Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Shelter Rules Toolkit

Toolkit LogoToolkits are where you can find all of WSCADV’s resources about a particular topic in one place. This toolkit focuses on Rethinking Shelter Rules

We know that abusers often impose many rules on their partners, and that a primary harm of domestic violence is being robbed of one’s autonomy. We want to create environments where survivors can reclaim their autonomy, and feel secure without excessive rules and punitive systems that echo the abuser’s rules.

How to do this? Start by viewing this video that illustrates how domestic violence abusers impose rules on their intimate partners.

Then, ask yourself the questions below about your program’s rules and find out how other programs have made minimal rules work.

Finally, Dig Deeper with articles written by advocates, and exploring our Building Dignity website, which focuses on design solutions to help minimize rules and maximize autonomy, security and advocacy.

Questions to Ask Yourself About Program Rules

  1. Does this rule mirror the abuser’s control?
  2. What problem are we trying to solve with this rule? Is this the least burdensome way to address this issue?
  3. Is this rule consistent with our mission and core values regarding our shelter work?
  4. Does this rule shut down opportunities for conversation or safety planning with residents? Would it be better to invite conversation about the issue rather than threaten consequences? (For example, forbidding residents from contacting their batterer does not stop them from contacting their batterer, but it does stop them from benefitting from conversation and safety planning before doing so, and debriefing afterwards. Is that our goal?)
  5. Are we asking/requiring residents to make up for a shortcoming in our building, funding or staff? Is there a way the organization can take responsibility for making things go well rather than putting that burden on residents?

See the rest of the questions (click here)

What makes minimal rules work?

  1. Survivor centered advocacy and conversation are valued over rule enforcement. Staff seeks to create conversations rather than impose consequences
  2. Rules have a clear connection to agency’s mission and core values
  3. The program makes time for routine reflection and reevaluation
  4. Whenever possible, the program seeks to create a physical environment that is trauma sensitive, minimizes conflicts and makes it easy for residents to succeed. (For more in-depth thinking on this topic, check out buildingdignity.wscadv.org)
  5. A healthy work environment exists
  6. Broad expertise is available through strong collaborations and a diverse staff
  7. Clear, respectful, trauma-sensitive communications with residents
  8. See more about what makes minimal rules work here

    Dig Deeper

    Battered Women's Shelters: Reflections Linda Olsen, former Executive Director of Eastside Domestic Violence Program, reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of shelter as a model for helping women abused by their intimate partners, and raises the possibility of re-envisioning our work.

    Changing the Script: Thinking about our Relationships with Shelter Residents This article challenges advocates to consider what "script" they bring into their interactions with shelter residents (Parent? Coach? Drill seargent?) and challenges them to change the script to one that is mutually respectful and encourages teamwork.

    How We Gave up Curfew A program director reflects on how her program's staff worked to pare down the shelter rules, rethinking what was necessary and reexamining their own investment in particular rules.

    Moving from Rules to Rights and Responsibilities One of the most engaging articles written on shelter rules, the author of this paper tells an inspiring tale. Molly Curren takes the reader through Hickman House's journey from over-regulation to embracing a common sense and value driven process for deciding what rules their program wants.

    Rethinking Punitive Approaches to Shelter Writing from the position of both a survivor and shelter manager, Deb Adams discusses the ongoing challenge of keeping shelter rules minimally oppressive and maximally respectful.

    Critical Questions to ask about rules Questions to ask about program rules, new and old and proposed, and some recommendations about shelter rules, warning and exit policies.

    Making minimal rules work checklist What conditions make minimal rules work? It involves more than just copying a new set of rules. Look here to find out more about what else is necessary to make minimal rules work well.

    Minimizing Rules by Building Dignity It's easier to control physical spaces than people. This website explores ideas for creating physical environments that are supportive, reduce the need for rules, and are consistent with our missions and values.

    How the Earth Did Not Fly Into The Sun: Missouri’s Project to Reduce Rules in Shelter This wonderful resource relates how several Missouri shelters worked to reevaluate and reduce their reliance on rules. Thoughtful discussion of trauma informed services, the challenges of running a shelter, and the practicalities of making minimal rules work.

    Rule-Making and Enforcement, the Violent and Controlling Tactics of Men Who Batter, and Rule-Compliance and Resistance, the Response of Battered Women, By Barbara Hart A classic article on abusers using rulemaking as part of their abuse; this is an important theoretical backdrop to any conversation about shelter rules.