State Letter 14-07

Domestic Violence Awareness: Opportunities for Prevention and Action

Publication Date: October 27, 2014


FROM: Eskinder Negash, Director
            Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families,
            U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

            Marylouise Kelley, PhD., Director
            Family Violence Prevention & Services Program
            Family & Youth Services Bureau, Administration for Children and Families
            U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

SUBJECT: Domestic Violence1 Awareness: Opportunities for Prevention and Action

ATTACHMENTS: Letter from ACF Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg
                             Resources Addendum

The purpose of this State Letter is to provide Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) grantees and the refugee resettlement network, as well as any interested partners or shared services agencies, with information about domestic violence training, resources, and partners because every agency has an important role in helping individuals and families struggling with domestic violence. This letter is a joint effort between ORR and the Family and Youth Services Bureau, Family Violence Prevention and Services Program (FVPSA), which is celebrating 30 years as the primary federal stream for domestic violence shelters, supportive services, and the national domestic violence hotline (1-800-799-7233, with access to more than 170 languages through telephonic interpreter services).

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month which is recognized by advocates, service providers, and communities all across the United States (U.S.). We invite you to stand with concerned citizens, service providers, and domestic violence survivors to inform your agency’s employees and partners about what they can do to end and prevent domestic violence, and increase the capacity to:

  • Recognize the impact of domestic violence on the populations we serve;
  • Respond effectively with trauma-informed strategies; and
  • Safely link impacted individuals to domestic violence services.

Unfortunately, 1 in 4 women have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, while 1 in 7 men have experienced the same (e.g., hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something) at some point in their lifetime.2  Federal programs, such as those within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its Administration for Children and Families (ACF), help provide critical supports including efforts to eliminate poverty and health disparities, increase access to quality health care and social services, increase economic self-sufficiency of individuals and families, and revitalize communities—all of which are directly related to the prevention and reduction of domestic violence. Here are some key facts:

  • Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families.3
  • 47% of homeless school-aged children and 29% of homeless children under five have witnessed domestic violence in their families.4
  • Many adults first experience violence as children. Millions of children and adolescents are exposed to violence in their homes, schools, and communities, as both victims and witnesses, each year.5
  • Women and men who experienced food and housing insecurity in the past 12 months reported a significantly higher 12-month prevalence of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner compared to women and men who did not experience food and housing insecurity.6

Domestic Violence within Immigrant7 and Refugee Populations
Refugees8 are strong survivors whose perseverance helped them overcome obstacles on their journey to the U.S. Along their journey, refugees often experience the denial of basic rights, interruptions to work and education, loss of support networks, separation from their families, and multiple displacements. Although highly resilient and resourceful, many also face additional challenges while adjusting to the U.S., such as learning English, a new culture, social norms, and systems (i.e. financial, transportation, health, human services, child care, education, food, legal, etc.).

Domestic violence may be perceived differently due to different sociocultural views and legal practices in the country of origin. As new members of U.S. society, refugees can benefit from access to culturally and linguistically competent systems—particularly as they reconcile their traditional values and gender norms with those of their new communities. Due to this transition, refugees may lack information about social resources and the legal system to secure assistance once they resettle in the U.S.9   

There is limited available data on domestic violence among immigrant and refugee populations. Based on this limited data, it appears to “probably [be] less prevalent among immigrant and refugee population groups compared to other groups.”10Yet it does exist among immigrant and refugee groups and there are several factors that can complicate a victim seeking or obtaining help. In addition to the cultural and linguistic barriers and lack of familiarity with systems in the U.S., other contributing factors can include: fear of reporting violence to the authorities due to insensitivity, hostility, and/or discrimination (plus, lack of trust with government and police due to previous persecution can add to this fear); in some cases, an abuser may threaten and intimidate a domestic violence victim with threats of deportation (whether it’s a non-U.S. citizen victim who lacks lawful immigration status, or a non-U.S. citizen victim with lawful immigration status such as refugees/asylees).11

In addition, sexual and gender minorities such as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) refugees and asylees may face an increased risk of domestic violence and abuse due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. For example, “sexual orientation is often a hidden factor in [domestic] violence, particularly against women and girls.”12 LGBT refugees “can face isolation or be completely disowned by family” and “face great pressure from their families to ‘change,’” which can add greater impact, particularly for lesbians in cultures in which marriages are typically arranged.13

Another critical intersection can occur between domestic violence and human trafficking. Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence may make some individuals vulnerable to recruitment by human traffickers; or victims may experience domestic violence at the hand of their trafficker who is also their intimate partner, or who the trafficking victim believes is their partner due to coercion.

