8 million to expand staffing as proposed. Fox and shelter advocates recognize it will be a difficult, but important, fight.

“Those of us who work with domestic violence survivors have long known that shelters play a pivotal role in saving the lives of women and children,” says Erika Tindill, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Eleanor Lyon, associate professor-in-residence of social work and director of the Institute for Violence Prevention and Reduction.
Eleanor Lyon, associate professor-in-residence of social work and director of the Institute for Violence Prevention and Reduction. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

The Meeting Survivors’ Needs study confirms that shelters are on the right track. Ensuring sufficient funding and resources for shelters in Connecticut is more important than ever.”

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and administered by the National Institute of Justice.

The Connecticut study participants were very similar in many ways to those from elsewhere in the country, in terms of their needs, their overall rating of the help they received during their time in shelter, and most of the demographics.

Nationally, 78 percent of survivors reported that they had children under the age of 18, and 68 percent had minor children with them at the shelter.

National data shows that 99 percent of domestic violence survivors said they got the help they wanted with their own safety, and 95 percent had assistance with safety planning.

In some aspects, Connecticut differed from nationwide trends. Connecticut study participants who had survived domestic violence were more likely to be Hispanic than those in other states.

Connecticut study participants had more positive first impressions of the shelter in several areas, and had higher ratings of outcomes for both adults and children. Connecticut survivors were more likely to report a need for housing at the time they entered the shelter than survivors in other states.

The study surveyed shelter residents in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Washington between October 2007 and March 2008.

Surveys were available in 11 languages, and were distributed at the time of shelter admission and exit.

The survey questions addressed survivors’ entry experiences, their needs and the extent to which those needs were met, whether they encountered any conflicts or problems, changes survivors attributed to the shelter stay, and a rating of the help they received.

Participating programs provided information about staff, volunteers, bed capacity, and the services provided.

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