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For all the tragic and heartbreaking news we hear on a daily basis about domestic violence, it’s also important to remember that strides against this epidemic are happening across the country every day.
One example: something called the Shared Safety Initiative, a program through Philadelphia’s Office of Domestic Violence Strategies, which is doing exactly as the name implies—sharing the responsibility of keeping domestic violence survivors safe among more than just the first responders.
“Historically, domestic violence responses have stemmed from the law enforcement sector. A victim calls 9-1-1, and the police get involved, then possibly the courts … however, this leaves a significant number of victims—those who didn’t call the police or whose situations never made it into the justice system—on their own without an intervention,” says Jeannine L. Lisitski, executive director and president of Women Against Abuse, one of the largest domestic violence providers in the country and a key instigator of Shared Safety since it began in 2012.
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Shared Safety is now overseen by the newly appointed Director of Domestic Abuse Strategies, Azucena Ugarte, a position that the Mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, created in 2016 to better hone the city’s efforts in combating intimate partner violence in their state.
Reaching Survivors Before They’re in Crisis
“The main goal of our office is to support the City’s Health and Human Services agencies—child welfare, housing and homeless, behavioral health, and public health—to become more ‘DV-competent.’ In other words, we are supporting the HHS agencies to be able to identify and respond appropriately to intimate partner violence,” explains Ugarte.
The program and its partners also aim to reach potential victims sooner, says Lisitski, before things reach a crisis level where police need to be involved and lethality risks are high.
Among other things, the office has been working closely with the Child’s Welfare Agency to ensure investigators and case managers can request domestic violence consultations with an expert when they suspect abuse is happening within a home, says Ugarte.
Among Shared Safety’s goals are to:
- Ensure domestic violence-informed screening and access to services
- Embed domestic violence-informed practices into human service agencies
- Expand capacity for emergency housing
- Establish a system that allows for safety, self-reliance, and wellbeing
- Assure people who act abusively are offered alternatives to violence
Public Health Epidemic, Not Women’s Issue
Philadelphia is the sixth most populated city in the United States with an estimated 1.5 million residents. It also ranked as the 19thdeadliest city in 2018, according to FBI crime statistics, with 46.8 violent crimes per 10,000 residents. (For reference, Baltimore, Md., was No. 1 with 98.6 violent crimes per 10,000 residents.)
According to Women Against Abuse, there is an average of 23 domestic violence homicides committed in Philadelphia a year.
Lisitski says Shared Safety has shifted the way the city recognizes domestic abuse, seeing it as a public health and public safety epidemic, “rather than a private family issue or—even worse—a ‘women’s issue.’ Understanding the rippling and irrevocable impact that intimate partner violence makes on our community is a fundamental first step,” she says.
One of the key accomplishments of Shared Safety, explains Lisitski, was the creation of a universal screening tool for health and human service practitioners that screens for domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, and reproductive coercion.
“The Philadelphia Screen for the Experience of Relational Violence, or P-SERV, is a 10-question tool that doctors, therapists, social workers and other professionals can use. It is accompanied with guidelines for how to administer the questions, and it also offers a differential response based on the clients’ lived experiences—everything practitioners need.
Beyond that, the group is also hoping to secure federal funding to provide for even more interventions for domestic violence survivors, preventing survivors from winding up on the streets after escaping abuse. Studies show that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women.
Though Ugarte says numbers have not yet been collected to show the Initiative’s impact on the community, it’s on their to-do list.
“One of the main objectives of Shared Safety for 2019 is to identify systems-level metrics that we could use annually to assess our work,” she says.
Looking ahead, Ugarte has lofty goals for the city and its fight against domestic violence.
“We still need to develop a comprehensive plan that focuses not only on helping survivors to prevent revictimization, but also on working with abusive partners to prevent re-perpetration, and on working with children and youth to prevent domestic violence to happen in the first place.”
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