The DVN has been the main vehicle for coordination between the area's six shelters since it was formed in the late 1980s. One of its first activities was to establish the Court Advocacy Program for the Municipal Court. This program, which is currently funded by a state grant, is jointly staffed by the four Missouri-based shelters. While the Municipal Court is the primary focus of the program, a team of volunteer advocates also provides services at some Circuit Courts. At the Kansas City Municipal Court, advocates set up signs directing victims where to go, check the victims in, and provide an orientation on what to expect in the courtroom. The advocate monitors the progress of the case and, after the hearing, explains what happened and makes referrals for shelters, hotlines and other services. The advocates may follow up with the victim by telephone to see how things are going. In addition, the advocates sometimes approach the police or prosecutor on the victim's behalf to obtain information about the status of the case.
In addition to the shelter advocates, court advocates also work with victims at the Municipal Court. The court advocates are employed by the Kansas City Prosecutor's Office and serve as a liaison between the prosecutor and the victim in domestic violence cases. The role of these advocates differs from that of the shelter advocates whose first priority is the victim and whose focus is more service-oriented. This difference has, at times, caused tension between the advocates.
All six shelters in the metropolitan Kansas City area serve battered women from throughout the entire community, although each program targets a specific catchment area surrounding the shelter. Given the differences in the various communities, clients often prefer to seek services from a shelter in their own neighborhood. For example, women from the outlying rural areas are often reluctant to go to a shelter in an urban area of Jackson County. However, if one shelter is full, the client may be referred to another shelter in the area. One shelter operates an inpatient substance abuse program and receives more referrals from throughout the area of women needing this specific service.
Given the overlap in the populations served, there is a need for communication and coordination among the shelters. Since the early 1990s, the DVN has focused its efforts on creating a shared hotline, a consolidated intake process, and an integrated computer system for all six shelters. The goal of these efforts is to obtain consistent data and to coordinate screening and referrals across the shelters. This initiative was prompted by concerns from funding agencies about the community's service needs and the role of multiple shelters. Having multiple shelters makes it difficult to assess accurately the community-wide demand for services. For example, if a woman calls three different shelters but does not receive services from any, she is counted three times in the community-wide statistics of clients "turned away" for service, even though this represents a single case.
Since 1993, the shelters have operated a single, shared hotline and used consistent intake forms and procedures. Each shelter takes a turn staffing the hotline and does the intake on all calls received during its assigned time. The shelter answering the hotline has information about the availability of beds at each of the shelters and refers the caller to the appropriate shelter, based on location and service needs. This process eliminates the need for domestic violence victims to contact multiple providers to obtain services.
The consolidated hotline established a general policy for battered women to call the central number instead of calling individual shelters. However, if a client calls a shelter directly, the providers continue to do the intake themselves rather than referring the caller back to the main hotline. A couple of shelters estimated that about one-quarter of their clients continue to call the shelter directly. The DVN and its member agencies have made an effort to publicize the single hotline number through advertising campaigns and other means. The DVN also established a toll- free number to allow victims in rural areas to call the hotline without having the call show up on their long-distance telephone bill. As part of these efforts, the DVN also has coordinated how phone books publish the numbers for domestic violence services, having the central number listed rather than individual shelter phone numbers. According to one person, giving up their own phone numbers was initially an issue for some shelters, but most programs have become convinced of the benefits of a single hotline number.
Last year, the DVN implemented the Open Hands system, a computer database for the six shelters. This system, which took four years to design, collects standardized client information for each shelter. Since the shelters use a common intake form, the data in Open Hands are coded consistently to allow for better tracking and data analysis. At present, not all shelters are reporting data to the Open Hands network, even though the system has been in place for about a year. Based on the initial experience with Open Hands, the DVN is currently revising the intake forms and simplifying the system. One person felt that originally the project may have tried to collect too much information. The DVN is also modifying the computer system to correct problems and make the system easier to use. Eventually, the DVN hopes to put the system "on- line" to further improve the access to information across the agencies.
In developing Open Hands, the DVN had to address confidentiality issues in order to share client information across the shelters. Currently the Open Hands network blocks certain information if requested by a client, and releases other information only with a client's permission. Open Hands has also changed the intake process, by having staff enter data into the network as the interview is being conducted. Some staff have found it difficult to use the Open Hands computer system during a crisis situation.
At present, the DVN's primary mission is to operate the hotline and collaborate on fundraising and joint projects. According to one person, the DVN originally developed a broader agenda which included the shared hotline, a joint resource center, and joint training for each shelter's volunteers, staff, and board. However, the DVN was unable to address all aspects of the larger plan and decided, instead, to focus on a single project, the shared hotline.
Geography was viewed as an obstacle to coordination among the shelters for several reasons. The distance between shelters limits collaboration among the various agencies. Since Kansas City is spread out geographically, a provider may have to travel up to an hour each way to meet with other providers. The community also has limited public transportation which makes it difficult for clients to travel between the shelters for services. One provider felt that the shelters would collaborate more on joint services if the distance and transportation were not issues. The "state line" also serves as a major barrier to people working together in Kansas City. Since the metropolitan area falls in two different states, providers often operate under different state laws and regulations as well as funding restrictions. For example, providers are often restricted from serving Kansas residents with Missouri state funds.
Several people noted that the DVN has not done a good job of including criminal justice agencies in their efforts. In the past, people involved with the DVN were successful in bringing criminal justice agencies to DVN meetings, but these individuals left and criminal justice agencies stopped participating. One person was concerned that criminal justice staff are so overworked that involving them in the DVN would take away from direct client services. Another person pointed out that the multiple jurisdictions in Kansas City make it difficult to include criminal justice agencies in a larger coordinating effort like the DVN. Many shelters have a different set of police and prosecutors, and some already work with their own law enforcement agencies. For example, one shelter and local police co-wrote the police policy on domestic violence. The shelter also has a formal agreement with the police which stipulates that the police will transport women to the shelter and the shelter will provide training for the police.