Advocacy forms the backbon­e of interventions to support victims of intimate partner violence and end the violence in their lives. Despite much progress, the legal system continues to pose many challenges.

System professionals work within institutional timeframes and agendas that often fail to account for the lived experience of IPV victims. Protocols tend to treat all cases according to a profile of a “universal” victim, so a victim’s individuality and safety concerns can get lost in the process. Advocates ideally bridge these gaps, helping victims understand their role in a complex system. Advocates can help to restore a victim’s agency and make legal options really accessible.

Advocates are employed in either community-based organizations or agencies within the criminal justice system. Community-based programs include shelters and non-residential programs that provide legal advocacy, like assistance filing Orders for Protection or accompanying victims to court hearings, among other services. System-based advocates, sometimes called victim witness liaisons, are frequently located in police departments or prosecutor offices, and also assist victims with court-related matters. The key difference between the two types of advocates is that community-based advocates serve only the victim and information shared by the victim is confidential, and not reported to others without her permission. Because system-based advocates are employed by an agency within the justice system, information shared by the victim is automatically shared with that agency, e.g., prosecutor or police department. A few agencies around the country grant confidentiality to victim-advocate communications, but this policy is rare.

Community Advocates

Connecting victims to community advocates provides a lifeline to anyone in an abusive relationship. Advocates working in community-based programs provide confidential services to victims, helping them navigate the court system and strategize for their safety. Community advocates typically address the range of issues that victims must negotiate: housing, physical and mental health needs, financial support, children’s issues, etc. Advocates also support survivors as conflicting feelings arise about their abusive intimate partners. Early advocates were often battered women themselves, who knew how important it is to be heard and understood. Most advocacy programs offer self-help groups which provide important support to victims ending abuse in their relationships.

System-based Advocates

System-based advocates play a vital role working with victims, mostly women, caught up in criminal courts. Prosecutors often employ advocates to inform victims of their rights and explain what prosecutors may need from them to proceed with charges against the woman’s assailant. Law enforcement agencies similarly use advocates to address safety concerns of women from the outset of police involvement.

Individual and Systems Advocacy

Some advocates primarily work with individuals, helping victims with specific court hearings and processes. They provide safety planning and risk assessment information. They support and inform victims of various options and resources. These advocates act as guides along the bumpy trail that constitutes our legal system.

System advocacy takes this work to a new level. As work with individual victims identifies barriers and problems with the system, advocates can use this information to address these issues with the agencies involved and work to actually remove barriers or resolve issues that make it difficult for victims to obtain the outcomes they need. Either community-based or system-based advocates can work to improve system’s responses to battered women. By voicing concerns of victims, system advocates work to reduce some of the bumps and barriers, blazing a new trail, as it were. Successful system advocacy thus benefits all victims who follow.

In addition to criminal justice-focused efforts, system advocacy projects have been directed at:

Family Court:

A battered mother’s worst nightmare, losing custody to a batterer, has become a national concern as the outcomes of individual cases around the country point to systemic problems in family courts. BWJP has been studying these issues for several years and developed a framework to provide family court personnel, attorneys and advocates with better tools with which to identify domestic violence, understand its relevance to custody/parenting time, and negotiate custody/parenting time arrangements that better protect victims and their children. Currently, OVW is funding four communities under the Family Court Enhancement Project involving advocates in reforming practices to address this problem. For more information, please visit BWJP’s National Child Custody Project pages.

Research on the Effectiveness of Advocacy

Community-based Advocacy

Research on community based advocacy continues to demonstrate its effectiveness. Cris Sullivan’s Community Advocacy Project in the mid-1980s randomly assigned women exiting shelter to either of two conditions: provision of information and referrals, or continued contact with an advocate over a period of weeks. At post-intervention, women who had worked with advocates reported they were getting the resources they needed, were experiencing less violence, were less depressed and scored higher on social support and quality of life.

The Advocate Initiated Response

Since the 1980’s, communities around the country have adopted an Advocate Initiated Response, making pro-active contact with victims in certain circumstances, withdrawing if the victim declines the service. This approach was often used as a way for police departments to actively connect victims to advocates, often by phone after the initial police intervention was completed or as soon as possible. Recently, an NIJ study confirmed that an Advocate Initiated Response is more effective than merely informing victims of programs they can contact on their own.

The study by Anne P. DePrince, et al., confirmed that early victim-focused contact promotes engagement with the criminal justice system. Specifically, coordinated, victim-focused outreach impacts women’s participation in the criminal justice process, increasing the likelihood that women will go to court. Furthermore, most importantly, women in the study perceived that they had benefitted from the intervention.

Furthermore, research on lethality by Jacqueline Campbell revealed that women who were murdered by their intimate partners were less likely to have been involved with advocacy programs. In response, the Maryland Lethality Assessment Protocol was developed to ensure that police officers facilitated an advocacy contact with the victim in cases assessed as high risk before clearing the scene.