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by Donna Dunn, former Executive Director, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault

This article was originally published in ReShape, Issue # 9, Winter 2004

While collaboration has been a tradition of sexual assault coalitions, the historical partnering they represent has been primarily about uniting and connecting the advocacy community – those people working locally on behalf of victims/survivors of sexual assault. That foresight has brought the advocacy community great benefits: shared training, shared resources, and a safe place to argue philosophy, find support and friendship and debrief with people who really know the work of advocates.

Collaboration today has taken on new and different dimensions in the work to end sexual violence. For a number of social and political reasons, collaboration with disciplines outside of the advocacy community has become the way to move talk to action. Without a doubt, this approach to a system change deserves careful scrutiny and even more careful planning to ensure success for advocates, their collaborators, and ultimately victims/survivors.

The move to multidisciplinary collaboration has emerged out of a number of forces: funding requirements/opportunities; increased levels of victim-centeredness within traditional criminal justice/health care professions; decreasing public funds, and naturally developing relationships after 25 years of sharing an issue and a community with criminal justice professionals. In Minnesota, at the outset of our collaborative work, we began asking the question, “What can we do in partnership that we cannot do alone?” We have also been asking, “How can we be sure that we don’t compromise our unique role in speaking with and for victims of sexual violence?” We recognize that this shift to multidisciplinary collaboration also affects our sexual assault coalition work.

The following are issues that require coalition attention and leadership when using multidisciplinary collaboration to create systems change:

  • Missions and vision: Does the collaborative effort mesh with or conflict with the coalition’s mission and vision? While both may call for an end to sexual violence and cite victim-centeredness as a means to that end, there may be very different understandings of how to achieve victim-centeredness. Can both coexist within a coalition structure? The collaborative arm of MNCASA is the Sexual Violence Justice Institute. It has a multidisciplinary advisory board that includes members of the MNCASA governing board. While the SVJI operates under the auspices of MNCASA, it has been able to articulate a compatible but separate mission from the home agency. Attention to communication across programs and boards within MNCASA is critical to peaceful partnering.
  • Strategy: Collaboration for the sake of collaboration rarely achieves the kind of change desired. A clear strategy for what, how, when, and why collaboration is happening has to be articulated so that all partners see their role in the process. In Minnesota, we have relied on the 8-step protocol development process detailed by Anita Boles and John Patterson in the book Improving Community Response to Crime Victims (Sage Publications), to form the template for our community-based collaborative work. The process gives direction to the partners, clearly identifies purpose, process and product related to each step and motivates a group to continue moving forward.
  • “Inside/out” change agents: Most sexual assault advocacy and coalition efforts grew out of a recognition that local systems were not seeing sexual assault crimes and victims in their midst. Grassroots advocacy has been all about prompting change from the outside. Multidisciplinary collaboration moves that change-agent work to the inside where institution change meets community change. It offers the opportunity to define power as the capacity to produce intended change.
  • Accountability: Collaborative work requires all partners to commit to shared accountability. All work is open to scrutiny, even the work of advocates. Every partner on the team must commit to the overall mission. Partners must be able to give and receive constructive criticism that prompts the individual and systems change that promises results-oriented action. Accountability also applies to our commitment to work within our discipline’s ethics and philosophy. For example, as an advocate, I would never negotiate away my commitment to creating an advocacy environment within which a victim can define her/his needs.
  • Problem solving: Advocacy and collaboratives both grow out of a necessity to solve problems at the community level. Any successful collaborative must accommodate problem solving on small and large scales. While we may be prone to “problem admiring” – finding infinite ways to analyze the problem – our greater challenge and need is to solve the problem at hand.
  • Allow for time: It has taken generations to create the problems we are trying to solve. Yet, we often find ourselves on the 1 year, 18 month, two year grant cycle and expect (or are told to expect) change to occur that neatly. We all know that it takes time to build trust, overcome turf issues and build relationships. Often, partners join a collaborative because they have created good working relationships with other partners. It is often not until well into a true collaboration that challenges to the collaborative vision arise. Collaborations that start out as community/relationship building opportunities face different challenges when/if they move to policy and systems change agendas. This work cannot be rushed if it is to be sustainable.

In Minnesota, with the advent of VAWA funds, we envisioned writing a universal protocol that could be adopted by each of the 87 counties and hopefully, but perhaps not realistically, the community response to sexual violence would be transformed. As we conducted multidisciplinary focus groups around the state, we heard repeatedly that counties did not want a “one-size-fits-all” handed down from “on-high.” What they requested was financial assistance for local multidisciplinary teams to develop their own response based on their own resources and demographics. What resulted is the MN Model Sexual Assault Response Protocol which offers a county team the Boles/Patterson process of protocol development. Each team ultimately has access to what we believe to be the best practices given Minnesota laws and procedures. But, each team is charged with examining their community and drafting their unique response. Between 1997 and 2001, the test sites were funded at $35,000 per year and the process was evaluated positively by Wilder Research Center.

