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We need to abolish, not “re-evalute,” domestic violence shelters

Date: May 20, 2009

In a post titled “Are Domestic Violence Programs Still Meeting the Needs of Survivors?,” Advocating Ethics, which provides “latest news & information for domestic violence/crime victim advocates, both paid and volunteer, in the state of Michigan” cites my paper pointing out structural problems inherent within our domestic violence shelter system.” Or rather, it cites portions of my paper that quotes other people, whose positions I actually critique.

The post starts by discussing changes that have taken place since the first domestic violence shelter in the U.S. was founded in the 1960s:

Domestic violence programs have a rich and inspiring history of selfless volunteers sacrificing time, resources and money to help battered women find safety and support. Early on, some women just opened their homes to victims The first shelter for women in the United States was started in California in 1964. […] Out of this grassroots era of advocacy there have evolved structured organizations sanctioned by national and state associations. […] A great deal of energy is put into compliance with many different grantors, coalitions and commissions. Less and less energy is directed to survivor’s daily needs and practical, ground level victim advocacy.

Then, as an example of others who have realised this, it quotes paragraphs in which I quote Patricia Gaddis’ and Nancy Meyer’s comments.

“…Only a short time after the Feminists had fallen asleep, mainstream professionalism infiltrated battered women’s programs, bringing forth a new and unpleasant hierarchy within the movement, a hierarchy that undermined the Feminists’ effort to eradicate the root causes of domestic violence. Shared power among employees was quickly discarded and ethical practices that included the voices of battered women, basic training on the dynamics of domestic violence, and the power of shared experience among women was frowned upon… Unqualified executive directors were brought in from the mainstream to tell shelter staff and court advocates that they were not as important to the program as the licensed professionals… Battered women seeking refuge were held captive by the never-ending shelter rules that were put into place by the mainstream professionals who thumbed their noses at the original founders. Many safe houses now seemed more like prisons, or ‘social’ bed and breakfasts, that prevented the disabled and women of all races, ages, classes, and religions and ethnic groups from entering. Victims were referred to as ‘crazy’ and whips were cracked upon the backs of advocates or victims who dared question the professional task master’s authority… Shelter programs were no longer a safe place for all battered women.” (Gaddis 2001, p. 16)

Nancy J. Meyer of the Washington, D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines “de-politicization” as “a reframing process that directs attention away from (and recreates knowledge about) sexism, male dominance, patriarchy, and female subjugation.” “There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to improve the conditions in which battered women live,” Meyer argues, “but when putative efforts to just ‘make it better’ become the end goal, the political vision and motivation to address the real exegesis of male violence becomes sublimated… The political disappears and domestic violence becomes a naturalized part of what appears to be an unchanging or unchangeable social landscape.” (Meyer 2001, p. 23).

While I sympathise with Gaddis’ and Meyer’s disdain for the state of anti-domestic violence movement as it has come to be, I actually disagree with much of their analyses, as I made it clear in the same article. In Gaddis’ and Meyer’s world, the early anti-domestic violence movement was egalitarian, and women united through acknowledgment of their “shared experiences” to fight patriarchy; the anti-domestic violence movement has become problematic only as a result of institutionalisation and professionalisation.

What I argue is the opposite: the early anti-domestic violence movement was not as egalitarian as Gaddis and Meyer claim, since there are many ways some women can have power over other women without formal structures; if it appeared egalitarian to Gaddis and Meyer, that only means that they were oblivious to their own privileged positionality. In fact, I argue that it was precisely this feminist myth of presumed egalitarianism among women that perpetuated abusive structures of power and control within the anti-domestic violence movement: as feminists, we failed to recognise our own capacity for abusing power, which led to inadequate or non-existant structures of accountability and ethics.

Gaddis and Meyer recommend that our movement must once again focus on “power of shared experiences among women” to address the “root cause” of domestic violence, which they believe to be the patriarchy. My opinion is almost opposite: I believe that we must start from a true acknowledgment of the vast diversity of women’s experiences within many intersecting systems of oppression.

That said, the author of “Advocating Ethics” was apparently not interested in my view, or at least unconvinced by it, as it becomes evident from her comment following the above quote:

[…] there is a growing and very vocal community of survivors who feel re-victimized or at least dissatisfied by the domestic violence services they attempted to access. […] The reasons are varied from blatant mistreatment to the lack of resources to accommodate family pets. […] The current economic climate exacerbates the problem. Resources have diminished. There are less training opportunities. New technology for both staff and survivors is critical but costly.

Battered women have less need for temporary shelter due to improvements in the court system in the area of personal protection orders, domestic violence arrest policies and pretrial release conditions but greater need for support services. Survivors are now more desperate for real economic assistance, something that is not possible in the current structure of most programs and funding sources.

I do agree that “real economic assistance” is extremely important, but that is not a new development resulting from the current economic crisis: survivors, and lots of other people too for that matter, always needed more assistance with housing, healthcare, etc. than are available. But it concerns me that the author is uncritically applauding the positive outcomes of harsher law enforcement approach as the primary vehicle to protect survivors of domestic violence (a commenter goes further to advocate for “tougher sentencing to keep [abusers] in prison) without addressing how such expansion of state power exacerbates state and police violence against women, especially women of color, poor women, immigrant women, and queer people.

Then the blog concludes:

The time has come for domestic violence programs to assess which services are effective advocacy and which are simply based on time-worn tradition rather than current needs of women and children. Domestic violence agencies still save lives every day. There will always be a primary need for a safe haven. The majority of advocates are selfless and hardworking and in it for all the right reasons but are confined to the policies of their agencies. A successful program will continually evaluate, update and re-evaluate to ensure the best quality services and safety of those who come to them for help.

There will always be a need for safe haven, but I don’t feel that our domestic violence shelters provide it. I think that we need to be deeply suspicious of the coupling of housing, supervision, and emotional support: while social services in general tend to be paternalistic, the concentration of various competing interests and roles into one entity (the agency) as we often see in domestic violence shelters breeds abuse.

In my opinion, the best solution to this problem is to decouple housing: employ housing first approach to help survivors find an apartment in the community first, with long-term rent assistance of course, and then deal with other issues. People might argue that some women desperately need support and supervision to be available 24/7, but anyone who have worked at our shelters know that such women are first to be evicted from shelters because of the difficulty of complying with all the rules and living in a crowded shared housing setting, because shelters are not designed to adequately support women with such needs. Perhaps we could adopt disability rights movement’s principle of independent living here: survivors should be assisted in the least restrictive environment each individual can handle, which to most survivors and their children would be their own apartment.