DV Programs Help Survivors: The DV Evidence Project and Theory of Change

By Cris M. Sullivan, PhD, Director of Michigan State University’s Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence, and Anne Menard, CEO, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence


Increasingly, domestic violence (DV) victim advocacy programs are being asked by funders and policy makers to describe not just whether and how their services are “evidence-based,” but what theory of change guides their work. In order to help DV programs respond to both of these demands, the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) has created an online resource center that houses a great deal of free and accessible resources.

Among other things, The DV Evidence Project houses a theory of change that programs can use to demonstrate the process through which their services result in long-term benefits for survivors and their children. A theory of change is an empirically justified explanation of how and why one expects a desired change to occur. It involves identifying the desired long-term goals (i.e., what are we hoping to accomplish?), and then working backwards to identify how to achieve measurable outcomes tied to the goals (i.e., how do we get there?). DV programs engage in a wide range of activities designed to have a positive impact on the safety and well-being of both survivors and their children. In addition to helping survivors protect themselves and their children from current and future abuse, programs also work to increase survivors’ sense of self-efficacy as well as their hope for the future, and directly increase their access to community resources, opportunities, and supports (including social support). Staff recognize that well-being is not independent from community-level factors, and—in addition to their work with individual survivors—they engage in a variety of efforts to create communities that hold offenders accountable, promote justice and survivor safety, and provide adequate resources and opportunities for all community members. They accomplish these objectives through system-level advocacy efforts, prevention activities, community education activities, and collaborative community actions.

This theory of change was created in 2012 in collaboration with numerous experts, including practitioners, advocates, survivors, funders, researchers, and policy makers, and then it was updated in 2016. The theory first notes that the long-term goal of domestic violence programs is to enhance survivors’ and their children’s well-being. There is ample empirical evidence demonstrating that (a) self-efficacy; (b) hopefulness; (c) social connectedness; (d) safety; (e) having adequate social and economic opportunities; (f) economic stability; (g) enhanced justice; and (h) good physical, emotional, and spiritual health have an impact on social and emotional well-being. DV programs are invested in influencing these eight factors for survivors and their children through efforts targeting multiple levels of change.

While the type of direct services offered by DV agencies may differ (e.g., advocacy, shelter, counseling, transitional housing, supervised visitation, children’s programs, support groups), they share a number of common elements (e.g., providing new knowledge, safety planning, skill building). The following eight components are recommended as mechanisms for achieving the social and emotional well-being of domestic violence survivors and their children:

  1. Providing information about their rights, options and experiences
  2. Safety planning
  3. Building skills
  4. Offering encouragement, empathy, and respect
  5. Supportive counseling
  6. Increasing access to community resources and opportunities
  7. Increasing social support and community connections, and
  8. Community change and systems change work.

The DV Evidence Project site provides brief summaries of the research and evidence behind shelters, advocacy, support groups and counseling, demonstrating that programs are engaged in “evidence-based practice”. Finally, evaluation tools are provided so that programs don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  These evaluation tools include client surveys, tips for engaging staff in evaluation, strategies for gathering the data in sensitive ways, and protocols for interpreting and using the findings. All of these resources are available at no cost, and we hope they are helpful to those in the field doing this incredibly important work.

anne-mendardAnne Menard is an activist who has worked on policy, practice and research issues affecting domestic violence and sexual assault survivors since the mid-70s. Her particular focus has been on survivor-defined advocacy and public policy and research affecting women and their families,especially those living in poverty. After serving as a senior consultant to the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services during 2005, she returned as CEO of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV), a position she previously held from 1994-99. Prior to this national level work, Ms. Menard led the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence for over six years, and, in the early 1980s, co-directed Connecticut’s largest domestic violence shelter and was actively involved in grassroots
sexual assault advocacy.
Anne Menard
CEO, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
3605 Vartan Way, Suite 101
Harrisburg, PA 17110
800-537-2238 x 121
(cell:  717-386-5309)
sullivanCris M. Sullivan is the Director of the Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence and Professor of Ecological/Community Psychology at Michigan State University (MSU). In addition to her MSU appointments, Dr. Sullivan was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to chair the Michigan Domestic & Sexual Violence Prevention & Treatment Board, and she is Senior Research Advisor to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.  Dr. Sullivan is internationally recognized for her expertise in evaluating domestic violence and sexual assault programs. Her reputation led the Family Violence Prevention & Services Administration (FVPSA)to enlist her help in 2006 in creating two outcomes that are now used by all FVPSA grantees across the county. In 2012, she developed a Theory of Change describing the process through which domestic violence programs improve the lives of survivors and their children (http://www.dvevidenceproject.org), and this model has been enthusiastically adopted nationally.She has written evaluation manuals for programs and provides trainings on this topic that are well-received, and her work is highly regarded by policy makers, academics and advocates.
Cris M. Sullivan, PhD
Director, MSU Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence
Professor, Ecological/Community Psychology
130 Psychology Bldg., 316 Physics Rd.Michigan State University
E. Lansing, MI  48824-1116
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