Stock SAFE’s Shelves

Stock SAFE’s Shelves

In the past twelve months, Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (SAFE) provided nearly 5,000 nights of safe housing for just over 700 domestic violence victims. When people are fleeing abuse, they often cannot take the time to pack a suitcase or even grab a toothbrush. They flee at any time of the day, or in the middle of the night.

No matter the day or the hour, SAFE is available to help with shelter, a safety plan, and supplies. The demand is high in Washington, D.C. and the cost of supplies can be daunting.

This winter season as you are stocking-up for your home, consider adding a few extra items to your order, and donate the extra to our crisis shelter, SAFE Space.

SAFE has never faltered in providing basic needs items to its clients, and that is because YOU continue to answer our call to STOCK SAFE’s SHELVES.

From shelf-stable food items and toothpaste to shampoo and laundry detergent, SAFE is asking you to help us restock the shelves at SAFE Space. While we have a fairly long list, we are mindful of our limited storage space. Unless the items are specifically listed on the Critical Needs Wish List, we kindly ask that you do not donate clothing to SAFE. Consider donating the clothing to one of the many other organizations in the city that can readily accommodate such items.

With your help, SAFE is confident that we can continue to provide crisis intervention services to those who turn to us while fleeing violent relationships.

If you would like more information, send us a message at

Do More 24– June 2nd

Do More 24– June 2nd


Do More 24 is coming up on Thursday, June 2nd! Once again, United Way has selected DC SAFE among a number of other incredible local charities to participate in this unique 24-hour giving campaign. The campaign runs for just 24 hours, starting at 12:00 AM and ending at 11:59 PM on June 2nd. 

Please support SAFE by helping us spread the word in advance and on the day of! Stay tuned to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and be sure to like and share so that we get the word out to the widest audience possible.

Please help us reach our goal and support domestic violence survivors in Washington, DC by making a donation here or on the Do More 24 website on June 2nd!

Guest Blogger: Julie Gray

Guest Blogger: Julie Gray

How to Mindfully Manage Stress and Emotions For Greater Productivity

By Julie Gray

The other day I burned my tongue on some delicious-but-too-hot green tea.

I was left with a painful reminder of my own impatience. Frankly I found this ridiculously annoying.

A short while later as I was getting ready to leave I realized I hadn’t made my lunch to bring with me. I decided to make it anyway.

This resulted in me leaving a few minutes late. A bit frantic, I dropped my keys on the way out, forgot my Bluetooth, ran back inside, was even more late, got 2 miles down the road and realized I forgot my phone.

After turning around to retrieve the blasted thing, I then used said phone to call my client and humbly report that I was going to be late to our session.

Yup, the time management coach wasn’t going to be on time.


Here is what was going on inside my brain.

Between the tea and the forgotten lunch and who knows what else, I had over-aroused my limbic system.

This is actually pretty common. As the emotional center of our brain the limbic system has a tendency to get hijacked pretty easily.

According to David Rock from his fascinating book, Your Brain At Work, once our emotions get too aroused we shift into auto-pilot and become much more likely to respond negatively to situations.

And here’s the kicker. When our limbic system is going haywire we lose functioning in other areas of the brain, specifically the pre-frontal cortex.

And guess what the prefrontal cortex regulates?

Our ability to make decisions, understand, inhibit, memorize, stay organized, and plan amongst many other functions.

In effect, by losing it over the tea and forgotten lunch I derailed my ability to think clearly and consequently made poor decisions that lead to my being late for a client.

What should I have done instead?

One technique that recent research has uncovered as a way to calm the limbic system and bring our brains back into balance is to label our current emotional state.

Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman conducted a fascinating study using fMRI technology (fancy brain scans).

When participants labeled the emotions of other people shown to them in pictures, the emotion areas of the brain actually slow down.

By identifying and acknowledging what we are feeling our brains actually inhibit our emotions.


In his study, “Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling,” David Creswell, a neuroscientist at UCLA, repeated Lieberman’s research but this time he measured how mindful people were using the Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale (cool download).

What Creswell discovered was that in people who are more mindful, the brain’s emotion center will actually turn off completely once they have labeled an emotion. He also found that in people who are more mindful, more of their brain becomes part of the inhibition process.

As it turns out, the more we can tune into our emotional state, the more productive our brains will be throughout the day.


And practicing mindfulness dramatically increases the effectiveness of this process.

So rather than focus on my burned tongue and forgotten lunch I could have paused for a moment, tuned in, and acknowledged that I was irritated. Or angry or annoyed or whatever emotion was present in that moment.

Ultimately, our emotions big and small, just want to be felt. Not wallowed in or indulged but looked squarely in the face and witnessed. This allows them to pass through rather quickly (90 seconds to be exact – read more here).

This process of acknowledgement is an act of mindfulness.

The more we practice tuning into our feelings and being mindful, the more we cultivate the ability to maintain our emotional center throughout the day.

Obviously this can have a wide-reaching effect on our productivity – not to mention our ability to arrive on time to our appointments.

Julie Gray, ACC is a holistic productivity coach that helps individuals and organizations minimize stress and overwhelm while maximizing productivity and creativity. Join Julie at her upcoming Slow Down to Get More Done Workshop in Fairfax, VA on May 7thClick here for details. 

Where Are They Now?

Where Are They Now?

What’s life like after a DC SAFE Internship? Find out what some of our amazing former interns are up to now. Don’t forget to apply for a DC SAFE internship today.

jha, Chandini

Chandini Jha was an Court Advocacy Intern from May 2014 until April 2015.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I wanted an internship that allowed me to take the values I learned in the classroom– survivor-centered, compassionate advocacy– and apply it to real life. DC SAFE allowed me to do that and more.”

What are you doing now?

“I am finishing up my last year at Georgetown, before embarking on a Fulbright Grant to research gender violence in India.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“It pushed me out of my comfort zone, and helped me grow as an advocate. The internship taught me the value of truly listening to survivors and empowering their choices.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“I recommend this internship without reservation to anyone who wants to make an impact in gender violence work. It was my favorite experience in undergrad.”


Fessinger, Melanie

Melanie Fessinger was an Court Advocacy Intern during the Spring of 2014.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I had always been interested in how the law and psychology could intersect and wanted to find a position where I could learn about both. I knew I wanted to pursue research in this area but first wanted to get real experience of working in the legal system. The Courtroom Advocacy Program at DC SAFE sounded like the perfect fit for me to get the experience that I was seeking and the use my interests in a meaningful way.”

What are you doing now?

