Saturday, January 30, 2010

Challenges Facing the Anti-Domestic Violence & Anti-Sexual Assault Movements in North Carolina

Early in the anti-domestic violence and anti-sexual assault movements, advocates, researchers and movement leaders expressed concerns about whether grass-roots, community-based domestic violence and sexual assault programs would endure. The anti-domestic violence and anti-sexual assault programs that developed from the movements were founded on feminist and empowerment philosophies. As a result, these programs tend to: (1) focus on social change and social justice; (2) have nonhierarchical administrative and decision-making structures; and (3) rely extensively on volunteers.

Many advocates and movement leaders thought (and still think) that these programs characteristics were (and still are) positive. However, many also worried that these same positive program characteristics may also threaten service survival. That is, would the need for stable program funding from governmental agencies, for example, mean that these organizations would drift away from their social change and social justice missions? Or, would the need to develop program legitimacy mean that professional staff would be recruited to provide services to the exclusion and displacement of volunteers?

Since that time, these movements and the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault have evolved considerably. A key example of one such change is the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provides increased funding for domestic violence and sexual assault services. Given the questions about programs' sustainability, as well as the changes that have occurred in the past 20-30 years since the beginning of the movements, my research team and I thought it was important to investigate the challenges domestic violence and sexual assault program face today. Are the anti-domestic violence and anti-sexual assault movements experiencing the challenges that the movement leaders predicted?

To help answer this question, my research team and I conducted an exploratory, qualitative study, including 7 focus groups and 12 in-depth interviews with North Carolina (NC) domestic violence/sexual assault agency directors, NC state-level funding staff, and NC state-level advocacy staff. Through this research, my team and I sought to identify the current challenges facing the NC domestic violence and sexual assault movements from the perspectives of agency directors, funding staff, and advocacy staff. The findings from this research have recently been published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence and you can find our research paper describing the study and its findings here.

Briefly, our research found that the North Carolina anti-domestic violence and sexual assault movements are struggling with four challenges that were indeed anticipated by the leaders of the movements over 20 years ago. These four challenges are: (1) inadequate and inconsistent funding to sustain core services (e.g., crisis hotlines, advocacy); (2) program sustainability, which relates to the challenge of funding; (3) community norms that make it difficult to help violence survivors with safety; and (4) ongoing tension between grassroots versus professional service providers.

In addition to these four challenges, our research also discovered three additional, unanticipated challenges. These challenges are: (1) lack of attention to and resources for the problem of sexual assault; (2) the need for welcoming services for all survivors regardless of their racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, disabilities, and immigration statuses; and (3) the need for comprehensive services to help survivors with co-occurring mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

This study was limited to North Carolina, but the findings leave me wondering if the movements in other states are experiencing similar challenges. If this is the case, and given the prevalence of the domestic/partner violence and sexual assault in the U.S., those of us who are actively working in the movements today have our work cut-out for us. I encourage those of you who are interested in addressing these challenges to read the full research article. Though the research participants identified many challenges, they also recommended many potential solutions. These possible solutions may lead to ideas for tackling the challenges we face today.

Though this study's findings were- in many respects- discouraging, I want to convey that I did not find this research completely grim. Rather, I was heartened by the people who participated in this study, including the domestic violence/sexual assault directors, advocates and funders. I found it uplifting to see so many dedicated women and men working steadily to end domestic violence and sexual assault even in the face of these ongoing challenges.