In addition to committee membership, there were other differences in the organization and role of coordinating committees across the study communities. The number of committees ranged from a single committee in some sites to multiple coordinating groups in other sites. Baltimore, San Diego and Northern St. Louis County have one primary coordinating committee while Kansas City has two committees, one for criminal justice agencies and another for social service providers. San Francisco has several different coordinating bodies, which, for the most part, had distinct and well-defined purposes. Multiple coordinating committees with related and overlapping missions can lead to duplication of efforts, as was the case in Carlton County where at least five groups have missions which include domestic violence, either specifically or as part of a broader focus on violence in general.
Some committees are created for a specific purpose while other groups are formed to address domestic violence more broadly. For example, in San Francisco the Domestic Violence and Justice Committee was created specifically to improve the use of emergency protection orders by police. Kansas City has also created several ad hoc committees over the years to address particular problems in the community's criminal justice response. Mending the Sacred Hoop in Carlton County was created to address domestic violence in the Native American community. Groups in other communities typically worked on an ongoing basis to address a wider range of issues and to make more broad-based changes.
The committees also varied in their continuity and stability across the sites. The DVCC (Baltimore), Rural Women's Advocates (Carlton County), the Range Intervention Project of the Range Women's Advocates (Northern St. Louis County), and the DV Consortium (San Francisco) are all standing committees that have been meeting for the past decade. San Diego's DV Council is also a long-term group which began informally in 1987 and became an official task force in 1989. In many cases, committee membership has remained relatively consistent over time, which has further enhanced the committee's stability in some sites. Kansas City, on the other hand, has not had a longstanding committee, but, instead, has formed a series of coordinating committees over the years which typically disbanded after implementing a series of changes. This approach has led to an inconsistent level of effort over the years to keep the pressure on for systems change, in one person's opinion.
Although most committees do not have staff, having a staff person enabled some committees to increase their level of activity. Currently, the San Francisco DV Consortium is the only group which has a staff person to handle certain administrative duties and to coordinate the group's activities. Incorporating as a 501(c)3 initially allowed the San Diego DV Council to hire a full-time staff person dedicated to coordination. However, it has not been able to secure funding for a permanent staff position. In Baltimore, a federal grant enabled the DVCC to hire a part-time staff person to coordinate the committee's work for two years, and a number of people felt that this has greatly increased the committee's productivity. The coordinator follows-up on issues raised at the meetings and conveys information between the main DVCC committee and the smaller subcommittees and workgroup. However, the coordinator position was recently eliminated due to the reduction in Baltimore's grant.
Coordinating committees can improve a community's response to domestic violence in a number of ways. They bring together people from different agencies to define broad policies and objectives for the community's response to domestic violence. They also provide a means for people to meet on a regular basis to identify problems in the community's response--both broadly and for individual agencies. Through coordinating committees, individual agencies receive feedback from other organizations in the community about policies and practices that help or hinder the coordination effort. The routine communication established by a coordinating group helps to ensure that problems are identified and brought to the attention of the appropriate person in a timely fashion. Coordinating groups also provide an opportunity for many different people to weigh in on decisions about domestic violence policies and practices in the community. Gaining different input and perspectives helps agencies and programs to develop procedures that are more appropriate for victims or that help other agencies in the system to do their own jobs better.
These groups help to break down barriers between agencies and programs working with battered women and batterers. As long as an open dialogue exists, agencies can gain a better understanding of what roles others play in responding to domestic violence and of the limits others face in carrying out their jobs. For example, the police can learn what prosecutors need to convict a domestic violence perpetrator; shelters and victim advocates can learn the constraints that police officers face in arresting a perpetrator; and prosecutors can learn from advocates why victims frequently recant, minimize or deny the allegations of abuse.
Members of coordinating committees often become an identifiable group of domestic violence experts for the community. Other agencies and programs know who to contact at a particular agency about a domestic violence project, based on their involvement in the coordinating group. Committee members also serve as a resource for the broader community. In San Diego, for example, DV Council members are often sought out for advice by other community organizations, and asked to speak in schools. During a recent summit on violence against women, the DV Council and their expertise was discussed several times in designing strategies to address gaps in the system. In Baltimore, both the DVCC coordinator and the head of the domestic violence shelter are frequently called upon as experts in the community.
The informal networks created by coordinating groups greatly enhance the overall response to domestic violence. Through these groups, service providers meet other providers and have a face to put with a name when they are making referrals for clients. This makes it easier to access services for clients and also speeds up the process, since people know whom to call for assistance. Some respondents felt that these personal relationships also provide incentives for delivering quality services. When a provider personally knows the other providers in the community who refer clients to their agency, they have an incentive to provide a quality service. The increased communication that results from coordinating committees also provides opportunities for agencies to explore other collaborative efforts. In Baltimore, for example, the court and the domestic violence shelter (both of whom are DVCC members) have considered jointly applying for funding for the Domestic Violence Court.
Overall, most people felt very positively about their experiences with domestic violence coordinating committees. However, because many people face time constraints in their jobs, it is important that the meetings be well-organized and structured. Otherwise, some people felt that the meetings can be misused as an opportunity to grandstand or to promote an individual program or service. In some cases, tightly-knit coordinating groups may lead to cliques and exclude other providers who should be involved but are not part of this circle. This may be especially true for groups where the same people have worked together for a number of years and may be less inclined to or unaware of the need to expand their membership.