Abstract: "My Sister Is the One Who Made Me Stay Above Water": How Social Supports Are Maintained and Strained When Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Reside in Emergency Shelters (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

"My Sister Is the One Who Made Me Stay Above Water": How Social Supports Are Maintained and Strained When Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Reside in Emergency Shelters

Friday, January 18, 2019: 2:45 PM
Union Square 25 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Elisabeth Counselman-Carpenter, PhD, Assistant Professor, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, CT
Amanda Stylianou, PhD, Associate Vice President, Safe Horizons, New York, NY
Alex Redcay, PhD, Assistant Professor, Millersville University, Lancaster, PA

Survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) seek support from social networks to cope with and end the abuse (Jose & Novaco, 2015). Despite the importance of social support, social isolation is frequently reported by survivors (Katerndahl et al., 2013). For survivors residing in DV emergency shelters,  isolation from social supports is often exacerbated by shelter policies (Fisher & Stylianou, 2016). Gaining improved understanding of the informal supports utilized by survivors and ways in which those support networks are maintained and/or strained when residing in a DV emergency shelter, is an important step in assisting DV shelters to design and/or modify programming that supports survivors remain connected to family, friends, and community as lives are rebuilt.


This study utilized 20th century feminist framework to examine data collected from 76 semi-structured interviews with residents of six DV emergency shelters. A combination of conventional content analysis and summative content analysis were used  to both derive findings directly from the data and to understand quantifiable findings within the underlying context of the women’s narratives (Hsieh & Shannon, 2015). The average age of participants was 28.6 years. The majority of the participants identified as female (n = 75) and as straight/heterosexual (n = 68). All participants were individuals of color with 30 participants identifying as African American/Black, 31 participants as Hispanic/Latina, and 15 participants as Other. The majority of participants (n = 66) had minor children.


Forty participants identified family members, primarily siblings and mothers, and 14 participants identified friends as their social support. Almost half of participants described supportive individuals that reached out to check on them provided positive feedback and motivation. A quarter of the participants reported having no supports. Participants described ways in which their abusive partner controlled their involvement with friends/family and spoke to a history of strained family relationships. When telling their support network about their transition into a DV shelter, most reported receiving positive feedback. Seven participants reported receiving negative feedback in which family/friends felt shocked and expressed negative reactions. In describing the impact DV shelter residence, participants reported positive impacts including strengthened emotional relationships and improved physical and emotional resource provision and negative impacts such as the inability to receive visitors at the shelter, the distance between them and their friends/family, and strict rules around curfew and childcare. Finally, two-thirds of the participants highlighted the critical role of telephone calls/texts in maintaining their social support.


This study highlights the ways in which experiencing IPV  and DV shelter residence can strain survivors’ relationships with informal support networks.  The study equally highlights the resilience of survivors and their friends/family as well as the ways in which social support networks are maintained, at times strengthened, through the transition into DV shelter.  Special attention should focus on enhancing the role of virtual support such as phone calls and texts as a means of facilitating resilience. Organizations offering DV shelter can use these findings to inform program enhancement efforts aimed at minimizing barriers survivors face in maintaining their support networks.