“I have spent the last two years as a Research Assistant in a National Institute of Health (NIH) funded Social Psychology and Law laboratory. I’ve been conducting research examining children’s involvement in the legal system, focusing specifically on child forensic interviewing. In Fall 2016, I am heading to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to work on my Ph.D. in Social and Cognitive Psychology and my Master’s in Legal Studies.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“My experience as intern at DC SAFE showed me how complicated the legal system can be. Without training on court processes, it can be really hard to understand. Learning this lesson sparked my passion to conduct research to improve the system for the layperson. The internship also made my following accomplishments possible because it allowed me to begin my research career with a foundation of legal knowledge. SAFE really set the trajectory for the rest of my academic success.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“I came in to my internship looking for specific things came out with so much more. Everyone at SAFE really goes out of their way to make you feel like more than an intern. It’s not an easy job to do but you come out of it with knowledge and experience that are really invaluable going forward. I’m so grateful for my experience as an intern at DC SAFE and would (and have) highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.”


Hughes, Sara

Sara Hughes was an Supportive Advocacy Intern during the Fall of 2015.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I had some background in working with domestic violence survivors, researching women in the criminal justice system, and riding along with police officers. I wanted to obtain a better understanding of the court process and the role of advocacy groups. DC SAFE offered an opportunity for me to witness just how difficult it is to meander the criminal justice system.”

What are you doing now?

“I am now a Research Assistant with Michigan State University, on the SPIRIT Trial (Suicide Prevention Intervention for at-Risk Individuals in Transition). This is a randomized control trial funded jointly by the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Mental Health. Specifically, I interview pre-trial detainees that have had suicidal ideation or attempts within the past month. The ultimate goal of the study is to implement Stanley and Brown’s Safety Planning Intervention in order to reduce suicide following the year after release from jail.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“Interning at DC SAFE honestly changed my life (and nobody is paying me to say that). Before my internship I had plans of being a police officer after graduation. My experiences at DC SAFE allowed me to see all aspects of the criminal justice system and in short, I realized just how messed up the system really is. As I heard stories of survivors, I realized how impactful childhood experiences really are. Many of the survivors had grown up in a home where violence was prevalent, just to find themselves in the same situation as an adult. Seeing this cycle of violence day after day first broke my heart, but then sparked a passion in me to affect change. I am now applying for Social Work Master’s programs, and I am planning to be a social worker for children experiencing abuse, neglect, or other hardships. After gaining more of a perspective in the field of social work, I would like to affect change at a macro level through policy and criminal justice system reform.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“Your time at DC SAFE is not going to be easy, but I promise it will be 100% worth it. My biggest fear in my internship search was obtaining an internship where my most meaningful task was to get the correct number of cream and sugars in my boss’s coffee. I was blown away with the amount of hands on experience I received, and the amazing morale of the entire staff.”



Perri Kruse was an On-Call Advocacy Project Intern specializing in the Lethality Assessment Project starting during the Summer of 2014.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“During the summer between my UCLA MSW program (and after living in California my entire life), I decided I wanted to expand my knowledge about gender-based violence on a national level, and understand the similarities and/or differences across state lines. I came with a strong understanding of domestic violence through my many trainings, hearing stories from survivors and those impacted, and after surviving domestic violence myself. I felt DC SAFE’s mission, location, and the intersection of both micro and macro work would be powerful and important for my development as a social worker.”

What are you doing now?

“I recently graduated from UCLA with my MSW, and have been working for the last two years on developing and shaping sexual assault policy on University of California college campuses, under the direction of President Janet Napolitano. I am currently a social worker at DC organization, Community Connections, assuming the role of Assistant Team Leader for Young Mother’s with co-occurring disorders and trauma.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“I was fortunate enough to work in an extremely supportive environment, with those that shared the same passion as I. I was able to gain extensive knowledge on the judicial system in the District, and challenges/barriers in accessing resources in the area. I gained a special appreciation for the two DV judges in the Superior Courthouse, and realized the importance of having judges with this specialized knowledge working on survivor’s cases—as Los Angeles is sorely lacking in this area.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“At DC SAFE you will be treated as a professional and given a great deal of independence, along with a real-life experience and understanding of domestic violence. Get involved in as many areas of the organization that you can (i.e. ride-alongs, crisis hotline, research, court advocacy). You will be challenged, fulfilled, and appreciated.”



Ayla Engelhart was an On-Call Advocacy Project Intern specializing in the Lethality Assessment Project starting in the Summer of 2013 until Spring 2014. Ayla was a contract Court Advocate during the Summer of 2014.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“When I applied to intern with DC SAFE I was finishing my first year of graduate school at The George Washington University, and I was really focusing on issues of violence, specifically gender based violence and structures folks have to navigate through when dealing with interpersonal violence. My partner had also interned at SAFE and spoke very highly of the position and organization. I felt like it would really allow me the opportunity to do tangible, important work while simultaneously challenging myself to step outside of my comfort zone.”

What are you doing now?

“Currently, I work as a Hall Director at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The community I work in has a program specifically focused on providing programming related to social justice and LGBTQ+ communities.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“My experiences at DC SAFE played a huge role in helping me figure out my specific interests both professionally as well as academically. I learned a lot about the way privilege impacts how I navigate through the world on a daily basis. I also gained firsthand knowledge/experience navigating through many aspects of the legal/judicial systems and the difficulties folks face when trying to gain access to certain resources. I furthered my skills as an educator, and advocate for racial, economic, gender, and sexual (and many other types) of justice. DC SAFE helped me apply theory to practice and I’m not sure I’d be able to navigate my current position without my experiences at DC SAFE.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“At DC SAFE you will be given a lot of opportunity to learn about navigating systems (legal, judicial, social, etc.). You will also be given a lot of autonomy and will learn from actual and tangible experiences. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get to me a lot of rad people, whether staff, volunteers, interns, or clients, who are progressively minded and working towards radical social change.”



Hailey L. was a Crisis Intervention Intern specializing in the Lethality Assessment Project during the Summer of 2014. Hailey continued as a dual Training and Outreach/Crisis Intervention intern through May 2015 when she was promoted to a staff position.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I came to SAFE for a change of pace and to get some direct advocacy experience. Before coming to SAFE I was interested in campaign management, a previous internship gave me some insight to DV policy and I realized that my true passion was helping survivors of gender-based violence. While I enjoyed the policy work I wanted to work with clients directly.”

What are you doing now?

“I’m actually still at SAFE as full time, Supportive Advocacy Services advocate now! I am also finishing my last semester at George Washington University.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“Working at SAFE changed my life plan. Pretty early into my internship I realized that I wanted to pursue a career empowering survivors of gender-based violence, and I threw all plans of a career in campaigning to the wind. Working one-on-one with clients is incredibly rewarding and my knowledge of the complexities of domestic violence has increased exponentially. Working at SAFE isn’t always easy and there are days when it can be draining, but knowing that I made an impact to empower a survivor of domestic violence makes all of our efforts worthwhile. Working at SAFE brought to light all of the obstacles that survivors have to face, and has made me realize I want to dedicate my career to system reform and domestic violence policy.”

