Women and girls must feel welcome and safe when they arrive at a shelter facility or designated safe accommodation space. The early stage of their experience in a shelter is generally a time of reflection for those escaping abuse, during which they may be processing and working to overcome the early effects their experience with violence. They require time to get comfortable with the shelter environment, consider their various needs and concerns, and begin making decisions about next steps. The length of this reflection period varies from woman to woman, and may range from a few hours to several days, or even weeks (WAVE, 2004 a,b).
During this time, women will generally decide whether they will remain in the shelter, go to another location (e.g. a hotel, stay with friends), or return to their home environment. The practices of shelter staff and procedures for receiving women can influence their decisions and must be supportive and empowering. It is important that shelter staff facilitate a sense of safety and begin the development of a trusting relationship, conveying to each woman that she has a right to make the decision to stay or leave for herself; that she will be supported in her choice; and that if she chooses to return to the abusive partner or her previous sitaution, she will be welcome to return to the shelter at any time.
Shelter staff can promote an environment of safety and trust upon welcoming women to the shelter by adhering to key guiding principles and:
- Meeting with the woman (and where relevant, girl) in a secure setting where privacy can be assured. This is essential whether the meeting takes place within the shelter or at an external location prior to deciding to stay at the shelter. Where possible, women should be received in an area which is free from other interruptions (e.g. not using group spaces or shared offices). Posting 'do not disturb' notices and turning off cellular phones helps to ensure privacy and demonstrates respect for the woman by preventing interruptions as sensitive information is shared.
- Asking whether she feels safe and if anything else could be done to assist her to feel more safe.
- Conducting crisis intervention if the woman or girl is in distress.
- Asking her whether she is in need of immediate medical attention.
- Assuring confidentiality of information and explaining how this will be ensured by the organization (through records management).
- Considering the specific form(s) of violence experienced, the consequences, related risk factors and safety needs, to ensure an intervention does not adversely affect her.
- Acknowledging the potential effects of trauma in combination with the possible stress associated with being interviewed as part of the arrival process, and asking a woman whether participating in the initial interview or screening process will cause her any problems. Also, allowing her to take breaks or stop at anytime that she becomes uncomfortable.
- These measures are important in building women's trust and increase the chance that she will share the information necessary to assess and respond to her level of risk and immediate safety needs. They should be maintained throughout the process of receiving women into a shelter facility, which comprises the following key actions:
- Share information on the services offered and how they are provided/ can be accessed.
Gather information needed to understand the woman's priority needs and how the available services can support her to address those needs.
- Assist women to assess their risk and make a safety plan that addresses the risks associated with her circumstances (WAVE, 2004a; International Organization for Migration, 2007).