Transforming Conflict: Promoting
Harmony and Healing in Shelter
Presented by
Beth Schnorr, Executive Director
Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs
Appleton, WI
Developed from the Audio Conference: Enhancing Advocacy Skills for Effective
Conflict Resolution in
Domestic Violence Shelter Programs
by Kenya Fairley, Program Manager, National Resource Center on DV
Lisa Fleming, Chief Operating Officer, Rose Brooks Center;
Loretta Baum, Counselor, Family Crisis Center, Inc. of Prince George’s County
Workshop Goals
• Increase understanding of the challenges
associated with communal living
• Explore different types of conflict
• Examine ways to measure the intensity and
impact of conflict within the shelter
• Explore ways to reduce, resolve, contain, and
regroup once conflict arises
Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of
Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences
• Captured the voices and experiences of over
3,400 shelter residents in 215 programs across
8 states (CT, FL, IL, MI, NM, OK, TN, WA)
• One section focused on the kinds of problems
encountered by the shelter residents and the
extent to which these problems were resolved
Challenges to Shelter Living
• Sudden change in family
• Attending to their
children’s reactions
• Living in close proximity
to other families
• Finding privacy
• Recovering from the crisis
that led them to seek
• Getting along with other
• Complying with shelter
Main Challenges Identified by Survivors
Resident Problems
% Encountered
% Resolved
Conflict with other
Time limits
Finding privacy
Child discipline
Conflict with Staff
Choices of food
Key Areas of Conflict
• Entering the Shelter
New Community or Neighborhood
Recovering from the effects of recent trauma/abuse
Differences in culture and lifestyle
Temporary nature of shelter living
Adjustment to communal living environment
• Settling in and adjustment to shelter living
 Time needed to understand and adjust to the shelter structure and
support system
 Constant transition of families in/out of the shelter
 Difficulty establishing and/or maintaining a routine
 Challenges in finding privacy
Key Areas of Conflict (continued)
• Issues related to children and parenting
Differences in parenting styles and expectations
Limited services to assist parents with the children
Prohibition of physical or corporal punishment
Varying responses/coping strategies of children exposed to dv
• Shelter rules and structure
 Some residents welcome structure while others experience it as
overly structured/restrictive
 Rules/Guidelines followed and enforced to varying degrees
 Residents responding in crisis mode
Impact of Domestic Violence
on Children
Impact of Abuse on Children
• Mental/Emotional Health
Heightened levels of anxiety
Difficulty distinguishing right from wrong
Sense of safety and security is compromised
Depression / helplessness / hopelessness
Fear of abandonment
Feeling burdened: adult roles/care for siblings
Guilt, shame, feelings of isolation
Resentment towards one or both parents
Impact of Abuse on Children (continued)
• Physical Health
 Physical injuries
 Bed wetting (episodic or regressive)
 Trouble sleeping (inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or
 Eating problems
 Somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches, body pains)
 Regression in development
 No reaction to pain at times
• Education and Academics
 Difficulty learning
 Lack of motivation to participate in activities or complete goals
 Compensation or overachieving behaviors
Impact of Abuse on Children (continued)
• Behavior
 Infants may adapt to violent, stressful conditions
 Aggressive behavior
 Run aways
 Self-injurious behaviors
 Poor response to parental authority
• Social/Interpersonal Relationships
 Inability to empathize with others
 Rigid stereotypes, perpetration of violence, and victimization
 Difficulty trusting
 May resist intimacy
 Poor conflict resolution skills
 Greater risk of being involved with dating violence
Batterer Impact: Parent-Child Relationship
• Direct/indirect interference with parenting
 Under duress, the victim-parent may not be able to
fully attend to the needs of the children
• Potential for child to absorb the batterer’s
disrespect/contempt for the victim-parent
 This can lead to distance in the parent-child
 Particularly prevalent in boys age 8 and older, and
in both sexes as teenagers
Batterer Impact: Parent-Child Rel.
• Child may exhibit violence towards the victimparent
 Reproduction of battering behavior
 Assumption of batterer’s role after separation
• Use of children as weapons while together and
after separation
 Deliberate endangerment; neglect/maltreatment to
pressure the victim-parent into reconciliation
 Threatening to take the children
 Use of children as vehicles for communication
Shelter Rules Reduction
and Elimination
How rules create conflict
• Purpose: to help ensure safety and wellbeing.
