Of the myriad agencies that a domestic violence survivor might deal with as they seek safety and justice—law enforcement, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the courts—there is one group whose first and only mission is to look out for their needs: The Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter.
LAWS advocates help domestic violence and intimate partner violence survivors through every step, and the nonprofit’s wraparound services make it a one-stop shop for that kind of support. The work begins with trying to prevent that violence in the first place—LAWS helps educate young people about consent, healthy relationships, and how to prevent violence in their relationships.
It also means helping survivors through everything from safety planning, to getting protective orders, to talking to courts and law enforcement, to going to the hospital with them, to changing the locks and setting up a security system—through every part of what LAWS interim Executive Director Samantha Clarke called “this complex, patchwork quilt of a system.”
And all of it is done at no cost to survivors by highly trained professionals who know how not to add to the trauma, whether offering them therapy, developing a safety plan or going through interviews for a criminal case.
“It’s understanding their rights. It’s understanding the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault in their lives. It’s having an advocate that can just be a safe place to be understood,” Clarke said.
“We can build that rapport with the survivor and provide them information on all their options, without the fear of like, ‘oh, you’re just doing this to help the criminal case or the criminal process,’” said LAWS Community Services Coordinator Diana Rodriguez. “Well, it could be helpful, but I’m not here for that. I’m here to support you.”
The collaboration between LAWS and partner agencies like law enforcement, prosecutors, courts and community corrections is embodied in DART, the Domestic Abuse Response Team.
“The idea of a DVCCR (domestic violence coordinated community response) is that not one agency alone can handle domestic violence effectively,” said DART Coordinator Josephine Gonzalez. “You need a collaborative approach.”
The team meets regularly to assess how best to handle domestic violence collaboratively and find ways to patch holes in that response. That has resulted in things like the Lethality Assessment Program, which today the team is working to expand to the Purcellville Police Department. Following a spike in domestic homicides, the team attended a conference on reducing that violence and learned of the program, which is meant to identify domestic violence victims who are at the highest risk from their abusers. After that was implemented, domestic violence homicides dropped off dramatically.
That support also means empowering the survivors, when abusive relationships are often about taking that power away.
“When we say survivor-led, we mean survivor-led,” Gonzalez said. While informing survivors of their options and safety, LAWS advocates help survivors reach the outcome they want—which may not always be just to see their abuser go to jail.
“It is important to understand that even from the 911 call to when law enforcement responds, the story might be changing, and this is not to say that the survivor is lying. This is not to say that they didn’t feel that fear.” Gonzalez said. “It’s just that they’re starting to think, ‘oh my goodness, what am I going to do with my kids tomorrow?’ If their parent goes to jail ‘how am I going to go to work? What am I going to do?’”
And having all those services under one roof can help prevent already-traumatized people from falling out of the safety net when they encounter a confusing piece of paperwork or an intimidating meeting.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to have people trained on each step and each level, wherever a survivor touches, because it’s such a precarious thing,” Gonzalez said.
And they also help them navigate things like the court system, a daunting prospect even without considering having to take hours off from work to sit in the courtroom.
The court system, in particular, is a strength for LAWS. It is one of few such organizations in the state to have in-house attorneys. Director of Legal Services Rebecca Hoey said anyone who gets services from LAWS can also get a consultation with the attorneys. That can help them learn about what rights and protections they have, and things as basic and important as just knowing how to file for custody of their children.
“They’re right here in the building. They don’t have to go anywhere else,” Hoey said. “We are trauma-informed as well because we work at here at LAWS.”
The paid professionals at LAWS also are joined by volunteers ranging from young people eager to help to longstanding volunteers with training and experience, said volunteer coordinator Tyler Peak.
“The nice thing about LAWS’s volunteer program is that we can bring a lot of people into the mold, because we know that this mission touches a lot of people,” Peak said.
The volunteers can do many jobs, ranging from administrative support to undergoing some of the same training as staff. And, he said, the organization is always looking for more volunteers.
“The reality is that we can never provide too much service on this mission. So having a really strong volunteer base only helps us deliver a better service,” he said. And he added, “everyone brings something—whether if it’s your time your skills, your ability, it could just be your knowledge of your community.”
While law enforcement, prosecutors, hospitals and other organizations that domestic violence survivors may encounter may have many other responsibilities—such as investigating crimes, or treating injury, “our number one job here at LAWS is to serve victims,” Clarke said. “Our only role is to center victims.”
“Lean into LAWS to understand the needs of survivors, because we’re here to help you and support you in serving survivors well in our community,” Clarke said. “We’re an ally.”
The LAWS 24-hour, 365-day domestic violence and sexual assault hotline number is 703-777-6552. More information is online at lcsj.org.