Skip to main content

School of Social Work Faculty Lead Evaluation of State’s Co-located Services for Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence

by Jordan Wingate

This article originally appeared in the School of Social Work 2024 Spring Impact Report.

Family justice centers (FJCs) — a type of co-located service center in which providers from different sectors and agencies come together under one roof to support clients, including survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual violence (IPV/SV) — are proliferating in the United States and internationally.

But the complexity of this service model and the sensitivity of client experiences has left a key question unanswered: what makes these models work?

Now, funded by the National Institute of Justice ($539,232), an evaluation team led by two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work faculty members is drawing on IPV/SV population expertise and implementation science to help answer this question.

Co-located service models like FJCs are founded on the assumption that placing services together makes it easier for providers to collaborate, allows clients (who are often experiencing acute crises) to efficiently access services, and promotes positive client outcomes. A survivor of IPV/SV, for instance, could access domestic violence services, court services and law enforcement in a single visit — and, crucially, would only have to recount their traumatic story one time.

“The model makes a lot of sense on paper,” said Associate Professor Cindy Fraga Rizo (M-PI), who is co-leading the study with her colleague, Research Associate Professor Tonya Van Denise (M-PI). Yet she noted that the limited evaluations of these models can cause challenges for funders who want to implement these resource-intensive models in strategic ways that improve their success and sustainability. “The evidence base hasn’t really caught up.”

There’s a reason for the lack of research evaluating co-located service models for IPV/SV survivors: it’s extremely difficult to do.

Because clients can be served by different combinations of agencies at different centers, it’s challenging to isolate which services are benefiting which clients. Though co-located, the agency partners within a center can also have distinct data gathering and privacy protocols, limiting their ability to share data with each other or researchers. Further, IPV/SV survivors seeking services often have trauma and immediate needs that make it difficult to participate in research focused on their experiences.

“Clients are coming to the centers in a time of crisis,” Van Deinse said. “All our data collection needs to be trauma-informed to respect clients’ needs and contexts.”

To meet these challenges, Rizo and Van Deinse have built relationships with FJCs and other co-located service providers to learn about FJCs’ core programming and their goals for evaluating their services — a process that began as a series of road trips taking them to service sites hundreds of miles across the state.

Since then, beyond conducting a systematic review of co-located services for IPV/SV survivors, their team convened a summit of FJC stakeholders and established a quarterly workgroup for researchers and FJC staff to share resources and ideas for evaluating their impact on clients. These partnerships are not only building a network among the state’s FJCs; they also provided the research team with essential information about providers’ goals and ideas for conducting these evaluations.

Following this community-engaged groundwork, Rizo and Van Deinse’s team are now piloting a trauma-informed data collection process that invites FJC clients to enroll in a study and, if they consent, choose to provide data on their own or with the researcher and the data collection format (e.g., online, over the phone, paper copy). The 41 people they’ve enrolled in this process so far provide initial evidence that their research methods work: that it is possible to evaluate co-located service centers in ways that are sensitive to IPV/SV survivors’ experiences.

Building on to this important finding, this team is using implementation science methods that will offer a road map for identifying and measuring core components of the co-located service model and developing a process for measuring model fidelity (meaning whether the program was implemented as intended) that allows for necessary tailoring and adaptation to the local context.

“Complex and co-located models are used in lots of sectors,” Van Deinse said. “And I think what we learn in this study will be applicable in other areas, too.”

This process provides their partners with tools to gather and evaluate data that can help them make decisions about their service model and secure funding by providing evidence of the impact of their services on client outcomes.

“People working within FJCs believe that they work because we’re seeing and feeling the differences,” noted Beth McCollum, manager of a partnering FJC in North Carolina’s Guilford County. “But feelings don’t lead to funding decisions.”

Rizo sees the project’s potential benefits as the direct result of service providers’ continued input and engagement and clients’ willingness to discuss their own sensitive information to help improve services for all.

“This project could not have happened without the partners and clients who trusted us,” she said.

To read more articles in the School of Social Work 2024 Spring Impact Report, click here.