Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
In response to intimate partner violence shelters remain a vital service that can assist survivors in escaping dangerous relationships, developing safety strategies, accessing community resources and offering opportunities to find jobs, housing and the skills needed to successfully transition back into the community. But in order to do that shelters need to operate in a way that supports and empowers survivors rather than exposing them to an environment that replicates the hierarchical structure and accompanying rules and limits that mirror the very relationship they are escaping.
Shelters that adopt a trauma-informed approach can offer survivors a sense of belonging, an accepting community, an environment that celebrates successes and allows for mistakes and the security that they will have the chance to grow and learn at their own pace. A trauma-informed approach allows everyone to be treated as an individual and interprets behavior in the context of the trauma rather than as conscious choices that are sometimes in conflict with others or even in conflict with what seems best for the survivor. Rules are not needed in such an environment because everyone is expected to be responsible for their own behavior and natural consequences are sufficient.
This is in contrast to staff imposed behavior and the accompanying consequences. Positive norms are established by the residents and are reflections of what they determine are important for shelter life and their family. A sense of community develops as empathy and support for each other is fostered. Staff are relieved to be released of the authoritative role even as they are challenged to sustain the model rather than reverting back to what is known and familiar, albeit unproductive and even harmful. A complex system of checks and balances is in place that can signal if dangerous practices are developing and whether survivors or staff are negatively impacted by the experience of our shelter programs.
Is it easy to give up our old ways of providing shelter while challenging ourselves to adopt a model that is so radically different from anything we’ve known? Absolutely not. Do we need to constantly watch to ensure that have not slipped back into the more traditional approaches? Absolutely. As we empower women in our programs they will come to see themselves and their relationships differently. We must find better, more powerful ways to assist people in their attempts to transcend formidable injustices and affronts that they have suffered and endured. Progress toward that end will have enormous impact on battered women, their children and society at large.
Cherelyn Homlishhas worked in the field of domestic violence for over 20 years and is the Associate Director of Domestic Violence Services at People’s Place supervising three domestic violence programs.