What would you tell a prospective intern?

“If you work with SAFE for a semester or a summer you will learn more about domestic violence than you could ever learn in a classroom. Direct service is not always easy but it is fulfilling and will give you real experience that can help guide your career. (Also dress in layers–it’s cold in the Courthouse.)”



Nesta Johnson was a Court Advocacy Intern specializing in the Lethality Assessment Project during the Fall of 2012.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?
“I knew I wanted to work in child welfare and that DV cases are very common. I wanted to learn more about DV and gain hands-on experience working with survivors of trauma and people in crisis.”
What are you doing now?
“I represent youth (ranging in age from newborns to 21) in child abuse and neglect cases in Brooklyn Family Court.”
How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?
“It cemented my desire to work in family law, gave me a huge appreciation for how desperately services for survivors and their families are needed and for what a huge effect organizations like SAFE can make. It also helped me understand what practical needs survivors have – from lock changes to phones to housing.”
What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?
“Definitely do it! You will learn a lot and you will feel good about what you’re doing for people. Stress and secondary trauma do happen – but your colleagues will be a great support system.”



Katharine Donohoe was a Development and Outreach Intern during the Summer of 2012.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I think I was most interested in interning with SAFE because it combined two of my areas of study really well — communications (essentially) and women’s studies. Also, I had to meet an internship requirement for my major and also wanted to get a bit more ‘real world’ experience.”

What are you doing now?

“Currently, I’m a technical writer for Cvent, a SaaS (software as a service) company based in McLean. After graduating college in 2013, I also completed a development and events internship with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and worked for a start-up called Relay Foods. Also, I’m just about to start up as an online hotline volunteer with RAINN. ”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“Working at SAFE impacted my life in that I don’t think I would have ever encountered so many talented, smart, and passionate women all in one place! Compared to my current work environment, I feel really glad that one of my first experiences in a professional setting was with SAFE; in that it was supportive, collaborative, but also incredibly focused and driven. Also, it just generally opened my eyes to a very real and serious issue that impacts so many members of the Washington, DC community that needs attention. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia but my family has long been in the Washington, DC area and I don’t know if I would have worked with the advocates and survivors that I did had I not interned with SAFE.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“I would tell prospective interns and volunteers that it truly is an amazing organization. As I’ve been writing out these responses, I’m remembering the people I got to work with and I’m just incredibly glad I got to do so the summer I interned. That said, I would also say to them, do more! Volunteer for more ride-alongs or anything else you can.”



Audra Passinault was a Court Advocacy Program intern during the Summer of 2013.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I was originally interested in interning with DC SAFE to gain an inside perspective on the challenges domestic violence survivors face when navigating the legal system.  As a law student, I wanted to understand the interactions survivors had with police, with the legal system and how I could become a meaningful advocate.”

What are you doing now?

Now I am finishing my last year at Notre Dame Law School.  This fall, I will begin my job with the Legal Aid Foundation in Chicago, working with immigrant populations, domestic violence victims and victims of human trafficking.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“Not only did I gain knowledge of the realities of domestic violence and the challenges our society has with meeting the needs of survivors, but I also came to truly appreciate the strength of the clients I served. I left DC SAFE inspired to continue my work as an advocate and armed with the experience necessary to combat the obstacles of domestic violence.  Also, learning from individuals who have dedicated their careers to service was encouraging and my mentor relationship with Erin Hill provided a great deal of validation and support.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“Being an advocate with DC SAFE was not always the easiest or most comfortable job, but I learned more about the legal system and social realities in this position than I had in any other job.  The staff is very supportive and takes a great deal of time helping you learn how to be an effective advocate and ensuring you are receiving invaluable hands-on experience. You will learn about the DC community, domestic violence trends nationwide, be on the forefront of domestic violence policy.”


elizabeth jahr

Elizabeth Jahr was a dual intern, working both on the Response Line and in our Court Advocacy Program, during the Spring of 2012.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I was initially interested about working at DC SAFE because I wanted to pursue a career in law and thought an internship that related to the legal system would help me get some perspective. I had known a few people on my college campus that had been involved in dating violence, so I thought this would be a good way to give back to the community and start getting involved in legal work.”

What are you doing now?

“Now I work at Community Connections in Washington, D.C., which helps people (many of which are also very economically and socially marginalized) recover from mental health conditions. I am a community support specialist and provide services to consumers with a history of trauma.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

“Once I started working at SAFE though I realized right off the bat that I didn’t want to pursue a career in law because what I liked most was working one-on-one with the survivors and empowering them to move forward. So interning at DC SAFE impacted my life a lot: it sent me on a completely different career path! It opened my eyes to so many of the overlapping challenges our economically disadvantaged clients faced and it made me want to build better communities.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“My advice to prospective interns and volunteers is to really listen to every survivor. I feel like working with them taught me so much and many of their stories still stick with me today. Interning at DC SAFE has a lot to offer and you will learn so much while you are there! I highly recommend it to anyone.”


Headshot Ellen HutchinsonEllen Hutchinson was the Lethality Assessment Project Intern during the Spring of 2013.

What interested you about interning with DC SAFE?

“I was a Political Science and Women’s Studies major. I really wanted to get my feet wet and have some real-world experience, and I felt the SAFE internship was a good way to combine my two majors. I also wanted an internship that would make a real impact, while giving me substantive experience.”

What are you doing now?

“I graduated from George Washington University in May 2014 and am now in my first year of law school at George Mason University.”

How did your work at DC SAFE impact your life?

 “I learned so much in my time at SAFE. I learned not only about procedural things–court proceedings, social services, MPD, etc.–but also about bigger and systemic issues surrounding domestic violence–socioeconomics, sex and gender, trauma informed care, safety and more. It also gave me a much greater appreciation for non-profits and the people who work for them. I met so many passionate people who cared so much about what they did and worked so hard to help their clients; it continues to inspire me.”

What would you tell prospective interns and volunteers?

“Every time I tell someone where I interned, they always say ‘Wow, that must have been tough.’ And the truth is that it was tough. But it was an incredible experience, and I learned so much. So I would tell prospective interns and volunteers not to be intimidated by the subject matter. We all felt nervous when we first started, but that goes away. And always keep in mind how important what you’re doing is.”



This post is part of DC SAFE’s CourtWatch project, which provides system analysis of Civil Court, as experienced by survivors of domestic violence, through observation of Court proceedings in partnership with the DC Superior Court.  This is the new home of CourtWatch updates; archived posts can be found here.

Judicial Behaviors in CPO Court

As part of our ongoing analysis of data from the 2014-2015 CourtWatch Project, we’re examining case outcomes in the DC Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit, where survivors of domestic violence can obtain legal protection from abusers. For background on Civil Protection Orders (CPOs), the process for obtaining them, and the broad outcomes of cases, see previous posts in this thread. This post will examine observed judicial behaviors and how they may affect the experience of survivors in Court.  

