Visite de Middle Way House aux Etats-Unis; entretien avec la coordinatrice des programmes de prévention de la violence

MIDDLE WAY HOUSE MEETING 30th of July 2015

During this summer, I traveled to the United States and I stayed a while in Bloomington, Indiana. The city of Bloomington is the seat of Monroe County in southern Indiana. The population is around 80,000 and this city is the home to Indiana University Bloomington (the largest campus in IN) which has more than 40,000 students. As I’m working on domestic violence in France, I thought it would be nice to visit a nonprofit center which helps women in the US. I was interested to find out that they have more shelters in this town than in Strasbourg, France which has a population of 275,000.

I had the chance to visit one of these centers: Middle Way House (MWH). This organization seeks to end violence in the lives of women and children by implementing or sponsoring activities and programs aimed at achieving individual and social change. It offers many services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, namely crisis intervention, emergency and transitional housing, support services, legal advocacy, child care, economic development activities, and community outreach.

Evelyn Smith who is the Prevention Programs Coordinator at MWH agreed to an interview to present how MWH shelters and programs operate. She works in the field of sexual and domestic violence prevention and provides crisis intervention to survivors of such violence. The goal of Evelyn and her team is to develop better practices in prevention education and community development and later implement them. MWH is one of six National Domestic Violence Model programs[1]. In Bloomington, they are the primary service provider related to domestic violence. Every shelter has different organizations among the different states. This article is a concrete illustration of existing practices.

Organization, staff and grants

The building where we had our conversation is called New Wings. It houses the administration offices and the emergency shelter. MWH also have transitional housing in another building across the street. Their emergency shelter covers a six-county area that encompasses 600,000 people in total. This building is the DV[2] shelter for this area. They have about 18 full time jobs and 33 part time jobs. Numerous volunteers help with various tasks, especially with the after-school program. Also they are the ones who are on the crisis-line[3]. There is always staff available in case they don’t know what to do. However, volunteers are trained to follow a standardized protocol.

Their main financial resources are grants, usually from the State. Evelyn thinks the MWH could benefit from a more fiscally comfortable situation given the services they provide, but they’re able to operate with the grants they receive. Different kinds of grants have different cycles. Some of them have 10 year cycles which is the case for the building and maintenance grant. Individual programs, on the other hand, are more frequently on a one or two year cycle. MWH have to apply for a different grant for each program and they send the results (numbers of people, average stay, etc.). Evelyn said that these numbers are compiled mostly for the MWH, since most grants don’t require them. About finding grants, Evelyn said: “When you deal with a 25-year-old agency, you have to understand how things change and to take account new information. Change what you can. There was no funding for primary prevention 10 years ago and now there is!” She is currently working on a program for homeless people who don’t necessarily have a history of DV or sexual assault.

How the shelter actually works

People usually call them or they just walk in and they talk to the staff. To manage a basic case, for a walk-in, they ask the usual questions: What is the situation? What do they need? What are they looking for? Why are they here?

If the people’s situations are appropriate for the shelter, which means they have experienced DV, homelessness as a direct result of DV or sexual assault, the emergency shelter is an option. Especially if they don’t feel safe where they are or if they don’t have anywhere else to go. Maybe 60% or 70% say yes to this offer. Others prefer to find something else. According to Evelyn, there is a very strong social stigma related to shelter life, especially if you’re with children. They have to work with the Department of Children’s Services to express that: “It is a shelter, it’s also a safe space for children, and they would rather be here than in a place of physical danger.” If the person accepts to stay in a shelter, they check her record. Some people can’t stay because they are registered sex offenders or because they committed abuse on another client during the past six years. If they have been in a shelter before, they can still come in, but if they have previously threatened the personnel, it will be more difficult to gain admission.

Once they are in a shelter, survivors don’t have a limited stay. In theory, they can stay until they are ready to manage on their own. But according to Evelyn: “Many people feel pressure they have to leave earlier because they don’t like to live in a shelter.” The longest stay they had was seven months and the average stay is around two months[4].When they stay in the shelter, MWH provides food, a day care, support groups, a roof top with educational programs, etc. The goal is really to find a way for them to regain independence.

Usually per year they welcome around 200 individuals, 125 adults, 75 or so children.

When I asked if they also have permanent housing, Evelyn said they don’t officially have one but they have a couple of apartments the agency owns and they offer those as permanent options for women with or without children. She insisted on the fact they get plenty of survivors who don’t have kids but public assistance is very limited if you don’t have kids. The initial lease is for two years but sometimes they give an extension because even two years after leaving a relationship, the situation can still be dangerous.

