The Same Old, Same Old is Not Working for Those Who Experience Domestic Violence

If we want a world free from domestic violence, we must demand new ideas. At Sojourner Center, the largest domestic violence research, advocacy, shelter and services organization in the Southwestern U.S., we began our own journey to innovation in 2014. We are developing approaches that address the domestic violence epidemic from a number of critical angles, attempting to get to the root of the factors that contribute to domestic violence.

Our aim is to address the problem of domestic violence - a public health epidemic that affects every ethnicity, every economic class and every geographic area in the United States - comprehensively and proactively, rather than merely addressing symptoms piecemeal or after the fact. To that end, we've launched and are piloting several new approaches and interlinked services that will help meet people who have suffered domestic violence where they are in the healing journey. We envision a system that wraps them in research-backed services and resources that will help them find safety, and will help break the cycle of domestic violence in our communities.

I'm proud to share a few examples of the new approaches we're undertaking.

The Pet Companion Shelter - Removing Barriers, Keeping Families Together
Researchers at the University of Illinois have found that in 85 percent of homes where a woman or child is being abused a pet is also suffering abuse. An estimated 40 percent of women who experience domestic violence and have a pet will not leave because they are not able to bring their pet along with them, and they fear what will happen to their pet if it is left at home.

Pets are part of the family, but most domestic violence shelters cannot accommodate them. We realized it was vital that we help women and men who have experienced domestic violence keep as much of their family together as possible. So in 2015, in partnership with the Lost Our Home Pet Foundation and PetSmart (which helped fund the program in its startup phase), we opened the Sojourner Center Pet Companion Shelter, located on the same campus where we provide shelter and services to women and children. Now, we operate a shelter that provides care for the pets of women who seek shelter, as well as workforce readiness and pet therapy for the women and children residing in our shelter. Since its inception, the Sojourner Pet Companion Shelter has demonstrated that when we provide a safe place for vulnerable pets, we can make stronger and more successful interventions in the lives of women, children and men suffering abuse.

The BRAIN Program - Cutting Edge Science to Prevent TBIs
Due to a growing body of medical research showing that repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have long-term health effects, there are now strict protocols for dealing with head injuries in major sports and the military. Though there's no Sunday glory in it, many women, men, and children who experience domestic violence also incur repeated head injuries at the hands of their abusers. At Sojourner, we started asking questions about the incidence of TBIs among these women, men and children.

Much more study is needed, but what we did learn was shocking: Up to 67% of people affected by domestic violence who were screened had symptoms of TBIs. A 2002 study found that 92% of the women in domestic violence shelters had suffered head injuries due to their abuse. Applying that statistic nationally, the size of the potentially affected population is huge -- as many as 20 million women exposed to the risk of TBIs each year.

We took action, creating the Sojourner BRAIN Program, the first institute dedicated to the research and treatment of TBI in women, children and men affected by domestic violence. Working with partners in the medical research field, the BRAIN Program has begun surveying incoming residents to document domestic violence-related head trauma among our shelter participants, both women and children. Our ultimate goal is to create individualized treatment programs for participants based on their specific injury patterns. We see our work on the BRAIN Program as something that can be replicated in every community.

The SAFE Action Project - Expanding the Definition of Domestic Violence
Human trafficking is the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise, with global profits estimated in excess of $150 billion annually, and there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally, including 5.5 million children. In the US, more than 25,000 human trafficking cases were identified on the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.

The Sandra Day O'Connor Institute created the SAFE Action Project in 2013 to educate the hospitality industry - one of the key focal points of traffickers - to recognize and report commercial sexual exploitation of adolescents. In 2016, the Institute chose Sojourner Center to carry on SAFE Action's important work and expand its reach.

Sojourner Center's SAFE Action Project works to raise public awareness of how an informed community can effectively end the cycle of exploitation and violence, offering a wide variety of human trafficking training resources to help tourism staff, along with travelers nationwide, to recognize warning signs of human trafficking and to report suspicious behavior. The training program aims to reach all corners of the tourism industry, including hotels, restaurants, theaters, airports, stadiums and other places where large groups of people gather and travel. Sojourner Center is expanding the program beyond the hospitality industry to include the military, transportation industries and others.

A Whole-Family Approach to Domestic Violence - Helping Women, Children AND Men
We are responding to the public health challenge posed by domestic violence by developing new programs to address its impact on the whole family, including men. We are working with academics on developing a program for the children we care for in our shelter to give them tools to help ensure the cycle of domestic violence does not reach them when they are adults. Growing up in a family affected by abuse is often how the epidemic is spread to the next generation.

These are just a few of the ways we're working to break down silos and forge connections between related social problems to address the public health consequence of domestic violence. At Sojourner Center, we and our partners are moving beyond shelter to ensure that the women, children, men and pets with whom we work can address all the challenges in their lives that contributed to, and flow from, their experience with domestic violence.

We owe it to our communities, women, children, pets and men, to try everything, even when - perhaps especially when - our proposed solutions defy convention.

Dr. Maria E. Garay-Serratos is CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix, AZ. She knows we can end the cycles of domestic violence and create a world free from domestic violence. With this blog, Dr. Garay-Serratos will advance the conversation, spotlight new research and practices and share information that can transform lives.