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Strafford County, New Hampshire

Background and Site Description

In 1996, the Strafford County Attorney’s Office applied for and received a STOP Formula Grant from the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). This enabled the County Attorney’s Office to hire a system–based victim advocate to provide services to domestic violence victims from seven towns and cities whose misdemeanor cases are heard in Rochester District Court. Because a specialized prosecution team was not in place at that time, communication with prosecutors and referrals from police departments were inconsistent. Consequently, despite the advocate’s efforts, many domestic violence victims did not receive victim/witness advocacy services.

In 1998 there were 341 domestic violence cases disposed of in Rochester District Court, but only 65 cases were referred to victim assistance services. Victims were not involved in the criminal justice system, dispositions were disparate, and sentences failed to hold offenders accountable, leaving victims at even greater risk. A Safe Place, the community–based domestic violence agency and shelter for battered women, also struggled to work collaboratively with law enforcement and prosecutors in Strafford County, and received few victim referrals from the criminal justice system.

The Strafford County DV Project was created to address these issues. The primary purpose of the project was to improve the coordinated community response by consistently holding offenders accountable and ensuring victim safety. The project hoped to centralize criminal justice responses to domestic violence, enforce mandatory arrest policies, strengthen legal advocacy services, facilitate agency cooperation, increase offender accountability, and provide a coordinated community response to domestic violence.

In 1999, the Strafford County Attorney’s Office received a grant from OVW under the Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies and Enforcement of Protection Orders program. As a result, the DV Project was able to expand its efforts to seven staff, including two full time specialized prosecutors, three victim advocates, one support staff, and one project director. In addition, the grant supported a victim advocate at A Safe Place and up to two specialized probation/parole officers for DV cases.

The DV Project Implementation Team (The I–Team) was established to assist in the implementation of the grant. The team is composed of two law enforcement agencies, the County Attorney, a representative of A Safe Place, a representative of the Dover Anti–Stalking Unit, the Chair of the Strafford County Family Violence Council, the Domestic Violence Project Director, a representative of SHARP (Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program at the University of New Hampshire), and the Chief Probation Officer of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections’ Dover District Office of Probation/Parole.

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Site Strengths and Challenges

Much of the I–Team’s early work together involved the practical aspects of implementing the OVW grant. From 1998 to 2001, the DV Project did realize some success with more offenders participating in batterer’s intervention programs and a greater number of offenders receiving probation and/or incarceration sentences. However, the team also experienced many challenges:

Inconsistent Project Staffing and Support:
Since 1999, the project has had three project directors. There is only one original staff member who has remained with the project, and the average length of employment was 10 months. This has made it difficult for the project to maintain experienced, knowledgeable staff, and has created many operational inconsistencies and challenges. Further, as a result of budget concerns, the project was forced to reduce the number of specialized probation officers handling domestic violence cases funded by the grant from two to one.

Unclear Roles and Responsibilities:
Members indicated a lack of clarity regarding their role in the group. Beyond the initial implementation activities that were spelled out in the grant, members expressed confusion about their ongoing role and the purpose of the project. Members also expressed a lack of clarity about decisionmaking – which members could vote, whether they could send representatives to meetings if they couldn’t attend, and what their relationship was to other groups and agencies in the county. To further complicate matters, DV Project staff are each supervised by the department head from the appropriate agency. Without a clear sense of the DV Project’s purpose and presence, the participating agencies experience no accountability to the team for activities and decisions that affect the staff who are members.

Lack of Trust and Camaraderie:
Most members of the team indicated that there was a lack of trust among members and no sense of camaraderie, despite the fact that the team had worked together for more than three years. Membership turnover was high, and many members had only recently began participating in meetings. Their application for participation in the Collaboration Project stated that the collaborative relationship between the project and the Dover District Office of Probation/Parole was strained. Another issue noted by most members was that the Dover Anti–Stalking Unit had historically not collaborated with the DV Project. A representative of the Anti–Stalking Unit was asked to participate on the I–Team, but there was still much work to do to establish a truly collaborative relationship.

Narrow Vision and Mission:
The DV Project’s primary mission was to implement the objectives of the grant. This was accomplished during the first six months of the project. The team had not articulated a long–term vision, mission, or goals and was struggling to define a broader vision and mission for their work together.

Narrow Goals and Outcome Measures:
Most members expressed interest in defining effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms for measuring their impact on domestic violence in the county. To date, the project had measured their impact by the increase in the number of cases being prosecuted and the number of victims being served. The team agreed that they wanted to explore additional goals and measures so that they could justify their continued existence to the county, and to be more clear about the strategies that would have the greatest impact on ending domestic violence in the county.

