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Network Resources: Innovative Strategies

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Collaborating with Domestic Violence Agencies

7 Habits of a Highly Effective Collaboration

The Children's Defense Fund estimates the rate of co-occurrence between child abuse and domestic violence to be between 30%-60%1. Research on home visiting programs has found that the positive impact of programs like Healthy Families is attenuated when domestic violence is present in the family. That first statement tells us something must be done about domestic violence if we are to keep children safe. The second statement tells us we can't go it alone.

A collaboration between the Healthy Families Illinois (HFI) program at The Visiting Nurses Association of Fox Valley and Mutual Ground, a domestic violence shelter in Aurora, offers some hope. This collaboration found that a substantial percentage of HFI clients are also victims of domestic violence. These women were able to access treatment as a result of the collaboration. Pregnant women in the domestic violence shelter were offered HFI as a resource that could be available to them after they'd left the shelter. Potentially abusive men were engaged in activities that increased their sense of competence as parents. Women reported fewer incidents of domestic violence over time. Staff from both programs benefited. By any measure this collaboration was a success.

Recently, staff from the Bureau of Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention met with staff from HFI, Northern Illinois University, and Mutual Ground to review the lessons learned from this collaboration. Here then are 7 habits of this highly effective collaboration:

  1. There are collaborations, and then there are collaborations - Staff from both programs, when approached with the idea of establishing a collaboration initially responded "We already collaborate", by which they meant, they knew each other and made referrals when appropriate. The programs found that much more could be done and proceeded to do it. Read on.

  2. Be prepared - Cross-training (training HFI staff in domestic violence screening, and training domestic violence staff in the needs of at-risk children) allowed each program to benefit from the other's expertise and established the necessary baseline of knowledge among staff to allow the collaboration to succeed.

  3. Familiarity breeds respect - When staff became familiar with the other program, they were able to convey with confidence to families that what they were being referred to makes a difference. By having an ongoing prevention presence at the HFI program (Mutual Ground staff co-facilitated support groups), and by holding events, such as the HFI client Christmas party, at Mutual Ground, much of the mystery and stigma surrounding the domestic violence shelter was removed. This made it easier for HFI clients to seek services there.

  4. If you ask them, they will tell - As programs that have begun screening for postpartum depression can testify, specifically asking about a problem will lead to an increased identification of that problem. Habits 1-3 were part of the necessary groundwork done in anticipation of this increased identification. There's not much use in attempting to identify domestic violence victims if you have nothing to offer them. Establishing referral resources however isn't the only preparation that's needed. Programs need to be prepared for the impact that the opening of this Pandora's Box will have upon workers. Which brings us to

  5. Supervision, supervision, supervision - HFI providers recognize the importance of reflective supervision. Our home visitors take on quite a bit on a daily basis. Add a few domestic violence cases to this load and the stress needle quickly goes into the red zone. Domestic violence cases can stir up rescue fantasies, anger (at both the victim and the abuser), and feelings of helplessness. There are safety issues involved. It becomes quite easy to forget about the baby. The supervisors at VNA reported that the intensity and quantity of supervision changed markedly as a result of this collaboration. Supervisors had access to consultation as a part of this collaboration and cite consultation as a key element in the success of the collaboration.

  6. An ounce of prevention - While much of the effort of this collaboration was aimed at identifying and accessing treatment for victims of domestic violence, education and support was provided to all women. Men (not those who had actively abused, but those whose partners indicated that they might be at increased risk for abusing) were engaged in infant massage classes. Mutual Ground staff established an ongoing prevention presence within the HFI program.

  7. Think big - A not-so-tangible but very important outcome produced by the Aurora collaboration has been a change in the local landscape. This has not been coincidental as it was a goal of the collaboration to change how providers worked with one another, to change how people felt about asking for help with domestic violence problems, to think creatively about engaging fathers, and to raise awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence and its impact on children.

Oh, and one more - it also helps to hire wonderful people to do this work.

While we encourage all to begin to work with local domestic violence agencies and put these lessons learned into practice, we realize that this can't be done overnight. A good place to start might be exploring any family violence or domestic violence resources in your community or state. In Illinois, there are local Family Violence Coordinating Councils. The purpose of these councils is to establish a forum to share and discuss information in order to promote a coordinated response to family violence in the community. Similar entities may exist in other states.

Mark Valentine
Healthy Families Illinois Statewide Coordinator
June 2004


  1. Children's Defense Fund: Fact Sheet: Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Children June 2000, found at http://www.childrensdefense.org/childwelfare/domesticviolence/factsheet.asp