Citywide, a Renewed Focus on Ending Domestic Violence

transition houseTransition House Executive Director Risa Mednick stands by the shelter's playground. Photo by Emily Cassel.

On a brisk but bright afternoon in October, Risa Mednick walks through the sun-drenched rooms at Transition House, where the sounds of shouting children and beeping kitchen timers have, for the time being, been replaced by power drills and hammers. Mednick, who is the executive director at the domestic violence agency, ducks past a construction worker to point out the building’s new stainless steel appliances and revamped playroom. “We try to make things as comfortable as possible here,” she says, “given that you’re living with, not one or two or three roommates, but a whole bunch of other families.”

The shelter is currently unoccupied as it undergoes a transition of its own—a project that involves the complete gutting and redesign of its kitchen and five bathrooms, an upgrade of the building’s infrastructure to meet ADA standards and the installation of a new HVAC system. These are much-needed improvements, as Transition House, the first emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse in New England and one of the oldest nationwide, is located in a duplex that was built in the 1890s. Since the nine-family shelter operates at capacity year round, keeping up with projects like this is important—especially because it’s the only emergency housing resource for domestic violence victims in Cambridge.

The renovations at Transition House come at a time when the entire city is applying a renewed focus on the issue of abuse. Last October, the city introduced Elizabeth Speakman as the director of the new Domestic and Gender-Based Violence Prevention Initiative. In the past year, she’s helmed programs like a 14-week training in handling abuse for the Cambridge Police Department. In the broadest sense, she says her role is to bring together different groups who are working to end domestic violence, including police officers and resource providers like Transition House. The hope is that by connecting the people and groups that are doing this work separately, the city can better and more quickly address the needs of victims.

Speakman’s biggest project to date has been the oversight of a citywide needs assessment to determine where these different communities and departments should be focusing their efforts. (The full report is available online.) After conducting more than 50 interviews, the Initiative synthesized that data into 10 insight statements. These recommendations, which were presented at a reception on October 28, include goals like increasing awareness of the issue by providing materials in different languages and offering more training and workshops about what domestic violence is and how to best respond to it. The Initiative is already taking steps to implement those recommendations; the group just held a nine-session series on topics like sexual exploitation and talking to perpetrators of abuse.

Of course, not every aspect of the domestic violence problem can be so easily addressed. “At the other end of the spectrum is housing—that there isn’t enough emergency long-term housing for people who are in abusive relationships or have been sexually assaulted,” Speakman says. “Before people can try to be safe, we need to address the housing challenges.”

Reaching those more long-term goals will prove to be a greater challenge, as the anti-domestic violence campaign, like many other social justice efforts, is currently underfunded and under-resourced. Kimberly Sansoucy, executive director of the Cambridge Commission on the Status of Women, says that while the movement was robust from its inception in the 1970s through the late 1990s, the issue is not as “in vogue” today as it once was.

“That sort of phase … [when] there was money attached to it, meaning you could get grants through the Violence Against Women Act, that has … dwindled appreciably, but the issue has not,” Sansoucy says.

She goes on to say that her department is at the point now where they’re asking themselves: “Where are we, and how are we doing?” Despite the fiscal challenges, to hear Sansoucy and other activists and professionals tell it, the answer is actually “pretty well.”

“The movement, if you will, has gotten a little bit smarter and a lot more inclusive,” Sansoucy says. “It’s no longer trying to just look at how white women are experiencing violence and how to get them out of the house.”

Transition House’s Mednick says that while funding may have shrunk, victims today have more resources at their disposal than they did during the early decades of the movement. While the advent of the Internet has made certain parts of her job more difficult (“The notion of a confidential address has gone out the window,” she says), it has made it easier to connect victims with resources throughout Massachusetts. The SafeLink hotline has created a statewide network that can help families get the help they need. And Transition House is using the crowdfunding site CrowdRise to collect donations for its renovation project.

There’s a consensus among those in the fight against domestic abuse that we need more emergency shelters, but those structures are just one of many pieces in a complex puzzle. The real solution, these experts believe, will be a multifaceted one, one that connects public policy and awareness with mental health resources and the continued support of those who have been victimized. Sansoucy says that the long-term answer is to attack the problem at its roots—targeting the societal norms underlying abuse and creating a broader set of tools for survivors as well as perpetrators—but these sorts of cultural shifts take time.

Meanwhile, Speakman and her team will spend the next several months prioritizing and acting on the recommendations presented in the needs assessment. And while it isn’t entirely clear what steps come next, Cambridge now has a whole community of people—volunteers, police officers and members of city government—who can pool their resources to better address the issue.

“We don’t have a plan yet,” Speakman says, “but we’ll be figuring that out together.”

[This story originally appeared in our November/December print edition, which can be found at more than 100 pick up spots throughout the area.]