• Monitoring and enforcement vs. build a trusting,
respectful and equal relationship between staff and
• Role of monitor/enforcer strongly contradicts the
core values and philosophies of our advocacy
Reducing Shelter Rules
Where to Start:
 Identify and describe your agency’s mission,
vision, values and philosophies.
 Do current practices and rules support or
conflict with your core values and
Where to Start (continued)
Common Core Values and Beliefs:
 Safety and Respite from Violence and Control
 Empowerment
 Right to Self Determination
 Right to Accessible Services
Where to Start (continued)
• Implement as a Pilot Project.
 Try it out. If it doesn’t work you can change back
to the old practices.
• Establish new expectations for advocacy.
 Replace these monitoring functions with advocacy
that support your values and beliefs.
 Establish new procedures for dealing with
community living conflicts
 Focus on “What is a successful shelter stay?”
Project Results
• Fewer conflicts between
staff and residents
• Staff report better
rapport in the absence of
having to monitor and
enforce rules.
• Lessens the power and
control staff have over
• Fewer (or no) problems
with chores, persons using
drugs/alcohol, children’s
bedtimes, etc.
• Increase in positive results
from resident satisfaction
• Average length of stay
increased from 28 to 43
What is Conflict in the
Shelter Setting?
Characteristics of Conflict
• Conflict within the shelter setting cannot be avoided
• Differing perceptions of need and how to get them met
• Within the shelter setting, conflict may exist whether all parties
are aware of it or not; the conflict escalates at the time that other
parties become aware of its existence
• When managed well, conflict can be a very valuable teaching
tool; when managed poorly, conflict can become distracting,
disruptive, and destructive within the shelter environment
Desired Outcomes of Conflict Resolution
 Enhanced and more meaningful survivor/advocate relationship
 De-escalation of any additional or related tension or conflict
 Increased understanding of shelter/agency services, opportunities,
and limitations
 Improved decision-making skills and increased understanding of
how those decisions are made
 Resolutions that will satisfy the needs and remove the disruption
from the shelter environment
Desired Outcomes (continued)
 A change in survivor and advocate behavior that will reduce future
conflict and enhance provision of services
 Reduction in tension/stress and better coping skills on the part of
the survivor and advocate
 Increased opportunities for success on the part of the survivor and
advocate to meet established goals
 Greater empowerment on the part of the survivor to continue
working towards safety, independence, and self-sufficiency
 Greater cohesiveness amongst the shelter residents and staff to
maintain a stable shelter environment
Guidelines to resolving conflict situations
• Respond in a timely manner in the best scenario possible
• Prior to meeting with a resident(s) to discuss the conflict,
process the situation with your supervisor or a colleague
• It is best to plan ahead and determine which staff member
is best suited to address the conflict
• If possible, have a 2nd staff member sit-in on the
discussion, determine their role and level of participation
in advance
Guidelines (continued)
• Do not address the conflict situation until staff are able to
remain calm and not take the resident(s) response
personally, even if being verbally attacked or physically
 Anger on the part of the survivor may be a very real and valid
response to life and/or shelter stressors
 Allow survivor’s to express their feelings, help them process
through it, re-direct their energy towards a more positive solution
 Rarely is the conflict about you as an individual; remember that
conflict arises out of differing needs
 In times of crisis, people may sometimes behave in ways that they
would not otherwise when they are safe and have their needs met.
Handling the Discussion
Human Resources, Univ. of California, Berkley
• Acknowledge that a difficult situation exists.
• Seek to understand
• Let individuals express their feelings.
• Define the problem. Determine the underlying need.
• Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small.
Agree on the problem
Agree on the procedure to follow
Agree on worst fears
Agree on some small change to give an experience of success
Handling the Discussion (continued)
Human Resources, Univ. of California, Berkley
• Find solutions to satisfy needs.
 Problem-solve by generating multiple alternatives.
 Determine which actions will be taken.
 Make sure involved parties buy into actions.
• Determine follow-up you will take to monitor actions.
• Determine what you’ll do if the conflict goes unresolved.