There are steps that ORR resettlement programs and partners or shared services agencies can take today to support refugees and their families who may be impacted by domestic violence. Programs and agencies serving refugees should provide culturally and linguistically targeted information to refugees about domestic violence, as well as appropriate referrals to services and supports [see Resources Addendum]. In order to facilitate referrals, programs should establish partnerships with culturally competent domestic violence providers. It is especially important to identify culturally and linguistically competent providers given the heightened sense of isolation felt by domestic violence survivors from refugee backgrounds who may struggle with linguistic and cultural barriers. Orientations may be important venues for sharing this information.  

Refugees may face multiple levels of trauma as a result of their difficult journey which often includes flight from conflict and persecution, and for some, facing long-term challenging conditions in refugee camps, as well as coping with resettlement in the U.S. Service providers involved in the initial screening and resettlement of newly arrived refugees need to be aware of traumatic stress indicators (e.g. hyper-vigilance, re-experiencing events, and avoidance) as well as potential sources of traumatic stress, including domestic violence, in order to make appropriate referrals.  In addressing domestic violence, programs serving refugees should strive for a holistic approach with trauma-informed strategies that are culturally sensitive, particularly as they explore revisiting gender norms and concepts of domestic partnerships and marriage, with attention to the values of safety and security in the home. Victims may suffer strong pressure to maintain a positive image in their community and remain silent about abuse.14 Programs can also encourage rethinking of the role of corporal punishment in general to bring change in norms regarding discipline and conflict resolution within the family.

In addition, resettlement programs and partners or shared service agencies should refer to LGBT resources and sensitization training on sexual orientation and gender identity in order to help LGBT refugees “manage and preserve family and interpersonal relationships while adapting to their sexual orientation or gender identity in a new culture.”15 [see Resources Addendum]. Data are not currently available on the number of refugees or asylees entering the U.S. who identify as LGBT. Concerns regarding disclosure of LGBT status may be especially high among refugees and asylees who have faced or feared facing persecution in their countries of origin due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.16

Some victims of human trafficking may seek services through domestic violence shelters and programs.  Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with trafficking victims may find temporary shelter for them at domestic violence shelters. Resettlement programs should be aware of this in case they receive referrals from domestic violence shelters for foreign victims of human trafficking.

Learn More about Domestic Violence Resources and Connect Victims to Services
Health and human services agencies can help increase awareness by ensuring that every staff person visits an online domestic violence resource center, and/or participates in domestic violence training, or an awareness event.  Programs providing services should make every effort to assist individuals, families and children who are experiencing domestic violence by sharing national, state and local hotline numbers for local domestic violence intervention programs, either directly or by posting them in public spaces that are frequented by staff and families.  ORR State Refugee Coordinators are encouraged to share this information with ORR service providers and ORR programs, for example, by distributing key resources with agencies so that they may share them with their provider networks [see Resources Addendum].  Knowing who to call when a safety plan is needed is crucial in reducing the fear and isolation felt by families impacted by domestic violence.

There is a national network of organizations that address the impact of domestic violence and dating violence within specific issue areas such as health, mental health, substance abuse, child protection, and legal services, as well as a national network that implements culturally relevant trauma-informed services for ethnic and racially specific communities.  The organizations in these networks help to increase access to services through training and technical assistance; produce tools for advocates and practitioners; and conduct research. They also partner with agencies to increase their overall capacity to support individuals and families impacted by domestic violence. Those focusing on culturally-specific resources strengthen partnerships between culturally specific organizations and main stream service providers, including statewide service implementation and language access planning [see Resources Addendum]. 

