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This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
When a mobile advocate comes to you, it might be a meet-up at a cozy corner in a coffee shop or a public meeting at a bench in a park. The meetings are clandestine, careful, but not threatening. In some cases, they can even be held over the phone or via online virtual sessions. It’s not international espionage, even though it has the air of a spy movie. Whether it’s a phone call or a covert message through a website chat box, nonprofits across the U.S. have led the way in domestic violence mobile advocacy.
The premise is simple: Mobile advocates meet survivors where they are safe. It could be a familiar place around the neighborhood, the home or any other walkable destination. As a rule, mobile advocacy helps eliminate barriers for survivors when seeking help. These barriers often include finding childcare, getting transportation, and finding the time to reach out for help.
Comprehensive Care for Those Experiencing Crisis
A New Leaf, a nonprofit organization from Mesa, Ariz., has focused on helping families experiencing crisis since 1971. Founded by two school counselors, it was first a residential program for kids experiencing substance abuse. A New Leaf now operates as a domestic violence and shelter program. Their services include mobile advocacy.
“Our goals are to provide comprehensive care to people experiencing crisis, whatever that may be, in their time of need,” says Kathy DiNolfi, chief program officer. She oversees youth, community, housing, shelter services, and domestic and sexual violence services at A New Leaf.
“When someone calls the hotline, it may be their first time reaching out,” says DiNolfi. “It is crucial for us to be that intervention, right then at that time, because you never know if this person is going to reach out again.”
DiNolfi says mobile advocates are on the line to help support and find resources for those being abused by a partner. “We're here to talk you through your crisis, do crisis intervention and help with that immediate kind of response, and also let you know there's lots of resources available out there,” she says. “Maybe you need food bucks [similar to SNAP/food stam benefits], maybe you need help paying your electricity bill, whatever the case may be—that's what we're there for.”
From housing needs to court advocacy, mobile advocates help provide emotional, physical, mental and legal support. “If you're in the middle of a crisis, it's daunting to even file for an order of protection,” says DiNolfi, “then having to relive and retell if difficult. Facing a judge and potentially facing the person that abused you is difficult too.”
“When everyone thinks about domestic violence services, they think of shelter, which we provide. But there are also all these ancillary services as well,” DiNolfi says, “Because not everyone needs or wants shelter.”
What Happens After the Initial Call?
After the initial call from a survivor, mobile advocates speak with their client to find resources and help create a safety plan. Every domestic violence case is different, and the structure of a safety plan will vary based on severity, says Makayla Hart, a mobile advocate for A New Life Center. She works both in-person, where she goes to meet with a survivor by providing resources directly, as well as being a mobile advocate on the 24/7 hotline.
“If a survivor is planning on leaving, they shouldn’t let their abuser know—because that can be dangerous, and in some cases, life threatening,” she says.
Hands of Hope, an Indiana mobile advocacy program under Radiant Health, allows domestic violence survivors to meet with mobile advocates in a safe place within the community. Their goal is to serve those living with abusive partners, from domestic and sexual violence to stalking.
Linda Wilk, director at Hands of Hope, says since the program went mobile, they have been able to redirect funds and services to better fit what their clients needed. “Whether it's a church or a library or wherever, we can go to where they're going to feel comfortable,” says Wilk. “And if there is a concern that an abuser is going to come and find the survivor, we can put them in a short term stay at a hotel.”
After 2021, Hands of Hope became completely mobile through a grant funded initiative and now collaborates with the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The mobile advocate can help with employment, immigration issues, childcare, safety planning and legal services. There are also times when financial assistance is needed for clients to feel safer.
“We can provide them with door jambs and window bars,” says Wilk, “We’ve helped with car repair, relocation funds, childcare, birth certificates and social security cards.”
They also offer the HUD public housing program, called Domestic Violence Rapid Rehousing, that allocates funds to those dealing with domestic abuse who need rental assistance. “The homeless criteria for HUD, typically, is that you have to be literally homeless, which can be difficult for a domestic abuse survivor,” says Wilk. “With this funding, we can work with a client who is saying, ‘I want to leave but I have nowhere to go. I have no way to pay.’”
The program is set up so that after the first six months, the goal for the survivor is that they become self-sufficient. “So, if they don't have a job, my staff works with them to try and find housing, a job, childcare,” she says, alongside any other barriers the individual is facing. Hands of Hope has provided locks, security cameras and even emergency phones for clients dealing with domestic abuse.
Survivors Are Supported Through All Stages of Healing
Mobile advocates can continue to help support survivors throughout all stages of healing until clients are ready to exit the program. Survivors may continue to stay connected with the organization to access new resources after abuse.
Allison Weakland, the director of Mobile Advocacy for Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA, serves domestic abuse survivors in Pennsylvania. For those seeking education and awareness regarding domestic abuse and healthy relationships, DVSSP offers online virtual classes, called “teachables.”
The teachables include lessons focused on domestic violence and what an abuser does to keep a survivor stuck, says Weakland. “We've already talked about safety planning at this point, but we'll kind of circle back to it—not only from a physical standpoint, but also what the abuser might do that affects them emotionally.”
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Weakland has worked as a mobile advocate by teaching at county jails and halfway houses, as well as online.
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