Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Outcomes, Issues, and Future Directions


Since the mid-1980's , the DVCC has improved Baltimore's response to domestic violence. The DVCC has played an important role in establishing specialized units or designated personnel, as well as in training and coordinating the activities for these agencies. Several DVCC members felt that the community's greater awareness about domestic violence has also contributed to their success. The DVCC is a committed group of individuals, mainly from criminal justice agencies, who have worked together for many years. Since the city cannot require employees of state agencies to participate, membership on the committee has always been voluntary. With the VAW grants, the Committee has expanded its efforts to improve coordination among criminal justice agencies. The DVCC is also beginning to expand its scope to include more social service and health care providers.

A number of different issues make the future of Baltimore's coordinated effort to combat domestic violence somewhat unclear. Since its inception, many of the same people have worked together on the DVCC. There are not as many "new" people who have expressed an active interest in this issue, and it is not clear who will step in when some of the current members leave. A House of Ruth member, for example, who had been a key member since the beginning, recently changed jobs. The loss of this long-term member has had an effect on the committee and now DVCC members must develop a relationship with a new representative from the House of Ruth. One member explained that the established relationships and closeness of the DVCC members can be viewed as both a strength and a weakness. Meetings are able to run smoothly because there is a great deal of respect among the members. On the other hand, if a particular agency is not working as other members feel it should be, it may be more difficult to raise this sensitive issue.

The presence of an advocacy organization on the DVCC has on occasion caused tension within the DVCC. While the criminal justice representatives must juggle several competing priorities, an advocacy organization has a single and clear objective. The House of Ruth has served at times as a willing collaborator and at other times as an advocacy group pushing criminal justice agencies to do more. In one case, the House of Ruth publicly released statistics that DVCC member agencies had shared at a meeting without the consent of the agencies. As a result, DVCC member agencies were put in an extremely awkward position and have been hesitant to share data since then. Because the DVCC members respect and trust each other, a conflict such as this has a very significant impact on the group's dynamics.

Another unresolved issue is what course the committee will take once the VAW grant ends and the coordinator is gone. The grant provided an incentive to accomplish a number of goals and provided resources for these efforts. A major resources has been the part-time coordinator, who has been the key contact person for the Committee and the community at large. Once that position ends, it is not clear that anyone will have time to take on the demanding organizational work that has made the DVCC so productive over the last couple of years.

The specialized units and designated personnel are in place, but a number of people expressed concern that they could be eliminated if agency leadership or funding changed. Staffing these units can be costly since the staff spend more time on each case and have smaller caseloads. New agency heads may place less emphasis on domestic violence and shift resources from these efforts. The State's Attorney's DV Unit has the longest tenure, and is perhaps the most institutionalized of Baltimore's specialized units.

The House of Ruth remains the main service provider for domestic violence victims in Baltimore, which has both advantages and disadvantages for service delivery. They are considered the experts in the community and have gained a good reputation for their work. Several providers, however, felt that the community could benefit from having more agencies involved in domestic violence, in order to give people more service options. However, it is difficult for other organizations to compete with House of Ruth for funding. Other agencies experience a certain degree of frustration because they would like to expand their services to target domestic violence victims but are unable to obtain funding do so. One service provider also acknowledged that it would be a challenge to expand its services to cover domestic violence, given the House of Ruth's predominant role in the community. This provider felt that many issues, in addition to funding, would need to be worked out before other agencies could begin to provide domestic violence services.

Criminal justice agencies and service providers cited concerns about "underserved" populations in the community. Respondents noted that battered women in the African American community may be reluctant to pursue a criminal justice remedy for domestic violence given the history of strained relations between this community and law enforcement. Service providers felt that language barriers and transportation problems may exist for some women, particularly among women from the Asian, Hispanic, Native American and Orthodox Jewish communities. The House of Ruth has begun working with other community agencies that work more closely with certain groups. A House of Ruth staff member helps with a group in the Jewish community and is also trying to secure funding to work in a couple of African American communities. A Hispanic community center has also expressed an interest in collaborative efforts for training and perhaps support groups on domestic violence issues. Several respondents also noted the need for services targeted at individuals who are illiterate or who have mental and physical disabilities.

Respondents cited several areas where social services could be improved. Lack of shelter space was the most frequently cited problem. The House of Ruth shelter currently has only 12 rooms with a total of 24 beds for both women and their children, although they are in the process of expanding. Services for children who witness domestic violence was also identified as a gap. Transportation and child care can also be a problem, particularly for persons who also need mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, or other services. Some respondents would also like to see community education receive more resources, for both children and adults. While the public school system does not have a specific domestic violence curriculum, some issues concerning appropriate behavior are discussed in school programs.

Health care providers have recently begun to take a more active role in the coordinated response to domestic violence, with several hospitals and health clinics implementing domestic violence screenings. A couple of people stressed the importance of making domestic violence a public health issue to improve identification and treatment. With the increased attention in the medical community, social service providers anticipate receiving more referrals from medical professionals. The health care response to domestic violence may be affected by the move to managed care for Medicaid clients. One respondent noted that Medicaid managed care sometimes presents difficulties for victims of domestic violence, particularly with respect to accessing mental health services. In some cases, managed care organizations are thought to not be able to meet the mental health needs of domestic violence victims because their services do not adequately address the specific needs of the client population. One service provider has helped clients disenroll from the managed care plan to which they were assigned to enable them to access providers who provide more specialized services to these clients.

The proposed Domestic Violence Court could significantly improve the judicial response. Many community members felt that the courts are not always sensitive to domestic violence, particularly when the case involves a reluctant witness. The docket will most likely focus on serious misdemeanor offenses. Because the cases will come from all nine districts in the city, the domestic violence unit will be able to prosecute domestic violence cases from throughout the city and provide more consistent treatment to victims. In addition to a consolidated docket, the prosecutor's office hopes to flag all domestic violence related cases to track and compare domestic violence cases that are prosecuted by the specialized unit to those handled by other prosecutors.