New Studies: Shelters Highly Effective, But Can’t Help All Who Seek Aid

Feb 27, 2009

Three-quarters of domestic violence victims rate the assistance they received at a shelter as “very helpful” and another 18 percent say it was “helpful.” If the shelter did not exist, most victims say they would have become homeless, lost everything, done something desperate, or faced continued, life-threatening abuse. Those are among the results of Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences, a comprehensive federally-funded study based on a survey of 3,410 people served by domestic violence shelters in eight states during a six-month period in 2007 and 2008.

“The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is proud to have administered this study, which will help us better understand the challenges facing domestic violence survivors,” said NIJ Acting Director Kristina Rose. “Domestic violence shelters are a critical resource for keeping victims and their children safe. The data from this study will be instrumental in enhancing the coordinated community response to violence against women.”

Meeting Survivors’ Needs finds that the most victims staying at domestic violence shelters are 18 to 34, and have children under age 18. One in four (24 percent) had stayed at a shelter before the visit during which they took this survey. Ninety-two percent say they “know more ways to plan for my safety” because of the shelter, 85 percent know more about community resources, and 84 percent of those who are mothers say “my children feel more supported” as a result of their shelter stay.

“This study shows conclusively that the nation’s domestic violence shelters are meeting both the urgent and longer-term needs of victims of violence, and helping them protect themselves and their children,” said Dr. Eleanor Lyon of the University of Connecticut, Institute for Violence Prevention and Reduction at the School of Social Work, who was the study’s primary researcher. “Victims attribute meaningful change to the help they received at the shelter, but they also see areas where there is room for improvement.”

Further Support Needed

One-quarter of shelter residents (24 percent) faced transportation challenges, and 54 of those challenges were resolved. One-third (32 percent) say they had conflicts with other residents, and 73 percent of those conflicts were resolved, Meeting Survivors’ Needs finds. Among its other findings:

  • 68 percent of survivors had minor children with them at the shelter.
  • Nearly all (99 percent) reported they got the help they wanted with their own safety and safety planning (95 percent).
  • Four in five of those who needed it (81 percent) got help finding affordable housing, and three in four got help with a job or job training.
  • Nearly all mothers who needed it got help with their children’s safety (98 percent) and schooling (92 percent).
  • Nine in ten survivors (91 percent) who needed it got help with a protective or restraining order, more than four in five with divorce issues (82 percent), immigration issues (84 percent), and custody/visitation issues (83 percent).
  • Nearly all shelters in the study (98 percent) have the capacity to accommodate residents with disabilities. 82 percent have staff who speak at least one language other than English.
  • The most common types of advocacy offered by shelters are: housing (offered by 95 percent of shelters in the survey), civil court (82 percent), criminal court (81 percent), health (81 percent), TANF/welfare (80 percent), child protection (79 percent), job training (78 percent), immigration issues (76 percent) and divorce/custody/visitation issues (73 percent).

The study also found that some victims say the shelter was unable to fully meet their needs related to housing, education and finance, as well as their emotional, mental health and physical health needs.

Meeting Survivors’ Needs is based on surveys of residents of 215 domestic violence shelters in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington.

Shelter residents were asked to complete a written survey at or near entrance, and again at or near exit. It was conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Violence Prevention and Reduction at the School of Social Work in collaboration with the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, a project of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and administered by the National Institute of Justice.

Second Annual Census

A second study, released by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) one week earlier, found that on one day in America more than 20,000 victims of domestic violence and their children fled their homes because they feared for their lives. The National Census of Domestic Violence Services finds that, on September 17, 2008, despite difficulty in raising funds for core services, domestic violence programs nationwide provided services to 60,799 adults and children in just that one day. In addition:

  • More than 20,300 adults and children sought refuge in emergency shelter.
  • More than 10,000 adults and children were living in transitional housing.
  • More than 30,300 adults and children received non-residential services, such as counseling, legal advocacy, and children support groups.
  • More than 21,500 domestic violence hotline calls were answered.

Despite the many victims who received services, an additional 8,927 requests for assistance were unmet because of limited funding.

Every year NNEDV conducts a 24-hour survey of domestic violence programs across the country to capture a snapshot of domestic violence and service providers in the United States.

The National Census of Domestic Violence Services is available online at Meeting Survivors’ Needs is available at