Lack of Impact/Success:
Without a sufficiently broad vision and set of goals, and without a clear definition of members’ roles, the team has not been as effective as they would have liked in providing a unified and consistent voice for domestic violence issues throughout the county. Many members expressed interest in more actively engaging the community in a shared dialogue about domestic violence issues, and in being more proactive as a team in advocating for the prevention of, and end to, domestic violence in the county.

Lack of Process Management:
The team had not articulated ground rules or operating norms for how they operated. The team did not have the benefit of a neutral facilitator who could attend to group process so that all members could participate in, rather than manage, the meetings. Likewise, the team did not have routines for effectively monitoring their process and for maintaining the team over time. Because of a lack of trust, some team members had voting rights and others did not. Most members stated that they wanted to clarify their decisionmaking process. Lastly, team members stated that they did not have a clear workplan for accomplishing their vision and goals.

Despite the challenges, team members also clearly felt optimistic about the energy that new membership brought to the team and the experience and skills of the new project director. Team members were clearly committed to learning how to work more effectively together as a collaborative team.

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Assistance Provided by the Project

The technical assistance interventions consisted of four onsite visits by Collaboration Project staff, and participation in a national workshop.

The workshop and onsite retreat were important events for the team. These events provided them the opportunity to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their process, to work on strategies for improving their collaboration, and to engage in team building. Throughout the project, the team was very receptive to suggestions and guidance. The team used the site visits as opportunities to “practice” what they were learning and implement new operating norms.

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Over the course of ten short months, the Strafford County Domestic Violence Project Advisory Board and Prosecution Unit made significant changes in the way they operated and collaborated together, as evidenced by the list of accomplishments discussed below. The team was put to the test when they were faced with some unexpected crises during the project period, including the loss of the probation component as a result of budget cuts, continuing high turnover of staff, the termination/new hire of the victim advocate at A Safe Place, loss of federal OVW funding, and the change in title and responsibilities of the Project Director.

When the team learned that their application for renewal funding had not been granted by the OVW, they had very little time to consider their options. They felt their continuation was dependent on future funding and county support. They were under enormous pressure to find immediate alternative funding to maintain their current staffing level. The team was quickly able to agree on some strategies and for the first time, took shared ownership and responsibility for resolving this crisis. As a result of an increased level of trust and commitment to each other, the team was able to demonstrate to the County Commission that they had broad countywide support and agreement on the needs and value of the project. In May 2003, the county agreed to retroactively take on most of the funding required to support the project.

Staff turnover is still high and continues to be of concern to the project. Budget concerns have caused other changes in members’ availability and participation, such as those mentioned above. The articulation of clear operating norms and roles and responsibilities helped remaining staff to feel supported and trusting of each other under difficult circumstances, and new staff to more quickly understand the expectations and day–to–day activities that they would be responsible for. In addition, remaining staff were able to model “team” behaviors for new staff so that there are now some institutionalized norms for how the staff will work together both as a team and jointly with the DV Advisory Board. Despite these setbacks, the team was able to pull together and hold onto the key components of the DV Project, in part because of their renewed partnership and commitment to a shared purpose and vision.

The team has enhanced their collaboration with the Rochester District Court and now has a representative participating on the team. The Dover Anti–Stalking Unit’s representative has been integrated into the team and has become a fully participating member. They have expanded their collaborative efforts to include representatives from the southern part of the county. They feel they have expanded their collaboration to include all of the necessary stakeholders. Lastly, the team feels that they have a clearer sense of future direction and purpose, and have set priorities for their work together over the coming year.

To ensure that they continue to pay attention to their process, the team has agreed to the following:

During the project, the team accomplished the following:

By the end of the ten months, the team agreed that in addition to the accomplishments noted above, their enhanced collaboration had changed the way that they worked together. Team members felt they communicate more effectively and have greater trust in each other and feel more free to engage in frank and open discussion about issues. They no longer felt bound by a history of mistrust and turf, and are able to focus their collective energy on achieving a shared vision.

Overall, the team acknowledges that it was important to be “forced” to deal with process issues and that the time together (personally and professionally) at the national workshop was very important to their efforts. They feel that they were able to overcome their history together and refocus their collaborative efforts on a shared vision and values as a result of the assistance provided. As one team member stated, “Before the project’s assistance, we had an endless list of complaints and a history to overcome. We needed to talk about these issues, deal with them, and move on. We don’t need to revisit these issues any longer.” Thanks in part to their participation in the project, the DV Project Advisory Board felt better equipped to monitor their own process and more confident in their ability to achieve their vision of success.

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