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Dorchester agencies launch women’s safety network

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Dorchester agencies launch women’s safety network
(L to r) Jennifer Morris, Carney Hospital director of social work and interpreter services; Valina Jackson, Brookview House chief operating officer; Deborah Hughes, Brookview House executive director. Other speakers at the March 25 kick-off event for the Dorchester Women’s Safety Network were Linda Jo Stern of Casa Myrna Vazquez, Mercedes Tompkins of Brookview House and Sheridan Haines of the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Brookview House, a Dorchester provider of transitional housing and services to homeless and at-risk families, hosted a kick-off celebration last month for the Dorchester Women’s Safety Network, a new program spurred by a $250,000 federal grant the agency received in September.

The new program is a collaboration among three Dorchester organizations: Brookview House, which operates 12 transitional housing units for homeless women and their children; Casa Myrna Vazquez, one of the oldest area providers of emergency shelter and legal advocacy for domestic violence victims; and Carney Hospital, whose Women’s Clinic for Health and Safety provides counseling and medical services for women, children and teenaged girls suffering violence or threatening behavior in their relationships or families.

Their services differ, but each agency encounters women who may have left or lost their housing as a result of domestic violence.

“What’s new here is we’re integrating the domestic violence community into the sheltering community,” said Deborah Hughes, executive director of Brookview House.

Massachusetts has very few transitional housing programs specifically for victims of domestic violence, Hughes said.

Sheridan Haines, executive director of the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence, attended the kick-off event and spoke briefly.

“This collaboration is really what we’re trying to replicate on a statewide basis, making the connections between homelessness and domestic violence and sexual assault,” Haines said, “and trying to get the homelessness programs and shelters to understand the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence so we can prepare folks better to get on the other side of it.”

Domestic violence is often a hidden factor in homelessness for women and children, and must be discerned by sensitive intake staff, said Mercedes Tompkins, Brookview House’s chief development officer.

“Women will come in, and just say they’re homeless,” she said, “but a week later we find that they left their homes because of domestic violence.”

Linda Jo Stern, executive director of Casa Myrna Vazquez, has seen how domestic violence can be an underlying factor in both housing and health problems. Prior to joining the agency last year, she worked in health care in Boston for 35 years, she said.

“Domestic violence, as a thread, is always there under the surface when you’re working in health care,” Stern said, “[and] now I’m learning a great deal about the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.”

Brookview House received a three-year, $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women last fall. Planning for the Dorchester Women’s Safety Network began immediately.

Valina Jackson, former clinical director and now chief operating officer at Brookview House, was part of the cross-agency team that created a vision for the new program. In a series of planning meetings, she said, they defined their roles, “Brookview House providing housing and wraparound services, Casa Myrna Vazquez providing all that plus the legal advocacy that’s so needed, and Carney Hospital with health services.”

Jackson described the services the network of agencies now provides.

Women have access to workshops on financial literacy and safety, she said, as well as case management, life skills training, housing information and services, and education and career services.

Services are offered in English and Spanish, and staff members speak other languages as well, including Haitian Creole and Cape Verdean Creole.

“Collectively, we also provide a community advocate, domestic violence counseling, individual and group therapy, health services and family advocacy,” she said. “So we’ve really tried to embrace the whole family, all the woman’s needs.”

The Office on Violence Against Women provides continuing technical support to the program, she said, including hiring the National Network to End Domestic Violence to conduct training sessions for agency staff.

In closing, Jackson emphasized that the planning team still meets monthly, and that the network is just getting started. “This kick-off is to introduce ourselves to the community and meet potential partners,” she said, “and to talk about how to make this collaboration reach its full potential.”

For more information:

SafeLink statewide 24/7 domestic violence hotline: 877-785-2020