FSC Reaches Out to LGBTQ Victims

A series of focus groups facilitated by the Family Safety Center last year revealed a real disconnect for the local LGTBQ community seeking DV services. As a result, FSC hired a full-time staff member focused on the community, pursued more diversified housing options, and began sensitivity training for law enforcement.

Domestic violence victims are often hesitant and frightened to step forward and speak up. Those dynamics are compounded when victims are members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom are not comfortable going public in the first place.  In addition to hesitancy coming forward, these victims are more likely to experience discrimination when they try to access services, something Phillis Lewis says she witnessed i 2011 when she was trying to help a victim in her role as a Victim Witness Coordinator in the District Attorney’s Office.

Lewis came in contact with a victim who was in a same sex relationship and needed help. Lewis referred her to an agency that she thought could cater to the victim’s needs. She later found out that instead of helping her through her traumatic experience, the agency focused on the victim’s sexuality.

“This was upsetting to me because DV is already under-reported in the LGBTQ community,” says Lewis, who now works at FSC. “I began doing research to see what the numbers were for reporting in Shelby County for DV in the LGBTQ community, and the numbers were extremely low. After speaking with friends within the LGBTQ community we came to the conclusion that victims did not want to be outed. When someone does come for help, it is our duty to help them without judgement.”

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In October 2017, Lewis joined FSC as a full-time Navigator/ LGBTQ liaison, due in part to feedback received in a series of focus groups, facilitated to explore the barriers that LGBTQ DV victims may face when seeking support. Key take-aways were that interactions with law enforcement can be harmful if officers allow their own biases to interfere with serving victims, including failing to use proper pronouns when addressing transgendered individuals. Participants also said that faith-based services sometimes focus more on a victim’s sexual orientation than the services needed at the time. Housing is also a challenge since there are restrictions about who is allowed in which shelters.

“FSC is committed to serving all victims of DV in our area. We work hard to be a welcoming and affirming community for all victims seeking support,” says Olliette Murry-Drobot, executive director of FSC. “After the focus groups, we took a long hard look at our operations, we took study recommendations to heart, and we began to look at areas for improvement. I feel we are having an impact on multiple levels and Phillis has been a great addition to the team.”

Lewis is sensitive to the unique challenges of LGBTQ victims who feel overlooked or remain in the shadows, and she has been instrumental in developing relevant programming at FSC such as the sensitivity training for local law enforcement which was a direct result of the focus groups. Most importantly, victims who come to FSC for help see her as a source of strength who provides support in a non-judgmental way.

“I was in a very bad place and I did not know what to do. All that’s behind me now,” says Deborah (not real name.) “Phillis let me know that it’s okay to not be okay and to seek out help…I was very alone. She gave me the resources I needed, told me where to go, and what to do,” says Deborah.

In addition to hiring a full-time staff member to serve as a liaison to the LGBTQ community, Murry-Drobot says the FSC is exploring ways to increase awareness about FSC services among area agencies that work with this segment of the community so they know to refer clients to FSC. Plans are also underway to develop peer support groups. Being able to provide various housing options has helped families with children as well as transgender victims.

In one of FSC’s more ambitious LGBTQ programming initiatives, Murry-Drobot and Lewis are conducting sensitivity training for local law enforcement thru the MPD training academy, and there are plans to provide training during roll-call sessions throughout Memphis/Shelby County on a weekly basis.

“We already work with law enforcement on a daily basis. They are great partners,” says Murry-Drobot. “Domestic violence units from MPD and Shelby County Sheriff’s office are located at our facility so in addition to working on specific cases, we collaborate to come up with creative ways to fix gaps in the system. That’s how we engage with all of our partners, together we can create a community where domestic violence survivors can thrive.”

In June, Murry-Drobot and Orisha Bowers, director of education and outreach at SisterReach, a FSC partner organization, will present their findings from the year-long LGBTQ study, including the focus groups, at the 2018 Saving Ourselves Symposium, in Birmingham, Alabama. Murry-Drobot hopes that by sharing the research, more advocates can better understand the barriers and factors impacting Black women who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender, and non-conforming people navigating domestic violence support services.

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