As part of the CourtWatch observation project, volunteers were asked to assess whether or not the Judge in a case exhibited a number of behaviors.  These behaviors were chosen to measure specifically because they have been observed in the past and have the potential to affect the willingness of parties to seek legal relief to which they’re entitled.  The existence of examples of these judicial behaviors is not necessarily an indicator of problematic performance of judicial duties, but trends can illustrate ways in which a Judge may unconsciously impact the confidence of survivors in civil legal proceedings.  

For example, if a Judge consistently asks if the Parties in a CPO matter might be able to be reconciled–generally outside the scope of the specific allegations and relief being weighed–, the implicit message to Petitioners in this Judge’s Court may be that the Court is hostile toward their desire to flee an abusive situation, regardless of the Court’s intent.   

As previous posts have illustrated, more than half of all cases filed in CPO Court resulted in dismissals or continuances, generally due to the absence of one or more parties.   Judicial behaviors were observed and recorded only in cases where at least the Petitioner appeared before the Court.  In all, 498 cases were observed in which complete data on judicial behaviors was recorded and at least a Petitioner was present before the judge.  The following is a break-down in the occurrence of observed judicial behaviors.

94%    The Judge answered all questions asked by the parties

94%    The Judge appeared patient with the parties

74%    The Judge appeared familiar with the facts of the case

42%    The Judge publicly established jurisdiction in the case

16%    The Judge interrupted the parties

10%    The Judge appeared to show visible disapproval toward either party

9%      The Judge asked parties about history of domestic violence

6%      The Judge sought the assistance of a domestic violence advocate

5%      The Judge asked if the parties could reconcile

4%      The Judge inquired about matters that appeared unrelated to the CPO

3%      The Judge asked about public benefits the parties may receive by filing a CPO

Absent evaluation of specific cases, these findings are generally consistent with a Court that has been increasingly knowledgeable about and receptive to the unique concerns of domestic violence Petitioners.  Very few cases (3%) involved judges asking whether or not Petitioners were seeking public benefits as a result of their filing (often seen as an implicit accusation), or asking if Parties could reconcile (5%).  An overwhelming majority of observers believed the judge appeared patient and answered all Parties’ questions (94%).  While the non-trivial percentage of cases in which a Judge interrupted the Parties (16%) or showed visible disapproval (10%) is potentially concerning, these findings would require further evaluation to determine the context of those behaviors.

Of special note, however, is the percentage of observed cases in which a Judge sought additional information about the history of domestic violence in a relationship.  While the matter before the Court is specific to alleged intrafamily offenses (see the DC Code here), the fact that domestic violence generally involves a pattern of violence and abuse that may exceed the timeline of the specific offenses alleged in the Petition for a Civil Protection Order is often relevant for the Judge to determine whether or not probable cause exists that the alleged offenses occurred, or at least to understand the scope of the danger for the purposes of awarding relief.  In only 9% of the 498 observed cases did the Judge ask Parties for additional information about a history of violence in their relationship.  However, it must be also noted that only 70 total observed cases involved a Contested Hearing, in which the Parties each present their arguments and evidence and are cross-examined by attorneys or by the Judge.  It is likely that Judges only asked about the history of domestic violence in such Contested hearings, meaning that 44 of 70 Contested cases, or 63%, involved questions about the history of domestic violence.  However, DC SAFE believes that it is well within the scope of the Court’s responsibility and capacity to be aware of the history of domestic violence in all cases for which relief is Ordered–all final dispositions.

Demographic Factors Related to Judicial Behavior

Generally, Judicial behaviors observed through the CourtWatch project held steady across most demographic indicators, suggesting that the Judges are not changing their outward behavior significantly based on the parties in front of them.  Ethnicity is not specifically considered here because there were no significant deviations from the totals listed above based on Parties’ perceived ethnicity.  Several items are worth noting, however.


Petitioner’s perceived gender did not appear to have a significant impact on perceptions of Judicial behavior; for every category of judicial behavior, the occurrence of a particular behavior was within one percentage point regardless of the perceived Petitioner gender, with two exceptions:  Male Petitioners were more likely than female Petitioners to be have cases involving interruptions from the Judge (22% to 14%), or signs of visible disapproval (14% to 9%).  As has been suggested in previous posts, this is possibly due to fact that abusers often file cross-petitions against their alleged victims–though as always, care should be taken in interpreting these statistics to avoid furthering stigma against and barriers facing male survivors of violence.


Petitioner age did appear to have a small effect through three measures of Judicial behavior.  For both measures discussed above, which were also salient for Petitioner gender — interruptions and visible disapproval from the Judge –, Judges were more likely to interrupt or disapprove of the parties in cases involving older Petitioners.  Conversely, younger Petitioners tended to be involved in cases where Judges were less likely than average to interrupt or show disapproval.  This may be judges attempting to demonstrate additional patience with Parties who may have less familiarity with the Civil Court system, or may reflect added frustrations with Parties who have appeared before Court in the past.

Of additional note, nearly 17% of of cases involving Petitioners aged 40 to 50 saw the Judge ask about the history of domestic violence, dramatically more than other age groups.

courtwatch 2.23

Demographics and CPO Outcomes

As part of our ongoing examination of data from the 2014-2015 CourtWatch Project, we’re examining case outcomes in the DC Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit, where survivors of domestic violence can obtain legal protection from abusers. For background on Civil Protection Orders (CPOs), the process for obtaining them, and the broad outcomes of cases, see previous posts in this thread. We’ve already looked at demographics and outcomes in CPO court separately; this post will examine the relationship between demographics and the disposition of cases.  This post will focus primarily on the identity of the Petitioner, or the party who brings the case–but we’ll also consider the Respondent’s identity.   

A special note is required to explain the careful focus on the Petitioner: DC SAFE’s CourtWatch, while a data collection and advocacy project, maintains a strong survivor-focused lens.  We don’t just attempt to examine the way a civil litigant experiences the justice system–we want to know how a survivor experiences it.  This is not a lack of objectivity, but rather an active effort to maintain it; only in relatively recent history have justice systems begun to treat domestic violence as the serious criminal offenses they are, and barriers remain stacked against many survivors. Furthermore, it is both unreasonable and unscientific to assume that the majority of claims brought are baseless.  

CourtWatch analysis never assumes that a Petitioner is a survivor of violence; in fact, as bears great consideration in some of the statistics presented below, this legal process is often used by abusers to create accusations against survivors.  However, in the broadest samples and populations, it is still both reasonable and vital to keep our sharpest focus on the experience of Petitioners in the Court system, as this almost certainly gives us perspective on the real experience of survivors seeking justice.