Scenario 1
• Aisha requested a meeting with shelter staff to discuss Helen’s child
Amy. On several occasions, Amy has burst into Aisha’s room without
permission and on one occasion, Aisha came into the shelter from
work and found Amy playing in her room with Aisha’s son’s toys.
• Each time, Aisha has tried to resolve this matter with Helen, who has
talked to her daughter Amy about boundaries and personal space.
Unfortunately, Amy just yells at Helen or runs away and continues to
do what she wants. Now, Aisha’s son’s Nintendo DS is missing and
she believes that Amy has taken it.
• Helen and Amy are headed out of the shelter to run errands and as
Aisha is waiting for staff to talk to her, she decides to confront Helen
in case they are leaving with the missing Nintendo DS.
Questions to be explored
• Should staff intervene or allow the confrontation to play itself out?
Why or why not?
• How might this conflict, and the details involved, impact the shelter
• Based on each families’ history of domestic violence, how should
shelter staff work with each mother to resolve the conflict? How do
they work with the children?
• What recourse does Aisha have in this scenario?
• What are the implications for the rules at the shelter regarding resident
interaction, monitoring of children, theft, and privacy?
Scenario 2
• Suki has been in the shelter for 3 months now, awaiting a final
confirmation of her move-in date for transitional housing (it’s been
rescheduled twice at this point).
• She’s become increasingly frustrated with the slow response from the
Housing Authority, and with the rules of the shelter which she finds to
be very limiting and too strict. On a few occasions she’s been written
up for not having her daughter in school during the weekday.
• This morning, Suki’s frustrations boiled over and she screamed at the
Shelter Director and made physically threatening gestures. Several
residents saw this happen and now Suki has stormed out of the shelter.
Questions to be explored
• How do you respond to the residents who have witnessed this entire
• What will be the staff response to Suki when she returns to the shelter?
• What are the implications for your continued service provision to Suki
and her daughter?
• How might Suki’s past experiences with domestic violence and at the
shelter, including past conflicts with staff, contribute to this situation?
• What role might shelter rules, program or funding goals, and advocacy
philosophy play in this situation?
Scenario 3
• Recently, Kelly, the overnight weekend staff at the shelter, was out
sick for a few days. Staff who filled in for her reported that a few
women came in past curfew and two of them appeared inebriated.
They made lots of noise and disturbed several of the children who had
already been put to bed.
• When confronted by relief staff, the residents said that Kelly lets them
come in when they want to because it’s the weekend and she believes
they need more freedom in the shelter.
• To date, as the Shelter Director, you’ve received no reports that
residents in the shelter have come in past curfew or been suspected of
drinking alcohol, however you are aware that one of the women that
came in late has a history of substance abuse.
Questions to be explored
• As Kelly’s supervisor, how do you manage this situation
upon her return?
• How do you respond to the residents that have been
“breaking shelter rules” with the permission of shelter
• Noting the past experiences of each of the women that
came in past curfew, including victimization, shelter
living, and various interactions with staff, how might those
experiences have contributed to this situation?
Scenario 4
Judy arrived at the shelter late last night and needs court accompaniment
for a Protective Order hearing this morning. Her case is quite severe and
involves use of strangulation, weapons, and threats to kill her by her
partner who is a law enforcement officer.
Prior to July’s arrival, another resident, Donna requested transportation
accompaniment to her appointment for transitional housing; she’s new to
the area and very nervous about her interview. At this time, there’s only
one staff member (the Case Manager) who’s available to go to one of the
Questions to be explored
• Which appointment should the Case Manager attend?
• What other resources/options might be offered to the
resident who will not be accompanied by the Case
• How will that message be delivered?
• What are the implications for staff relationships with these
• What role might agency policies, program or funding
goals, and advocacy philosophy play in this situation?
Questions to be explored (continued)
• What role might agency policy, shelter rules, and advocacy
philosophy play in this situation?
• What are the implications for staff relationships with
residents in the shelter? Consider those that were involved
and those that were not.
• How do you raise and discuss these issues at your next
staff meeting? Consider whether there are factors that
make exceptions to the rules necessary. Who should be
making that judgment and on what basis?
Reference Materials
For related materials, research, and resources, visit VAWnet:
the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against
Women at or use the links below.
• Conflict Resolution Tools for Domestic Violence Shelter
• Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of
Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences

Transforming Conflict: Promoting Harmony and Healing in Shelter