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Survivor Experiences at Domestic Violence Agencies in the Central Valley

By Jasmine Ma (She/Her/Hers)

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) states domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, as the “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.” Shelters, and other similar programs, are essential to the journey of healing, recovery, and resilience. Therefore, how can we improve community support systems in a way that will create an environment and conversation that is conducive to healing? Unfortunately in many instances, programs are not able to adequately serve traumatized survivors due to a plethora of reasons, now including the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Looking at already existing literature, developing community

partnerships, and listening to survivors will help understand the needs and experiences of survivors and will help create even more sustainable and empowering resources in the community.

Literature Review

One of the first steps to escaping abusive intimate partner relationships is being able to recognize the abuse and what courses of action can be taken moving forward. While society is beginning to talk more about domestic violence and abuse, many current shelter-program residents stated that they wished they were more informed about the subject. In a multi-state study of domestic violence shelter experiences, researchers had folks complete a survey about needs upon entry to two shelter programs. At Shelter 1, 71% of participants stated “understanding of domestic violence” as a need; at Shelter 2, 96% of participants stated “understanding of domestic violence” as a need (Lyon et al., 2008). Learning about

abuse and the effects of trauma can empower folks to validate their feelings.

Once survivors gain entry to a shelter program, it is important that the service staff are well equipped to support the residents. In the same multi-state study of domestic violence shelter experiences, residents were asked to complete a survey regarding their stay at the shelter. Based on participant responses, the staff were respectful of sexual orientation, religious views, racial background, and disabilities. Comments from residents include “I love these staff” and that the shelter was “very kind, respectful, and patient.” Positive shelter experiences like these are extremely impactful on the recovery process for residents, and

it lets them know that these shelters are a place to turn to in times of need. Because of their positive and transformative experiences, they will be more likely to recommend the shelter program to someone else trying to escape intimate partner abuse.

Statistics show that in one day in 2019, domestic violence shelters in California served over 5,644 adults and children, but still over 1,200 requests for service were denied. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2020). The fact is that shelters do not always have the resources to support everyone who comes through their doors. Sometimes residents may be required to leave before they feel physically safe and emotionally stable (Allen & Wozniak, 2010). In fact, many interventions are considered short term (six months or less) and their idea of “success” is just being free of abuse for six months (Burke et al., 2001). Short-term programs can leave survivors at risk of developing or worsening depression and overall

life dissatisfaction.

Social service systems have an exceptional impact on the journey of healing, and these systems must be evaluated to determine if they are doing enough and providing the proper support to their constituents. Unfortunately, much of the available research and knowledge is outdated, and none of it is focused on the Central Valley as a whole. More geographically specific research can be added to what we already know, giving advocates in communities far and wide an understanding of the needs and experiences of survivors. There are long-lasting outcomes that can arise from this research, helping make trauma-informed care and patient-centered care readily available in this region. Whether it be tangible resources

or just social support, these organizations are a crucial part of helping survivors out of traumatic experiences, allowing them to speak the unspeakable and break the cycle of violence before the cycle breaks them.

Community Assessment

My survey asked survivors to evaluate multiple aspects of the domestic violence organizations from which they are receiving assistance, providing thoughts and opinions based on their experiences. Participants were informed that their answers will be anonymous and that they are welcome to share as much or as little as they are comfortable with. The survey was made available through Google Form as well as a printable PDF. The survey consisted of six (6) open-ended questions and a series of statements asking participants to rate from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” At the end of the survey, participants were asked if they believed the services they received were helpful or not as well as if they would recommend the agency to a friend looking for help. This survey was meant to be an evaluation tool, highlighting survivors' experiences at domestic violence agencies in the Central Valley while also identifying any additional needs or recommendations.

In the interest of full disclosure, there were only two (2) responses. I met with three community partners from three different organizations who were willing to share my survey. With much work being done remotely due to the pandemic, it was harder to see clients and ask them to complete the survey, but they did the best they could. Many of these clients are in crisis and are unable to answer all these questions when they have more significant things to worry about such as their safety and wellbeing. The goal is to support survivors in their healing journey and the will always come first.

While there were only two responses, those two responses are still worth noting because these are real, lived experiences by individuals, and every individual’s experience matters. The following data analysis will be qualitative only. Due to the small sample size, it would be harmful to make misleading percentages or make generalizations that are not representative of the population.

There were two main connections between the responses and the existing literature. In a multi-state study, when such a high percentage of participants wanted an understanding of domestic violence, it presented a need for outreach and education, especially prior to that first incidence of abuse. This need is still present over a decade after already existing literature, especially here in the Central Valley. One participant stated that she “didn’t know something like [shelters and resources] existed... outreach at the time was just word of mouth.” Now, social media plays a large role in outreach, but it may not be able to reach all potential clients, as internet usage can be traced in abusive relationships.

The claim that professional staff will foster positive experiences is highly supported by studies. When asked what aspect of these organizations made them feel most comfortable, both survey participants listed the staff. One mentioned how she didn’t feel judged and another stated that her advocate and therapist helped her with the most difficult time of her life. When clients like these have positive experiences, they are more likely to recommend these services to a friend in need.

It is crucial to mention—since the existing literature is not current, prior studies don’t include the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Much of everyday life has been forced to adapt to the current situation, and these agencies are no different. Despite these challenges, these organizations still find ways to serve their clients in the best ways possible. With all things considered, survey participants rated the overall service received as “very helpful” and that they would recommend these agencies to a friend looking for help.

Next Steps

It is evident in the literature and survey results that outreach is important. I plan on bringing this to my community partners and I would love to work on outreach and education projects. As for sustainability, this survey is a wonderful evaluation tool that can give organizations an idea of where they are in terms of survivor experience. There is always a chance to improve and be even better for our community, and an annual check-in would be ideal to measure progress. Additionally, I would love to continue this research one day as a senior project where I can spend more time and really get an in-depth look at these agencies that serve the Central Valley. These past six weeks were incredibly informative and a great way to get my

feet wet. Although this research program may be over, I’m just getting started. I can take what I’ve learned from my community partners and the communities they serve in order to do better and work on a more complete and comprehensive research project.


National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2020). Domestic violence in California. Retrieved from

Lyon, E., Lane, S., & Menard, A. (2008). Meeting survivors’ needs: A multi-state study of domestic violence shelter experiences.

Jacobs, E. R. (2017) How our service systems impact resiliency and recovery of domestic violence survivors: Clinical perspectives. Smith College. Retrieved from



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