The vast majority of cases appearing before the Domestic Violence Unit at the DC Superior Court involve female-identified Petitioners filing allegations and seeking protection against male-identified Respondents.  Of 850 cases observed in which a gender identity was recorded (for information on how and why observations on presentations of identity were made and recorded, please see the second blog post in this series) for the a Petitioner who was present, 673 Petitioners were identified as female, and 177 were identified as male.

The following chart displays the outcomes as Granted, Denied, and Dismissed, based on Petitioner gender.  Numerous more technical outcomes of cases are possible; however, these three outcome categories describe all cases that receive a final determination, and are not continued to a later date.


  • 34.92% of female-identified Petitioners had a CPO granted.
  • 28.25% of male-identified Petitioners had a CPO granted.
  • 1.78% of female-identified Petitioners had a CPO denied.
  • 6.78% of male-identified Petitioners had a CPO denied.
  • Both male-identified and female-identified Petitioners in cases with an observed Petitioner gender had similar rates of CPOs dismissed — approximately 15%.
  • Both male-identified and female-identified Petitioners in cases with an observed Petitioner gender had similar rates of final disposition — approximately 51%.

From this data, it appears that male-identified Petitioners face a significant barrier in obtaining CPOs — experiencing a higher rate of denial and a lower rate of granted orders.  This may be due to additional stigma facing male-idenfied survivors, but without additional data, the small significance is quite possibly due to fact that many male-identified abusers file Petitions against their victims in order to discredit them, or to strike back against legal action against them (frequently known as a “cross petition.”)  Later blog posts will examine demographics and how they impact other case factors, such as judicial behavior toward the parties.

Additional note:  For each category of data presented in this post, we will make observation on the total rate of “final disposition.”  This factor, which measures whether or not a case was continued to a later date or a final order, denial, or dismissal was issued, should not be examined across categories or charts, but only within them.  For example, the chart above presents data from cases observed where a Petitioner was present for the hearing.  In cases where the Petitioner is absent, the outcome is almost always dismissal, which would presume a much higher rate of case resolution.  Similarly, in charts that follow, cases in which a Respondent is also present and demographic indicators are observed for both parties also impacts the rate at which cases might be presumed to be resolved.  In short, statistics on overall case resolution is only meant to present differences in the way that particular individual might be treated from others in a similar case.

The following chart displays case outcomes when both Parties, Petitioner and Respondent, were present and whose gender was observed.  


  • Female-identified Petitioners filing against female-identified Respondents had the highest likelihood that a CPO would be granted, but also faced relatively high rates of denial and dismissal.
  • Male-identified Petitioners had lower rates of CPOs being granted, regardless of the gender of their Respondent, but especially if filing against a female-identified Respondent.
  • 8.06% of Petitions by male-identified Petitioners filed against other men were denied outright, the highest of any group.

Finally, this chart digs even deeper, and looks only at cases that are considered “Intimate Partner Violence,” where the relationship between present and observed parties involves a past or present relationship, a marriage, or shared children.


  • Men filing against their male-identified intimate partners had nearly a quarter of their Petitions denied outright, vastly exceeding any other group.
  • Female-identified Petitioners filing against their female-identified intimate partner had complete case resolution, and the highest rate of CPOs granted.

This data presents at least once concerning figure.  While some statistically-informed assumptions about male-identified Petitioners filing against female-identified Respondents support the idea that some amount of the disparity in resolutions in male-identified Petitioners’ favor is due to abusers filing against their victims, the fact that male-identified IPV petitioners face a high rate of denial definitively calls for additional scrutiny, and potentially indicates a need for greater resources for LGBTQ survivors of violence.  It is vital to note that this data, while rigorous, is largely uncontrolled and anecdotal. Due to the fact that a very small percentage of cases filed at the DV Unit are filed by men against men, and less than 30% of those are filed against intimate partners, the samples are too small to draw definitive conclusions on whether or not bias or barriers are to blame.  To be clear, there were fewer than 100 cases of men filing against men observed, and only 12 were definitively IPV.


Washington, DC is a diverse city, with dozens of ethnic and national backgrounds represented in all Wards.  However, it is also a divided city, with a slight majority of African Americans, many of whom are concentrated in communities east of the Anacostia river, where a lack of economic, housing, and transportation resources can present significant barriers to safety and wellbeing of victims of violence.  The city’s white population is growing, due to an influx of new residents from outside the immediate urban boundary, and there is a fast-growing population of Hispanic residents, as the historic Latin American communities in the city expand and immigration increases.

Domestic violence has long been known to affect communities of all ethnic backgrounds, but its appearance and impact are not equal.  With the economic welfare challenges faced by many black residents of the District, CPO Petitioners are overwhelmingly African American.  Of all cases observed where a Petitioner was present and whose ethnicity was observed and recorded, 84.25% of Petitioners were identified as black or African American.

The following chart presents case outcomes — once again, only final dispositions observed are included in this count, categorized as cases Granted, Denied, or Dismissed — for all such cases where a Petitioner was present and an ethnicity recorded.


  • Hispanic Petitioners had the highest rate of CPOs being granted, with no recorded case of denials, of any single ethnic group.
  • Asian Petitioners faced vastly disproportionate dismissals and denials, with half of their cases being dismissed and 8.33% denied.

The fact that Hispanic Petitioners did not have high rates of dismissal, non-closure of cases (only 44% of cases for Hispanic Petitioners were continued, slightly below the average), and did not have any outright denials is possibly due to dedicated outreach in recent years to this community. DC SAFE has partnered with the DC Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs to create a dedicated hotline for Spanish-speaking survivors of domestic violence, and maintains a bilingual advocacy staff to ensure language access is not a barrier. In addition, the Chief Judge of the Domestic Violence Unit, the Honorable Jose Lopez, was observed by numerous CourtWatch volunteers devoting significant time to ensure Petitioners had a practical-language understanding of expectations in the Court and of the CPO process in most cases that appeared before him.

The next chart examines cases in which an ethnicity was observed for both parties.This chart specifically examines whether or not white Petitioners face any outcome advantages over other Petitioners of other ethnicities.


  • In cases where a white Petitioner filed against a non-white Respondent, there were no recorded cases of denials or dismissals–the only recorded demographic factor that correlated with this outcome.
  • Conversely, white Petitioners filing against white Respondents had the highest rate of cases denied outright.
  • Cases brought by non-white Petitioners against non-white Respondents constituted the vast majority of observed cases, and fit with the averages observed in other charts in this post.
  • Non-white petitioners filing against white Respondents were by far the least likely to be resolved in a hearing and the least likely to have an order granted.

It should once again be observed that the samples for this particular chart, particularly in the significant statistics in the first and in the final column, are exceedingly small. As such, they may not be in any way definitive. However, the fact that white litigants — either Petitioner or Respondent — both seem likely to enjoy significant advantage over non-white parties in the same situation when they are opposing a non-white party, calls for significant scrutiny to determine whether bias or barriers lead to this disparity, and what might be done to improve access for non-white individuals.

