March 1, 2002

Innovative Approach Takes Aim at Domestic Violence

For some women it takes months, but most often it takes years before they decide to take that first step towards ending an abusive relationship, according to domestic violence experts. By then, some feel too powerless to find help. Most relationships involve children. Often, an abusive boyfriends is abusing alcohol or drugs.

Such was the case with one San Diego woman, who had returned to her boyfriend eight times after repeatedly being abused. "She always hoped that he would change," said Tiffany Hillen, an advocate case aide for the recently formed County Domestic Violence Response Team (DVRT). "She would come back because he said he'd improved, or he would go to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), or find a job. She is just now thinking about leaving him."

If the woman had been reached earlier, there would have been a greater chance she would have chosen to access domestic violence services available to her. That is the reason behind the formation of the DVRT's, which started operating in July 2000. With one team in each of the six County regions, DVRT's are an innovative change to the way outreach is done for domestic violence victims, according to Marti McQueen, County DVRT coordinator.

"The DVRT's attempt to reduce and prevent intimate partner violence by connecting domestic violence victims to needed prevention and support services as soon as possible rather than waiting for victims to access services later or when much of the damage, both phycological and physical, has been done," said McQueen. Nationwide studies have estimated only 10% of domestic violence victims are connected to support services in addition to law enforcement intervention when they call for help.

DVRT's are a union of community service providers working together, containing multi-level advocacy components. These team members include local law enforcement, comprehensive domestic violence service providers, an emergency paramedics as first responders. Other members include county Child Protective Services, Adult Protective Services, public health nurses, hospitals and Animal Control. Most teams have multilingual personnel.

The Southeast San Diego DVRT's comprehensive services provider is the Young Women's Christian Association (YMCA) of San Diego County. After a 911 call is made, law enforcement assesses the situation and decides if an advocate is necessary. An advocate is called between 2 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Monday when an arrest is made and children are at the scene. A comprehensive evaluation of the victim's needs is then made.

Services and referrals provide by the YWCA include a 24-hour shelter, crisis intervention counseling, individual/family/child counseling, transitional housing, parenting classes, children's groups, court accompaniment, legal services, drop-in partner communication classes and child witness intervention services.

According to Maria Carmen Ruiz, Lead Advocate of the DVRT, being proactive in making sure victims are aware of such services is an important aspect of the team. "Lots of services available to victims are unknown to them," she said. "It's important for them to know that when they are ready to leave, women can be placed in a shelter for up to 90 days, and after that apply for low-cost transitional housing for 16 months. The locations are confidential, safe, and have security cameras."

The support services provided are especially important to domestic violence victims due to some of the conditions they are facing, said Ruiz. "Often these women are depressed and lack self-esteem," she said. "A part of the abuse is to make sure she is hopeless. That's why it's important to have the emotional support. The police are present to deal with the perpetrator. We sit down and listen to the victims. Sometimes no one is helping them, especially because a lot of times you can't talk to your family or friends about these situations."

In addition to connecting victims to services, the DVRT also helps to reduce the number of repeat domestic violence emergency calls to police, according to San Diego Police Officer James Gee, one of the officers specifically assigned to the DVRT. That is no small task, considering domestic violence calls to police in 2000 totaled 20,545 in San Diego County, according to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) statistics.

According to Gee, only residential and business alarm calls are higher in frequency than domestic violence calls in the City of San Diego. Additional SANDAG statistics show 674 domestic violence calls were felony cases. There were a total of 34 domestic violence fatalities in 1999 and 2000.

Additional positive outcomes of the DVRT include increased access of services for the victim's family, reduced hospitalization and avoidable medical costs, increased successful prosecution of domestic violence cases and reduced "back end" intervention costs, said Ruiz.

Contrary to what many think, women aren't the only victims of domestic violence. Hillen said 10% of the 911 calls received on domestic violence victims have involved domestic violence to men. "Support services are available to both women and men," she said.

The initiation of the team and its funding were the result of efforts by County Supervisor Pam Slater and former HHSA Director Robert K. Ross after witnessing the successful pilot project at the Encinitas Sheriff's Station.

According to McQueen, additional funding to expand the programs to more neighborhoods in the County is being sought.

For further information on domestic violence services offered in the County, please call YWCA 24-hour toll-free Domestic Violence Information and Referral Hotline at 1-888-305-7233.

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