Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act

Ed. note: This blog post is cross-posted from the Administration for Children and Families blog. The original post date was October 1, 2014. Read the original post.

child's journal

Drawing from FVPSA Program Director Marylouise Kelley's daughter, 6, while Kelley was an advocate in a shelter: "Sometimes ladies come to The Crisis Center because they have trouble at home. Sometimes my Mom has to show them where they sleep. Sometimes they come to The Crisis Center with kids."

On Oct. 9, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). On that day in 1984, for the first time in history, federal resources were dedicated directly to domestic violence shelters, services, and programs. Today, FVPSA supports nearly 1,600 shelters, 200 Tribes and Tribal organizations, and domestic violence coalitions in 56 states and territories. The FVPSA Program also funds the National Domestic Violence Hotline and nine national resource centers and culturally specific institutes. These programs provide a lifeline to millions of women, children, and men each year. Just over 30 years ago, I was one of them.

In 1982, I remember standing on the porch of the Crisis Center in Manhattan, KS, with my four-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, waiting to meet the domestic violence advocate who answered my call for help to escort us to a local shelter. A college student at the time, all that I brought with me was a backpack full of textbooks and two paper bags holding our clothes. We walked through the shelter door and, over the next few days, I talked with other survivors and learned that my story of abuse echoed their own. Hearing other women reveal the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse they endured — how their husbands and boyfriends controlled them — helped me to finally understand that it wasn't my fault. At that time, domestic violence was a hidden and private issue, and we did not have the research to show that more than one in three women are victims of violence by an intimate partner. Like many women in abusive relationships, I decided not to leave my husband and to give my marriage another try. After a few days at the shelter, I returned home — but I was not the same person. Twelve months later, I decided to permanently leave my abusive partner. Living in a one-bedroom apartment, the kids and I started over, scraping together food stamps and TANF benefits to get by while I was still in school. One month after graduating, I applied for an opening as a domestic violence advocate at the Manhattan Crisis Center, and my life changed forever.

In those days, our shelter was an old, vacant home that had been donated to us. We managed to squeeze in 20 beds and an office with four advocates. A lot of our work was done at the shelter's kitchen table, where women shared their stories and created communities of healing. Our small program and handful of staff covered five counties, traveling across the state to meet a survivor in need of shelter, or tracking down a magistrate for an order of protection. Like many domestic violence programs during that time, we were a grassroots operation. Without sustained funding, the field lacked research, training for law enforcement, health care providers, or counselors. Operating on a shoestring, our shelter's largest funding source was a grant from the city for $60,000.

In 1984, all of that changed with the passage of FVPSA. For the first time, domestic violence was seen as a national priority. Advocates began to receive due recognition, and with it, necessary funds, to provide safety and healing to domestic violence survivors and their children. With the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the federal response expanded to include broader justice system and community responses to domestic violence and sexual assault. I am proud that, over the years, domestic violence programs supported through FVPSA and other state and federal funding sources have transformed program and community responses. Shelters are becoming more welcoming and accessible for all survivors (regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, physical ability, or language proficiency). It is now standard for programs to address survivors as whole persons, with a range of health, mental health, economic, and legal advocacy needs. The practices of trauma-informed care, and a special focus on supporting children exposed to domestic violence, are widespread. Having entered a shelter as a young mother, ensuring that domestic violence services are accommodating to children is especially important to me. These programs recognize that when survivors walk away from their homes, belongings, and relationships, they need more than just a safe place to stay — they also need economic assistance and emotional support while they heal and reconnect with their community.

Every day, survivors across the country find the courage to escape an abusive relationship. Each month, more than 20,000 persons make that first call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. And on just one day in 2013, over 66,000 women, children, and men found housing, legal help, and emotional support from a domestic violence program. But close to 10,000 survivors never received the assistance they sought, because domestic violence programs continue to be at maximum capacity, while funding remains stagnant. While federal support for these programs remains critical, the work of advocates will continue until we, as a culture, refuse to tolerate relationship violence. Until then, I'm proud that FVPSA actively engages communities to create that culture change from within, recognizing the many programs, particularly those led by communities of color, that have gained important ground.

My journey in the domestic violence movement began 30 years ago at the Crisis Center in Manhattan, KS. Since 2006, I have led the federal response as director of the FVPSA Program, a division of the Family and Youth Services Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services, here in Washington, DC. I am proud to oversee the Department's investment in domestic violence shelters and services, including prevention programs and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, that together form the national network of programs delivering relief every day to survivors across the country. On the 30th anniversary of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, I remember that shelter in Kansas and look forward to the future of more expansive, and more numerous, systems of support for survivors and their children.