At this time, the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs (OJP) funds new sites for an initial four years (a two-year grant renewable once given successful completion of the first grant) at $45,000. Additionally, OJP funds MNCASA to provide training and technical assistance to the sites. While the model is available to everyone, there are only eleven counties that have been funded by OJP to follow the process with the SVJI as highly involved technical advisors. Each time new grant funds are made available through OJP many more applicants compete for the project than there are grants available. Additionally, an estimated four to five counties have worked their way through the process without funding and with minimal support from us. Those efforts have had varied results. The work is intense enough to warrant targeted funding.

We have learned some of the lessons I cited earlier while supporting eight community-based teams across Minnesota as they work through the 8-step protocol development process. The oldest of our teams have been doing this work since 1998. Teams are required to involve, at a minimum, law enforcement, prosecution, advocacy and medical providers. All teams have augmented their membership by inviting other community members such as: school personnel; public health; corrections/probation; mental health; agencies serving specific populations such as the gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender communities, refugee and immigrant communities, sex offender treatment providers, etc. Teams are required to draft mission statements and to embrace the concept of developing a victim-centered response to sexual assault.

The 8-step process requires teams to do the following:

  1. Inventory of Existing Services: Determine who is serving victims/survivors, what gaps in service exist, and how services can be accessed. This step helps the team discover the range of players in the community who come into contact with victims.
  2. Victim Experience Survey: This is a vehicle to gain feedback from victims about their experiences within the criminal justice or other community systems. The team can find out what works well and what does not work well in the community from those who have relied on the system for care.
  3. Community Needs Assessment: In addition to the first two steps, what else affects the community’s response to sexual assault. What is the population base? Is there a large seasonal population (college students, migrant workers, vacationers) that requires a focused response? How many cases are currently recorded? What does line staff in any of the partnering agencies feel about how the system currently works? What can you hear from the public or via focus groups that helps the team understand more about the current response to sexual assault?
  4. Writing Protocol: Moving from the lessons learned about the community response to sexual assault, teams then commit to writing interagency protocols. Of necessity, protocols should focus on problem areas identified by victims and/or the community. Protocols should also institutionalize those practices that are working well. Protocols highlight not only internal processes for individual agencies but also cross-discipline commitments to communication and joint service.
  5. Adopt Protocol: Once protocols have been written and accepted by the team, agency leadership must accept them and commit to agency support for implementation of the new protocol.
  6. Protocol Based Training: Personnel affected by the new protocols must be trained so they are aware of what is expected of them under the new working agreements.
  7. Monitoring: Are partnering agencies holding themselves accountable for implementing changes? Are line staff following the new procedures? Is what we thought was the best response to victims really the best? Monitoring is about determining the extent to which the protocol is being implemented and identifying any problem areas with the protocol.
  8. Evaluation: This step measures the impact of the protocol on how victims are treated as well as how the criminal justice system performs. Are victims feeling well served? Are system changes producing better case results?

From our eight sites we have learned:

  • Teams must maintain close contact with victims so that the collaborative efforts reach truly victim-centered goals.
  • Funding must be available to support a staff person to ensure that the work gets done. All of our sites are funded to support minimally a .5 FTE.
  • Agency representatives must keep their colleagues and leadership informed of the team work during the process. No one should be surprised when protocols are issued and training is required.
  • Partners must take the time to learn about the roles and responsibilities of other partners. What does it mean to investigate a case? How do advocates support a victim? How are personnel in each agency trained specifically on sexual assault? Team members often have only sketchy ideas of what others do. Trust and respect can develop across disciplines when members gain a clear understanding of others’ roles.
  • The process takes time. The first three steps usually take a team 18 months to complete. The entire 8-step process has required over three years in most sites. Team members have learned to be at ease with the deliberateness of the process.
  • Teams must take time to celebrate their accomplishments and share what they have learned with the community.
  • Nine of the original teams are still functioning, are viable and producing. They have continued to define and redefine how victims should be served by systems in their communities.

The 8-step process is, in the best of circumstances, cyclical. This work is not static: communities change, statutes change, ways of offending change (e.g. date rape drugs), victim needs change, and agency personnel change. Monitoring and evaluation help a team understand these changes and lead the team to rewriting protocol and retraining personnel. In other words, for the best and most updated response to victims, the 8 steps should continue to cycle. In Minnesota, funding concerns have eclipsed this vision. The “oldest” teams have experienced a funding decrease so that new communities can be funded to begin this work. Six “old teams” are now receiving an annual subsistence grant from the State for $10,000. Teams are using the funding to support staff time to keep the organization viable. Additionally, the OJP is providing the Sexual Violence Justice Institute with a line item with which we can make mini-grants to those teams receiving the small award. Mini-grant funds have helped support exceptional efforts that the teams could not otherwise afford. While the funding decrease is indeed a hardship, the teams have all continued to meet and work and their output is nearly as productive as in early years. All teams continue to work to institutionalize the procedures of monitoring and evaluation to ensure that the collaborative response continues to be scrutinized and changed to meet changing victim and community needs.

While we believe that multidisciplinary collaboration can reap benefits for victims, it is clear that oversight of the process is necessary to ensure that efforts do not run afoul of victim needs. Those who speak for victims, regardless of their discipline must be ready to constantly pose the question, “Is what we are doing in the best interest of the victim?” In a healthy collaboration, this question will be welcomed.