I wanted to know if, as in France, the population represented in shelters is a small part of the population living in a climate of DV. Evelyn answered that even if they are working with all kinds of different victims, it’s really rare they see women in a shelter who are not living in poverty because if the woman is economically stable, she can afford a room. Perhaps this means she lives in an area where the police will answer a call if she needs it. So, the shelter has become a refuge for the most vulnerable part of the population. It can create stress all around because sometimes when looking at a case, there is no good solution, no good answer.

To leave the abuser?

MWH doesn’t really know how many women leave their abusers, it depends a lot of what information they can gather. Evelyn said that, on average, 10% of attempts to leave are successful. One of the main activities of the association is to educate women on how to recognize a violent relation pattern, how to identify if they are victims of psychological violence, etc. They don’t ask the women to leave their abusers because their main goal is not specifically for them to push women to leave, but for the women to become self-sufficient. If the victim is not ready to do this, they want to be sure that she has enough knowledge and resources to decide how to do it later. They recognize that people enter a relationship for a lot of different reasons, usually it is because they loved their abuser. MWH workers will talk with women about those situations especially if the victim has spent time outside from shelter with her abuser. They are not going to kick anybody out, but they are going to say, “Hey, do you feel safe? Do you think your kids are safe out there?” They always encourage people to choose the most secure place for them.

Good cooperation with the police

Everywhere, shelters have to work with local law enforcement. MWH cooperates a lot with them. The association and the police have established a lethality assessment protocol. Anytime the police are called for a domestic disturbance, they follow this protocol and if it seems dangerous for the victim to stay, they call MWH. The survivor doesn’t have to talk to them, the police officer does so, to explain the situation and assess whether the victim is safe for the next 24 hours. Police officers have training on DV and they know their job. The way MWH envisages DV is well-understood by the police, with the occasional exception for repeat-victims (that is to say people the police saw a few times who is still with the abuser in the same situation). The police are frustrated when women stay with their abusers. Officers sometimes can feel like they are interfering and they are wasting their time. When broaching the topic of sexual violence, Evelyn added that it’s way more difficult to work with the police: “Sometimes you get a good cop, sometime you don’t so much [sighs]…”

Legal recourse

MWH considers legal recourse as an option and offers assistance to people when they have legal advocates available. Generally speaking, getting any kind of credibility in court is very difficult. That’s true for DV as well as for sexual assault. Sometimes, the advocates help the victim with restitution[5] but most of the time, they help her with protective orders[6] or divorces.

Most people don’t want to sue. When advocates are working with survivors, they notice the victims’ lack of trust in the police. The majority of people in this area are White, so people of color, queer people or people with disabilities have a strong feeling that law is not interested in helping them and their abusers feel the same way. For Evelyn “that’s why even the threat of the law is not particularly effective, that’s a very cultural thing in the US.” For sure, we agreed on the fact the court is not designed for “situational violence[7]”. Dealing with situational violence is more about prevention and education, and the nature of these violent acts has changed over time. Therefore, the difficulty is to find a way to build a program that addresses these needs.

Prevention education programs in school

First, the prevention programs coordinator looks at the particular risk factors of the area where the school is: DV, sexual violence or teen-date violence. What is most common is a lack of non-violent conflict resolution skills and a lack of connection to the community and its schools. To convince the schools they could benefit from a presentation by the prevention programs coordinator, MWH argues “we know how to speak to the kids about it, you don’t have to make the lesson plan, just let us in.” Then, there is also a certain level of “teen violence education” which is required by the state education guidelines so it’s another argument, “We found this requirement, we’ll do it for you.”

Here are a few examples of the presentations they do:

-“Teen peer advocate training”: they know kids will talk a lot more with friends than with an adult so they teach kids how to respond to their friends who will tell them they experienced violence.

-“Fighting rape culture with consent”: they talk about consent in any relationship and how it changes with sex, etc.

The prevention program is really about teaching kids these skills which are useful everywhere. The target population is kids who could be abused but also who could be abusers. Usually it works and they have an honest discussion with the kids.

Even if it depends on the places, they have a pretty good reputation and some schools are very happy to have these kinds of presentations. Others schools say “We don’t have these kinds of problems here” but as Evelyn added: “I talked to the kids, they do!”

They serve 16 different kinds of organizations such as schools, homeless service centers, prisons, and many others.

