The blog of the Urban Institute
October 8, 2019

How Tackling “Polyvictimization” in Queens Helped Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

A young child is a victim of sexual abuse by a trusted adult. When that child grows up, she experiences intimate partner violence. All the while, she’s living in a neighborhood plagued by community violence.

The harms of polyvictimization—experiencing multiple types of victimization—surpass those of any one victimization experience and can lead to damaging outcomes such as trauma symptoms, behavioral changes, or physical health problems. What strategies can service providers use to address these consequences and help their clients heal?

Helping service providers meet polyvictims’ unique needs

The Office for Victims of Crime recently funded a six-site Polyvictimization Demonstration Initiative to improve Family Justice Centers’ capacity to identify and serve polyvictim clients. The initiative, coordinated by the Alliance for Hope International with researchers from the University of Oklahoma, developed a polyvictimization assessment tool and supported trauma-informed changes to service provision at each site.

Urban Institute researchers served as local evaluators for the Queens Family Justice Center (QFJC), a multiagency center serving victims of gender-based violence in Queens, New York.

At the QFJC, partner agencies implemented the polyvictimization assessment tool, developed a short-form polyvictimization screening tool, held trauma-informed trainings, and hired specialists to train staff and work with polyvictims (we describe the development of these tools and implementation of these changes in our new report.)

Here’s what we learned about how the initiative affected client services at the QFJC:

  • Screening for polyvictimization helped staff better understand clients’ experiences and identify needed services. Many QFJC clients arrive seeking particular services for specific and recent experiences, like an episode of intimate partner violence. Asking clients directly about other types of victimization experiences from earlier in their lives helped staff better understand their full set of needs and identify additional service offerings.
  • The screening and assessment process helped staff educate clients about polyvictimization. Psychoeducation, an evidence-based approach to help clients cope with their symptoms and feel empowered, encourages clients to understand their conditions and treatments. Through this work, staff talked to clients about their victimization experiences and explained the concept of polyvictimization. Frontline staff told us clients felt a sense of comfort from understanding they were not alone in their experiences of repeat and multiple victimizations.

She said it was a relief for her. She was like, throughout my life, I didn’t know there was a word—‘polyvictimization’—for it …. She could maybe put a name to her situation. It hadn’t just been one incident, it had been multiple incidents.

—QFJC partner agency staff

  • The screening tool facilitated information sharing among partner agencies. Even though their relationships were strong before the initiative, sharing screening tools improved communication among partner agencies. Not only did this give all service providers a fuller picture of victims’ experiences, it also minimized the need for victims to repeat their stories and potentially relive their trauma.
  • The infusion of additional resources allowed polyvictim clients to receive more frequent - and more intensive—services. Resources from the Polyvictimization Demonstration Initiative allowed QFJC partner agencies to hire staff to enhance services: a polyvictimization specialist to train staff to serve high-needs, traumatized clients; two intensive case managers to provide consistent, long-term case management; and a mental health clinician. Clients who engaged with these staff returned for about five service visits, while typical, noninitiative clients made fewer than two visits.
  • Despite these improvements, providing comprehensive services to all who needed them remained challenging. Asking sensitive questions about past victimization experiences could upset or retraumatize some clients, and although all staff received training on trauma-informed service delivery, some staff without clinical backgrounds felt unprepared to respond to trauma triggered by the screening and assessment processes. Additionally, because of resource and capacity constraints, additional services were limited to polyvictims with the highest needs. And the QFJC uses an evidence-supported, client-centered practice model (PDF), which stipulates that clients choose whether to participate in services—and some chose not to.

It’s up to the client. A lot of them really need counseling, but some decline it because it’s not a priority for them—they need housing and legal services.

—QFJC staff member

Lessons learned from the QFJC’s experiences

Having additional specialized staff supported by the initiative, asking clients about a range of victimization experiences, and sharing information about these experiences with partner agencies led to improved and expanded services for the QFJC’s polyvictim clients—ultimately better meeting their needs and improving their long-term well-being. These findings can inform strategies for other service providers and ensure that more people with multiple victimization experiences get the help they want and need.

It’s an important step to understand all the experiences that are happening in people’s lives…. Maybe having more information about people’s experiences can help us better reflect on what services we need to provide.

—QFJC partner agency staff

Illustration by solarseven via Gettyimages.

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