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Maybe you were told when to speak and what you could say. Or, how to dress, how clean the house had to be, or when meals were to be served. Whatever rules an abuser used to exert control, their point was to take away your power. As a survivor, that’s one of the reasons you may find shelter rules triggering, taking you back to the time when you were told what you could and couldn’t do.
By necessity, domestic abuse shelters have rules for everything from phone usage and alcohol to curfews and chores. And, more than other types of organizations, such rules are essential to the residents’ and staff’s safety as well as to building a peaceful community. But advocates acknowledge that rules also need to be respectful of the women and children living there and not make them feel like they’re still voiceless. To this end, some shelters are shifting their perspective on rules by minimizing the number and strictness of them, giving women more control over their environment and actions. This trend could help survivors regain the autonomy abusers stole from them.
The Role of Rules
Women’s advocate Lydia Walker has witnessed many different approaches to rules during her decades-long career. She’s seen some shelters with more than 100 rules and others that have none, but rely instead on the women living there to develop guidelines based on their own unique needs.
“I want shelters to have the rules they need, but they should always have the goal of minimizing the rules,” she says. “It’s easy when there’s trouble, to add a rule.” But, she cautions, that type of rule tends to address the exception, not the norm.
In one of the shelters where Walker worked, the staff had one sheet of rules, or guidelines as they preferred to call them. Their own rule was if one guideline was added, one had to be taken off. Keeping their list to one page was the trick they used to monitor themselves and to carefully think before further limiting the women living there.
Some researchers are also looking at the physical design of shelters to assess how a different use of space could help make fewer rules necessary. For example, a different mix of private and common areas could impact the need for a curfew if getting in late wouldn’t wake anyone; and more locked storage space could help with rules around cleanliness and medications. The researchers even explored the idea of more custom display space in resident bedrooms to encourage personalization and identity formation, which can help empower survivors.
Rules that are too restrictive keep survivors from making their own choices, which can hinder their ability to transition to an independent life. It can also position the shelter staff as enforcers, overshadowing the more important roles they play in helping women heal and preparing them for life after the shelter.
“I would challenge every shelter to look at each rule they have and see if it’s productive, respectful and necessary,” Walker says. If it doesn’t fit one of those criteria, who is it benefitting?
For example, many shelters have a rule that women can’t talk to the abuser. “Usually that rule fails the ‘productive’ test,” Walker says. Some women are going to talk with the abuser—and having a written rule isn’t going to stop them.
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What that rule does do, though, Walker says, is it keeps her from talking to her advocate about the fact that she’s talking to the abuser. “If she’s doing that, there’s a high probability that she’ll go back,” she says. “As an advocate, I want to have an open conversation with her about that and about her safety.” But if breaking the rule could get her kicked out of the shelter, she’s more likely to keep it secret.
Walker says the biggest benefit of fewer, less restrictive rules is that women in shelters are being treated with respect and compassion, and given power over their own lives. More than 20 years after her last stint working in a shelter, Walker says she still has nightmares about her time there. One recurring bad dream is that the women in her shelter are being treated disrespectfully and not supported. A renewed focus on respectful rule-making could help her—and thousands of survivors in shelters across the U.S.—sleep better at night.
Before staying at a shelter, make sure it’s the right fit for you and your needs. Read, “Important Questions to Ask a Shelter.” And if you work for a shelter, two additional resources that can help you determine how best to relax the rules include “How the Earth Didn’t Fly into the Sun, Missouri’s Project to Reduce Rules in Domestic Violence Shelters” and the Running a Shelter area of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.
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