Monday, June 8, 2009

Should the Locations of Domestic Violence Shelters Be Confidential?

A few weeks ago, a reporter with the Independent Weekly- Fiona Morgan- interviewed me about my research on domestic violence and sexual assault for an article she wrote about Interact's new model for safety and violence prevention. (You can find the article here.)

During the interview, Fiona asked me about whether it is a best practice to keep the location of a domestic violence shelter hidden. In other words, are survivors safer when the locations of domestic violence shelters are unknown to all except shelter staff and survivors?

On its face, the answer to this question seems like an easy "yes." However, I was surprised to learn that domestic violence advocates here in North Carolina have different opinions regarding what are best practices for handling information about where their shelters are located.

I recently conducted a project (funded by the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission) to determine best practices for North Carolina domestic violence and sexual assault services. During this project I learned that some domestic violence shelters choose to have a confidential but not a hidden location. (A paper about this research is currently in press with the journal Violence Against Women.)

Having a confidential location means that though the shelter staff do not actively advertise the shelter location, the location is not kept completely hidden and secret.

Some domestic violence shelter advocates made a decision to have a confidential (rather than hidden) location for practical reasons.

In small and rural communities, it is difficult (or impossible) to keep the shelter hidden. Eventually people who live in a small community are going to find out where the shelter is located- no matter what staff and survivors do to keep the shelter hidden. Also, sheltered survivors may need to tell others about where they are living to go about their daily lives (for work, for education, to keep in touch with friends and family).

Some domestic violence shelter staff made the decision to have a confidential location for philosophical reasons. These advocates hold the belief that survivors should not have to "hide out" in their own communities. These advocates felt that having a hidden shelter implies that the survivor did something wrong, when in fact the perpetrator was the person in the wrong.

Though shelter staff decided to have confidential locations for many reasons, they all used similar strategies to maintain the safety of the survivors and staff at their shelters. Specifically, these shelters had strong security and safety protocols.

These advocates also looked toward their communities to help keep survivors safe and the shelter secure. As an example, the shelter staff developed positive, collaborative relationships with law enforcement. In these communities, police officers made it a point to drive by the shelter often on their regular rounds, as well as to respond quickly if they received a call from the shelter.

Interestingly, when I asked other domestic violence advocates about this idea of confidential shelter locations, I found strong disagreement. Some advocates feel strongly that shelters should make every effort possible to keep their locations hidden and secret for the safety of survivors and staff.

After my interview, I reflected on Fiona's important question. And I'm beginning to think that there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to managing information about shelters' locations. It may be that in some communities survivors can only be safe when shelters are hidden. In other communities, survivors may be very safe even when the shelter location is widely known. I'm just not certain how to tell the difference between these types of communities.

Unfortunately, there is little research about what shelter-location strategies are best for keeping survivors and staff safe. Thus, this is a domestic violence service area in which advocates, researchers and survivors could usefully collaborate to help determine best practice guidelines for shelters.

What are others' ideas about this important issue? How does it work in your community?

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