Support group meetings

MWH has different kinds of support groups. In the shelter, they still have the residential support group which is run by one of the case-workers. They also have a non-residential support group and the community support group meetings they offer rotate. For example, they offer support groups for women coping in the aftermath of DV or a community group meeting about “Boyfriend lessons for Gay, Bi & Trans Men in partnership.” Depending of the groups, some people have been following them for years.

They do have discussions about support group meetings for abusers and women who committed violence. They don’t offer any support groups for abusers. It has to have a link with the legal system but at the same time, the groups should not feel punitive for people. Evelyn pointed out that it’s really hard to build a program for perpetrators which works.

The VAWA[8], the latest act, is expressly gender neutral which means the associations have to help men. But how can men be housed when they are the vast majority of abusers? So far, they haven’t had a man ask for shelter, and their legal advocates have seen men who have been abused by women. Also, they have certainly seen women who have been abused by women. “I think the most important thing to recognize is that it’s not about judgment… As an agency, we have this philosophy around. Gender is an integral part of what makes this kind of violence socially endorsed. Obviously we don’t endorse it, but socially it is largely socially acceptable, which is a horrible thing to say about any culture, but it’s true.”

About relationship dynamics and working with victims

The most common type of relationship violence is situational couple violence which has more to do with not knowing how to resolve conflicts without violence. “Violence is not an acceptable solution, and it’s not a problem-solving strategy; we all agree!” However, as an agency, they have been looking at relationship dynamics and working on an intimate terrorism model (intentionally asserting power over another person) the classical model of DV.

On the one hand, they are working to apply official policies drafting protocol, looking for models, and on the other hand, they are working with human beings: “The politics largely go out the door when you start working with individual people. So one of the things we say is that trauma doesn’t make people noble, it doesn’t make them better people. Trauma just causes PTSD[9″]. People can recognize the syndromes of PTSD: mood swings, irritability, anxiety, etc., and survivors have to live with these effects. Some of the victims come in with poor attitudes or self-protective behaviors and react negatively in such a non-violent environment. These negative behaviors include engaging in casual racism or homophobia. And MWH needs to identify what people require to change their attitudes.

The roots of DV are about power and control, it doesn’t seem like a particular useful observation but this information is useful to understand how to change that. The problems related to DV are a societal problem: we need to address racism, we need to address poverty, we need to teach people to identify manipulation and abuse of power; in short it’s about changing cultural norms.

I encourage you all to visit their website: http://www.middlewayhouse.org/

I would like to thank Evelyn for her time[10] and to say “bravo” to Middle Way House for all the work they accomplish every day!

Marine Airiau
Phd Student
Teaching assistant

[1] If you want to know more about that : http://www.ncadv.org/
[2] DV means domestic violence and we’ll use it for the rest of the article.
[3] They provide a 24-hour crisis hotline.
[4] These are not official statistics, it’s an approximate personal evaluation.
[5] This means the abuser has to financially repay the victim for actual damages he or she caused.
[6]Acte similaire à l’ordonnance de protection en France, articles 515-9 à 515-13 du Code civil.
[7] Pour résoudre le problème de la symétrie de genre, le sociologue féministe Michael P. Johnson (1995, 2006 ; Johnson et Ferraro, 2000) a proposé une typologie des violences conjugales. Cette typologie oppose initialement le « terrorisme patriarcal » (patriarchal terrorism)  et la « violence commune de couple » (common couple violence) (Johnson, 1995). Les désignations évoluent vers « terrorisme intime » (intimate terrorism) et « violence situationnelle de couple » (situational couple violence) (Johnson et Ferraro, 2000). Tout cela est extrêmement bien synthétisé dans : F. BONNET, « Violences conjugales, genre et criminalisation : synthèse des débats américains », Revue française de sociologie, 2015/2 (Vol. 56), p. 357-383.
[8] Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) : Le  VAWA est une loi finançant différents programmes, qui doit être renouvelée tous les cinq ans. Consacrée à l’ensemble des violences faites aux femmes, cette loi comporte plusieurs volets. Elle a par exemple crée un bureau (Office of Violence Against Women), affilié au Département de la justice, finance des projets de collaboration entre notamment les services de police et les associations, et réforme des lois sur la violence.
[9] Post-traumatic stress disorder
[10] I would like to thank Julie Nimtz and Christopher Airiau for the English corrections.

 

Pour citer cet article :
Marine Airiau, "Visite de Middle Way House aux Etats-Unis; entretien avec la coordinatrice des programmes de prévention de la violence", in Violences & familles, 22/10/2015, https://vif.hypotheses.org/38.

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