The (In)Humanity of Domestic Violence Services

03/21/2012 08:51 am ET | Updated May 21, 2012

"If I had been any weaker than I am I would have probably committed suicide after talking to the person on the hotline."

No human being should feel so unwanted, so desperate, as the women who made the statement above. Even more deplorable is that the comment was made by a woman seeking to become free from an abusive partner. Already the victim of manipulation and control, these women need help, not condescension, support, not derision. Of all the places they should be able to find that, a domestic violence crisis center ought to be one.

Yet as has been documented elsewhere, these services have become increasingly bureaucratized. Less like a grassroots, people-centered movement, oftentimes these nonprofits look more like the corporate world, with its hierarchies and cutthroat strategies. Many nonprofits today have allowed funding to drive their work, thus may provide only the services that conservative funders support. In a dramatic about-face from the original domestic violence movement, advocates at domestic violence centers often do not see themselves as political activists but instead as (often thankless) employees. The result is that services are sometimes being delivered in a cold, non-supportive manner which leaves women feeling, at best, like a burden on the system.

Lest readers think I am picking on domestic violence shelters -- that is not my intent. These shelters do provide important services, albeit in ways that I feel can be improved. These same problems are true in other nonprofits that should be providing human services but that often seem to forget the humanity in their service provision.

It doesn't have to be this way. And sometimes, it isn't. Creative nonprofits still put human beings first. I offer the following profile as one example of how that can happen.

No More Tears (NMT) is a 501c3 based in South Florida. Started just five years ago, NMT has helped 176 women and their children get and stay free from abuse. It is entirely volunteer-run. A team of dedicated interns, volunteers, and board members work with founder and President Somy Ali to provide immediate, individualized services to women in need. Services might include rent and moving assistance, help with legal and medical fees, acquisition of food stamps and other state resources, transportation, childcare, and educational support. Many of the women NMT has served are immigrants who need legal help to acquire status, English instruction and assistance finding work.

What makes NMT so unique, though, is not just the services that are provided but how they are provided. First, NMT begins providing whatever services a specific individual needs immediately. Although other shelters may try to do so, they are increasingly at over-capacity and thus often have waiting lists for housing and therapy. When a victim in need is placed on a waiting list, it tells her that her needs are not critical. Given that timing is essential for victims to leave abusers for good, having to wait for needed services might just mean she stays with an abuser longer.

Second, NMT's services are individualized to meet each victim's needs. While many shelters say they operate from an empowerment-based approach, my experience has been that this is largely lip-service. Too often, victims are told what they must do in order to receive the help they need. Advocates are not always well-versed in community resources such that an individual's need to be safe from abuse gets divorced from the myriad social issues that impact it, such as community violence, poverty, housing, and racism. Even the option of staying in a shelter, albeit a good one for some (given that space is available), is not suitable in some cases.

By contrast, NMT helps victims acquire safe housing in the location of their choice. This not only allows them to live in the geographic location in which they are most comfortable (for whatever reason), but it allows the victim to have a choice in the type of housing and how she lives. Securing safe and desirable housing is just the first step in truly allowing these women to be in charge of their own lives.

Third, the manner in which services are provided by NMT volunteers differs from what I have seen is sometimes true of other services. My experience has been that advocates sometimes look down on the victims they are serving. I have seen employees at shelters make sarcastic comments about survivors and have been told awful stories from victims about the cold, bureaucratic environment that made them feel, as one woman put it, "about as good as the cockroaches running through the shelter."

In order to create a better world, we must model our humanity to everyone, including those in need.