In addition, FVPSA funds a Domestic Violence Coalition in each State, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. These Coalitions are connected to more than 2,000 local domestic violence programs receiving FVPSA funding across the country.  Every Coalition provides comprehensive training and technical assistance on a multitude of social, legal, and economic issues that affect victims’ safety and well-being. The Coalitions partner with government, private industry, non-profit and faith-based communities, and other stakeholders to effectively coordinate and improve the safety-net of services available to victims and their dependents. [see Resources Addendum].   

Partner with Community-Based Domestic Violence Programs
Domestic Violence Awareness Month provides a great time for programs to develop or reinvest in community partnerships with domestic violence service providers who have expertise in helping victims of domestic violence. Investing in meaningful training and technical assistance partnerships is critical to supporting refugees and their families who are accessing ORR services or those of partner agencies. Domestic violence coalitions, local domestic violence shelter programs, and culturally-specific community-based organizations are integral components of any coordinated health care and social service response to domestic violence.  We encourage you to establish meaningful partnerships with domestic violence coalitions for training, removing service barriers, implementing domestic violence assessment, establishing referral protocols with local domestic violence programs, and including discussions on domestic violence at upcoming conferences.

To meet the needs of adults and children experiencing domestic violence, ORR programs and shared services agencies can partner with organizations such as state domestic violence coalitions, local domestic violence and sexual assault service programs, shelter programs, transitional and long-term housing assistance providers, and/or batterers’ intervention programs. These providers may offer direct services to individuals, families and children or important in-service trainings that could be developed specifically to address how domestic violence impacts refugee individuals and/or families.

We all know that collective action is needed to ensure appropriate responses and support for all populations and families experiencing domestic violence. It is important for all health and human services programs to partner with individuals, families, and communities to end domestic violence.  This October offers opportunities to build on HHS’ 30-year legacy of partnering with communities to address domestic violence through the implementation of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act.  It also presents opportunities for stronger partnerships focused on building futures without violence for the thousands of families we serve every day.  Please visit the Resources Addendum at the end of this document for a list of potential partners, key resources, and programs for your reference.

Thank you for your dedication and commitment to supporting all children and families.

Please direct any questions on this State Letter to:

Office of Refugee Resettlement, Division of Refugee Health, telephone: (202) 401-9246.


1 Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone. Source: US Department of Justice, Visit disclaimer page
2 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness, U.S. Conference of Mayors (2012).
3 Ibid.
4 Homeless in America: A Children’s Story, Part One Homes for the Homeless & Institute for Children and Poverty, 23 (1999).
5 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (October 2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6 Breiding, M. J., Chen, J., & Black, M. C. (2014). Intimate partner violence in the United States – 2010. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
7 For purposes of this document, “immigrant” refers to foreign-born and newly arriving populations.
8 For purposes of this document, “refugee” includes the following populations: Asylees; Cuban-Haitian Entrants; Certified (foreign) Victims of Human Trafficking; Certain Amerasians from Vietnam; and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders from Iraq and Afghanistan.
9 Muftić, L. R., & Bouffard, L. A. (2008). Bosnian women and intimate partner violence: Differences in experiences and attitudes for refugee and nonrefugee women. Feminist Criminology, 3(3), 173-190.
10 This paragraph refers to the Executive Summary of: Runner, M., Yoshihama, M., & Novick, S. (2009, March). Intimate partner violence in immigrant and refugee communities: Challenges, promising practices and recommendations. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Futures Without Violence.
11 Ibid.
12 Heartland Alliance Rainbow Welcome Initiative: An Assessment and recommendations on LGBT refugee resettlement in the United States, 20-21.
13 Ibid.
14 Runner, M., Yoshihama, M., & Novick, S. (2009, March). Intimate partner violence in immigrant and refugee communities: Challenges, promising practices and recommendations. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Futures Without Violence.
15 Heartland Alliance Rainbow Welcome Initiative: An Assessment and recommendations on LGBT refugee resettlement in the United States, 20-21.
16 Ibid.

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