The final demographic factor this post will consider is the age of Petitioners, and the outcomes that correlate to each age group. CourtWatch observation currently records the perceived age of Petitioners and Respondents (when present) in one of four categories: individuals 25 years and younger (17% of all observed), individuals 26 to 39 years (58%), individuals 40 to 50 years (15%), and individuals 51 and older (10%).


  • Each age group faces roughly similar percentage of cases granted, denied, or dismissed.
  • Individuals in both of the older two categories had dismissals at a rate of 8.15% and 8.45% respectively, compared to 9.92% and 11.59% for the first two categories.  
  • Individuals 51 and older were somewhat less likely to have their case receive final disposition (36% versus approximately 41% for the other groups).

These results indicate, broadly, a strongly equal way each age group experiences the CPO Court Process.  The slight differences are statistically small.  Of note is the rate at which older CPO Petitioners were slightly less likely to receive a final disposition to their case, indicating that a greater percentage of their cases were marked to be continued.  As the majority of cases receiving a Continuance are cases where there has been a lack of Service of Process on the Respondent, this indicates a potential challenge for older Petitioners in locating or serving Respondents in their cases.

The next chart once again digs deeper in examining the ages of both parties in observed cases, when both parties were present.


  • Almost all categories in this chart include samples of smaller than 100 individuals, and so conclusions should only be drawn carefully.
  • The three groups most likely to have an order granted against the Respondent were in cases where the Petitioner was older than the Respondent.  Given the range of ages within each group, one possible explanation is that a significant number of these cases involve a parent alleging violence by their children.
  • Conversely, younger Petitioners filing against older Respondents had low rates of granted orders, and stronger rates of orders denied.
  • Age group peers had the highest rates of cases dismissed.  In these cases where both parties were present, this usually indicates a Petitioner voluntarily dismissing a case.

Civil Protection Order Process and Outcomes

As part of our ongoing examination of data from the 2014-2015 CourtWatch Project, we’re examining case outcomes in the DC Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit, where survivors of domestic violence can obtain legal protection from abusers.  Our previous post examined the demographics of parties who appeared in DV Court.  Today’s post will look at the broad outcomes of these cases, and describe the process that survivors go through to obtain these outcomes.  Later posts will look more deeply at how demographic and other factors related to Petitioners (those who file cases claiming abuse) and Respondents (the party filed against) may correlate to specific outcomes.

As our last post described, Civil Protection Orders (or CPOs) are an important and powerful tool for survivors in finding safety after an incident of domestic violence, and also a critically important way to hold offenders legally accountable for their actions.  Through a CPO request a survivor can present his or her story to the Court and seek a number of different kinds of relief—stay-away orders, no-contact orders, temporary custody of children, and mandatory counseling intervention for the alleged abuser—among others.

The process of obtaining a Civil Protection Order in DC Superior Court:

In order to obtain a protection order, the Petitioner (person who is applying for the order) must go through a multi- step process.

First: A survivor goes in-person to the DC Superior Court, or the satellite office at United Medical Center and files a petition at the Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC).  Petitioners may receive the assistance of one or more agencies located at the DVICs in filing their paperwork, and may be connected to additional advocacy or supportive services at that time.

Petitioners who feel they are in immediate danger may also request a TPO (Temporary Protection Order) in addition to the CPO.  A TPO, if granted by a judge, becomes immediately effective and enforceable as soon as the Respondent is served with a copy of the Court’s order and the filing.  Temporary protection under the TPO lasts for 14 days (usually until the final hearing for the CPO), or until renewed by a judge, replaced with a CPO, or vacated (withdrawn).  If a Petitioner requests a TPO, s/he will have a hearing in front of a judge the same day as the filing.

During the next 2 weeks, the Respondent (the person against whom the petition is brought) must be served with the Petition, the Court’s Notice of Hearing and Order to Appear, as well as the TPOThe Respondent may be served by the police or any person 18 years or older.  The Respondent does not need to accept the papers, but they need to be handed to him or her.

If, after the respondent is served, s/he violates the TPO, the Petitioner can report the violation immediately to the police or to the Court.  The Petitioner should consider also collecting any evidence (text messages, voicemail, social media postings, pictures, witnesses, medical bills, etc), or obtaining legal advice and information, which is often available in the DVICs (you do not need a lawyer to get a Civil Protection Order, but it can be helpful).

The CPO Hearing occurs 2 weeks after the Petitioner files a petition for a CPO/TPO, though it may be Continued (extended to a new date) for a variety of reasons.  Petitioners who have been unable to serve a Respondent or cannot make it to Court for any reason should notify the DVIC and the Court as soon as possible, as there may be assistance available, and the case may be Continued rather than merely Dismissed.

If the Respondent has been served and is present at the hearing…

The parties will first be required to meet separately with an attorney negotiator to try to reach an agreement about the CPO, though parties are not obligated to reach one.

If an agreement is reached: the judge will review the order to make sure that everyone involved understands the terms of the order; both parties will then sign the order which will be effective for one year.  The resulting order is often called a Consent Order.

If no agreement is reached: a hearing will be held in front of a judge who will hear any witnesses or any evidence of injury or threats.  After listening to both sides, the judge will make a decision. The resulting Contested Case results in a CPO or a CPO denial.

If the Respondent is not present at the hearing

…And the respondent was served: then there will be a Default ruling and the judge may issue the CPO in the Respondent’s absence if s/he finds there is reasonable belief that harm occurred.

…And if the respondent was not served: the Petitioner can ask to Continue the case, which means that the judge will reschedule the hearing to allow time for the Respondent to be served with the Protection Order.  A judge may also Dismiss the case, if s/he feels it is appropriate.

If neither party is present at the hearing, then the case is usually Dismissed.

General outcomes for victims who have petitioned for Civil Protection Orders in DC Superior Court:

Pic 1

Of the CPO cases that were recorded by CourtWatch volunteers:

  • 39% of all cases were Continued
  • 27% of all cases were Dismissed
  • 19% of all cases had a Consent Order, and ultimately granted the CPO
  • 8% of all cases had a Default Order
    • 8% of cases that had a default order, the CPO was granted;
    • <1% of cases that had a default order, the CPO was denied.
  • 7% of all cases were contested
    • In 4% of cases the case was contested and the CPO was granted
    • In 3% of all cases the case was contested and the CPO was denied
    • In 0% of all cases) the case was contested and continued.

Pic 2

When a CPO is Dismissed, it can be dismissed With Prejudice, or Without Prejudice.  When a case is Dismissed With Prejudice, it means the Judge has found cause to permanently dismiss the claims of the Petitioner, preventing these claims from being brought again in a new case.  Cases Dismissed Without Prejudice may be re-filed, or filed as part of a new case.

