Published: February, 2012| Cris M. Sullivan, Ph.D., Edited by Stephanie Avalon

The majority of incarcerated women have also been victims of domestic and/or sexual violence. Upon release from jail/prison, these women often have difficulty finding services that address their complex needs.

As recently featured in a BWJP webinar, the MCEDSV Open Doors Project is a collaborative effort to create a Best Practice Toolkit useful for both advocates and criminal legal personnel.

The focus of this toolkit is to provide practical tips about effectively assisting any woman charged of any crime

Staff in domestic violence and sexual assault programs might feel ill-equipped to deal with these “high needs” survivors, and do not have the information and skills needed to provide meaningful assistance. Formerly incarcerated survivors often identify community-based domestic and sexual violence organizations as not being accessible to them. This can result in this particularly vulnerable group of survivors being left without access to services they desperately need, which jeopardizes their well-being, safety, and their freedom.

While criminal legal staff, including department of corrections, need more information to understand the impact of the trauma of domestic and sexual violence, advocates need to understand the impact of being involved in the criminal legal system on the women they’re working with.

The MCEDSV Open Doors Project

The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence received a three-year planning and capacity-building grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children and Families, Financial Assistance Award, Family Violence Prevention and Services Program. The purpose was to identify and begin addressing the barriers that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated domestic violence and sexual assault survivors face in obtaining advocacy and support from domestic violence and sexual assault (DV/SA) programs.

An important capacity-building goal was to enhance community collaboration between advocates and those working in the courts and corrections systems.

Through the Open Doors Project, the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence brought together coalition staff, community organizations, university researchers, survivors, and state and national organizations to form a dynamic, collaborative partnership. Three DV/SA service provider organizations who specifically serve culturally and ethnically diverse abuse survivors in the Detroit area provided case examples and practical knowledge to enhancing community readiness and capacity.

Development of the Toolkit

Researchers from Michigan State University’s (MSU) Violence Against Women Research and Outreach Initiative collaborated with MCEDSV in designing and evaluating trainings, as well as overall project evaluation and were the primary authors of the toolkit. The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community provided additional technical assistance to the project.

The toolkit was organized specifically for direct service workers interested in the intersections between violence against women and criminal legal sectors. This may include advocates from domestic violence and sexual assault programs, professionals working in programs that provide treatment services for women on probation or parole, correctional officers and community corrections officers.

The Toolkit is designed to:
  • Support staff across the criminal legal and violence against women fields to work effectively with survivors;
  • Encourage networking and partnership across the sectors;
  • Provide practical, adaptable information to enable organizations to implement changes in policy and practice; and
  • Encourage a holistic approach, partnerships, and integrated work.

As part of the Open Doors project, MCADSV and MSU conducted numerous statewide trainings with attendees from DV/SA service provider organizations and criminal legal sectors to discuss how to work through the multiple barriers that women with criminal histories are currently facing. In collaboration with MSU researchers, MCEDSV also collected information from domestic violence and sexual assault service providers and other community organizations who directly serve women coming from prisons and jails about their work with survivors with criminal histories. Data collected from the trainings and in-depth interviews directly informed the creation of this toolkit.

The toolkit is intentionally divided into specific sections so that readers can quickly locate what they need when they need it. As such some information may be repetitious, but this is purposeful in an effort to increase its usability as a reference. This toolkit is not comprehensive, but instead serves as a brief, practical, introductory guide for direct service workers. It should not replace specialized professional services when needed, such as legal representation or mental health treatment.

There may be some sections that are more applicable to those working in DV/SA organizations and some more applicable to those working in the criminal legal system. Those working in other human service organizations that provide services to women involved in the criminal legal system will find many sections helpful. Often the section that is useful is dependent upon an individual’s role or service sector, the goal of the service being provided, and where the woman is along the criminal/legal continuum.

The Table of Contents offers explicit detail so that finding the information needed is easy.

For more information contact:

Sheryl Kubiak, PhD
Associate Professor, School of Social Work
Michigan State University

Cris M. Sullivan, Ph.D.
Professor, Ecological/Community Psychology
Michigan State University

Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence
(517) 347-7000