Of the CPO dismissals that were recorded by CourtWatch volunteers:

  • 51% were dismissed without prejudice due to Petitioner’s absence
  • 30% were dismissed without prejudice due to a request by the Petitioner
  • 8% were dismissed without prejudice for other reasons
  • 6% were dismissed without prejudice because service was unsuccessful
  • 2% were dismissed with prejudice after an absence by the Petitioner
  • 3% were dismissed for other reasons

Pic 3

Of the Continued Cases that CourtWatch volunteers observed:

  • 43% were granted to allow the Petitioner additional time to serve Respondent
  • 28% were granted for Other Reasons
  • 13% were granted at the petitioner’s request
  • 14% were granted trailing a criminal case, setting the matter aside until Criminal charges against the Respondent in the same matter were settled
  • 2% were granted without a reason specified
  • 0% was granted at the respondent’s request
  • 0% was granted, in abeyance


Profiles of Civil Protection Orders seekers in DC

Civil Protection Orders (or CPOs) are an important and powerful tool for survivors in finding safety after an incident of domestic violence, and also a critically important way to hold offenders legally accountable for their actions.  Through a CPO request, a survivor can present his or her story to the Court and seek a number of different kinds of relief—stay-away orders, no-contact orders, temporary custody of children, and mandatory counseling intervention for the alleged abuser—among others.

Through DC SAFE’s CourtWatch Project, trained advocates and volunteers observe CPO hearings at the DC Superior Court to attempt to better understand the experience of survivors as they navigate this system, and provide valuable feedback to the Court and to community providers on whether or not the processes involved in seeking and obtaining a CPO are effective at serving survivors in need, and learning more about who those survivors are.

In this post, we’ll report back on the simple demographics of CPO Petitioners (those requesting an order) and Respondents (the party who’s being filed against).  It’s important to note that simply because a Petitioner files a request for a CPO does not mean that the Petitioner is always necessarily the abused party—though as we will see in later posts, the Court overwhelmingly found Petitioners to have grounds and to have demonstrated their abuse through a preponderance of evidence.  However, in a later post, we’ll dig deeper into how the demographics of the parties was occasionally associated with different case outcomes and the experience of Judicial behaviors.

For now, this is a snapshot of who was before the Court in 2014.

NOTE: The judgement of a Petitioner or Respondent’s identity was made based on the perception of the observer.  While this absolutely asks observers to make assumptions that would be artificial or inappropriate in other contexts, we structure the observation this way to best approximate how a party might be perceived, rather than how they identify themselves.  The only exception to this is in cases where a party verbally disclosed an identity other than the perceived or assumed identity while in Court.  In such cases, the party was recorded with the identifiers they disclosed.

race ethnicity

Of all Petitioners for whom DC SAFE observed recorded a perceived race/ethnicity:

  • 85% were Black;
  • 7% were Hispanic;
  • 6% were White;
  • 1% were Asian;
  • 1% were not identified within any of the aforementioned categories.


Of the Petitioners for whom DC SAFE recorded a perceived gender:

  • 79% were female-identified (n673);
  • 21% were male-identified (n177).


Of the Petitioners for whom DC SAFE recorded a perceived age group:

  • 17% were 25 years or younger;
  • 58% were between 26 and 39 years old;
  • 15% were between 40 and 50 years old;
  • 10% were 51 years or older.

r race ethnicity

Of the Respondents for whom DC SAFE recorded a perceived race/ethnicity:

  • 81% were identified as Black;
  • 8% were identified as Hispanic;
  • 7% were identified as White;
  • 2% were identified as Asian;
  • 2% were not identified within any of the aforementioned categories.

r gender

Of the Respondents for whom DC SAFE volunteers recorded a gender:

  • 72% were male-identified;
  • 28% were female-identified.

r age

Of the Respondents for whom DC SAFE volunteers recorded an age:

  • 12% were 25 and younger
  • 60% were between 26 and 39 years old;
  • 18% were between 40 and 50 years of age;
  • 10% were 51 years and older.


New initiative will-use technology to aid court observation


We are pleased to announce that this fall, DC SAFE is implementing a new electronic data capture program at the D.C. Superior Court, Domestic Violence Unit.  DC SAFE has long partnered with the DC Superior Court, allowing volunteers and advocates to record key data on access to justice for domestic violence survivors in Civil Protection Order proceedings, including demographic data on parties, judicial behaviors, and case outcomes.

Despite successful reports and blog posts from in recent years, DC SAFE staff and our institutional supporters recognized the necessity of an efficient data recording system to enable us to analyze our data quickly, and to ultimately publish fresh data that reflect the current practices of judges and the experience of Petitioners and Respondents at Court.  By using electronic data recording and automated data analysis on Court-approved tablets, DC SAFE and CourtWatch hope that this process will help us to identify meaningful features of the justice system, and be more immediately responsive to the trends we uncover.

Look for upcoming posts on CourtWatch observations in the  most recent year:

Over the next month, DC SAFE will share our recent findings from Civil Protection Order proceeding data and preliminary analyses.

You can look forward to reading about:

Demographics of Civil Protection Order Litigants

An Overview of the Civil Protection Order Process and Recently Observed Outcomes

Relationship Between Case Outcomes and Demographics

Factors in Judicial Behavior

Relationship Between Judicial Behaviors and Litigant Demographics

Legal Representation and Case Outcomes

Looking for a Volunteer Opportunity? 

Or how about an opportunity to learn about the D.C. Courts and/or domestic violence within the legal system?

We invite you to join our growing team of DC Safe CourtWatch volunteers who observe Civil Protection Order proceedings at the D.C. Superior Court, CPO session!  Our new recording program makes it easier than ever to contribute to our work, which ensures that victims of Domestic Violence have equal access to a clear, fair and consistent judicial process that prioritizes victim safety and offender accountability.

All volunteers must participate in a specialized training session, and will be required to sign authorized use agreements before accessing the Court or observation technology.

Please see the volunteer page for more information.






#GivingTuesday AdvoKid Challenge

#GivingTuesday AdvoKid Challenge

Spreading Love isn’t just for Domestic Violence Awareness Month–it’s for all year round!

This holiday season, we invite you to spread the love with the littlest members of the DC SAFE community–the AdvoKids! We’re inviting all AdvoKids to share how they use their hands to spread love in their communities.

From now until December 2nd (#GivingTuesday), share a picture of your little one sharing what they do with their hands on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and use the #DCSAFEAdvoKids. Your AdvoKid could be featured on DC SAFE’s website. You can also submit pictures by emailing them to

Find printable forms below.

giving Tuesday example

Downloadable “These Hands” Sign

We haven’t forgotten about those furbabies! 

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 9.15.35 AM

Downloadable “These Paws” (Dog)

Downloadable “These Paws” (Cat)

One way to help keep DC safe this season is to give back. Donate today or make sure to come back on Tuesday, December 2nd for your chance to win your very own DC SAFE AdvoKid t-shirt.

Quantities are limited. DC SAFE will be giving away shirts in infant and children’s sizes throughout the day to our #GivingTuesday donors. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for your chance to win.

advokid t-shirt

To find out more about the #GivingTuesday movement:

Advocate of the Month: October 2015

Advocate of the Month: October 2015

DC SAFE is excited to announce that Sarah is our Advocate of the Month!

Sarah joined DC SAFE in June 2015. Sarah’s supervisors describe her as motivated, thorough, inventive, and creative in her work with clients. Sarah has contributed to an atmosphere that values collaborative co-advocacy, pulling on the strengths of her colleagues to ensure that SAFE’s clients receive the best service. Sarah epitomizes what it means to be a team player. Thank you, Sarah!

Advocate of the Month: September 2015

Advocate of the Month: September 2015

DC SAFE is excited to announce that Erin C. is our Advocate of the Month!

Erin C. joined DC SAFE in June 2015. Erin’s experience working with mental health consumers has brought a deeper understanding about the mental health continuum to the Lethality Assessment Project, as well as to her fellow advocates. She has been instrumental in helping DC SAFE increase our response for mental health consumers who are experiencing a domestic violence crisis. While Erin has only been with DC SAFE for a few months, her dedication to providing quality, victim-centered client services is evident. Erin is always willing to offer a hand, whether it’s picking up additional clients or partnering with her fellow advocates on complicated cases. Thank you, Erin!

Guest Blogger: Robyn Swirling

Guest Blogger: Robyn Swirling

Robyn Swirling has been a volunteer with DC SAFE since September 2012. Robyn was named DC SAFE’s Volunteer of the Year in 2014.

Have you ever been so desperate for a warm place to sleep that you stayed overnight in a booth at McDonald’s? Thankfully, I haven’t. But one of the worst sentences I have ever had to say to someone was “I need you to sleep in that McDonald’s with your baby for just one more night.”

I am a volunteer advocate on SAFE’s On-Call Advocacy Program response line – the only 24-hour domestic violence hotline in Washington, DC. And one Sunday evening, I answered a call from a desperate young mother who was fleeing domestic violence and needed a place to stay. SAFE’s shelter was full, and there are a limited number of DC shelters that are available for new client intake on the weekend, fewer still on a Sunday evening, and even fewer when you count how many accept children. After a couple hours of trying to find a place for her, I called the woman back and asked her to spend the night at a McDonald’s.

Then I cried. A lot.

I do pretty OK with the difficult situations I encounter and hear about on the hotline. I can take in stories of horrific violence and, though certainly not easy, I manage. But the hardest thing, for me, is telling a person who has gotten up the courage and pulled together everything they and their children have to escape a violent relationship that I can’t help them find a safe place to sleep. It takes an average of 7 attempts for a survivor to escape a domestic violence relationship, and one of the major reasons survivors go back to abusive partners is for lack of alternate housing. This has been on my mind since the very first call I ever answered on the hotline.

This is where you and I come in. On October 8, please join my fellow advocates and me at Keep DC SAFE, our annual fundraiser and awards reception. Tickets are only $25 (though please give more if you can!), with all the money raised through this event going toward building and running a new SAFE Space shelter and continuing to provide the crucial services SAFE makes available to survivors every day.

In the three years since I first walked into the SAFE offices to begin training as a volunteer advocate,  I’ve learned that these survivors are our neighbors, friends, and family –and us.  It was a steep and deeply meaningful learning curve. After forty hours of training, I took my first shift on the hotline, shadowing an experienced advocate. When she was tied up on another call and the phone rang, I took my first of hundreds of calls as a SAFE volunteer.

That call was from a survivor, who was freezing in her car on an exceptionally cold autumn night, in the parking lot of a shelter. A SAFE advocate had found her a spot in that shelter for the night, but she arrived at nearly 10pm, well past the intake curfew, because she had spent numerous hours in the emergency room, having injuries and wounds caused by her husband cared for and documented. She needed help getting someone to let her into the locked shelter. After several frustrating conversations with shelter staff, she was allowed inside.

I was so angry at that shelter supervisor, who at one point asked me “can’t she just go somewhere else tonight?” The shelter was a general women’s shelter, not intended specifically for domestic violence survivors, and it seems unlikely she had ever received training on working with survivors or their particular needs in a shelter space. This isn’t her fault, but it is shocking considering that 63 percent of homeless women have experienced intimate partner violence as adults, and a staggering 92 percent of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. These anecdotes highlight the need for more shelter beds for domestic violence survivors, especially those who have children with them, as well as the urgent need for greater understanding about domestic violence among those running general shelters.

SAFE is working to make that a reality. The SAFE Space shelter provides, well, a safe space for individuals and families leaving violent relationships. SAFE staff provides or connects survivors with legal information, help with protection orders, housing assistance, nutrition and food assistance, linkage with the police department and US Attorney’s office, mental health services, sexual assault survivor resources, and more. There’s no limit to the number or age of children a survivor can bring, as there are in other shelters. Each survivor gets his or her own apartment space, where s/he can process and just be on their own. No shelter is a great place to be, obviously, but SAFE Space is honestly tremendous in the support and resources it provides to survivors.

Now SAFE is looking for a new home for SAFE Space – a location that’s larger, and in a better area for DC’s population of survivors. This undertaking isn’t easy – anyone who’s looked for housing in DC lately knows that finding a place that meets your needs, is available at the right time, will accept you as tenant, and then finding enough money for it or a financial backer is a very difficult thing to do. There’s unfortunately an additional barrier here: the unwillingness of many sellers, landlords, and residents to have a domestic violence shelter in their backyard. You can read more about the challenges SAFE is facing in getting a new shelter space in this excellent write-up from Washington City Paper.

Let’s make sure everyone has a safe place to go when they need it.  Please come to our gala on Thursday, October 8, at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery. Help us raise funds and honor advocates and volunteers who work generously and tirelessly to support survivors and their families.

DC SAFE Welcomes New Director of Advocacy

DC SAFE Welcomes New Director of Advocacy

DC SAFE is excited to announce our new Director of Advocacy, Erin Hill. Erin began working with DC SAFE in 2012 and has more than three years of experience providing direct services for survivors of both intimate partner and domestic violence. Beginning her career with DC SAFE as a Court Advocacy Intern, she was promoted to Advocate, and later to Lead Advocate.

Erin has provided crisis intervention and supportive advocacy services for hundreds of survivors. In her new role, she will be responsible for supervising Advocates to ensure the coordination and collaboration between programs and projects within DC SAFE, with the goal of making advocacy consistent and efficient for all clients.

Erin has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and English from Johns Hopkins University and is currently earning a Master’s Degree in Governmental Studies from Johns Hopkins University.