Since at least 2012, Durham County has seen some of the highest numbers of domestic violence–related homicides in the state, along with Guilford, Wake, and (especially) Mecklenburg Counties. In 2015, Durham had eleven such homicides, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. There were six in 2016, two in 2017, and three in the first nine months of 2018. Already this year, three homicides are considered cases of domestic violence.

According to the Durham Police Department, there were 264 reported incidents of domestic-related aggravated assault in the city in 2017, and 259 in 2018. Through the first week of February, there were eighteen domestic assaults.

The problem isn’t unique to Durham, of course. On average, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, twenty people experience intimate-partner violence every minute—about ten million women and men each year. 

Through a more than $1.2 million federal grant, the Durham County Department of Social Services and other organizations are exploring how better collaboration between the people who interact with survivors of domestic violence can ultimately help children better cope with the trauma it can cause. Now in its third of four years, the Durham Integrated Domestic Violence Response System has trained hundreds of first responders, social workers, and service providers to recognize the signs of domestic violence, understand the effects it can have on children, and be aware of services available to survivors. 

In the grant’s first two years, nearly four hundred officials from the DPD, emergency services, social services, and the Durham Crisis Response Center underwent training—tailored to their specific fields—on working with families affected by domestic violence. Police officers and emergency responders, for instance, were taught to assess for domestic violence when responding to 911 calls and were educated on the services—such as therapy, counseling, safety planning, and emergency shelters—available to survivors. (They were also instructed to note the presence of children on police reports, which a community assessment found wasn’t being done.) The DPD has incorporated that training into its curriculum for new officers.

The initiative also wants to help officers stay positive when they see the same families on domestic violence calls.  

“Just because you’re seeing them over and over doesn’t mean they’re not on the path, in the right direction,” says Kelly Sullivan, director of mental health services at the Duke Center for Child and Family Health, one of the initiative’s partner organizations. “That information impacts the way you present yourself to that family, and the way you present yourself to that family can then change the way that family perceives the system.”

For DCRC staffers, the training was a little different because they already work with adult survivors. They focused on the effects of childhood exposure to abuse, and how to talk to parents about it. Last fiscal year, the DCRC provided emergency shelter to 178 women and 97 children fleeing violence. Another 140 were referred to other agencies due to a lack of space. 

The Durham County DSS learns of domestic violence situations through Child Protective Services reports and focuses mainly on safety planning for the child and non-abusive caregiver. The grant supports a full-time family advocate at the agency who builds relationships with affected families and refers them for shelter, counseling, and parenting guidance.

“I think oftentimes, when we engage with survivors, we try to dictate with them how they should interact with their abuser, meaning the abuser would be removed from the home, but we aren’t understanding the ripple effect that causes for the family,” says Shontelle Smith, who manages the DSS’s role in the grant. By September, the family advocate had referred more than sixty families for services.

The next phase of the training, which started in the grant’s third year, walks participants through a fictional case designed to represent many real-life domestic violence scenarios: a 911 call comes in reporting domestic violence, both partners accuse each other of being intoxicated, police respond and note the presence of children in the house. Later, the mother, feeling her safety is at risk, takes the children to the DCRC for shelter, and they are referred for treatment.

Separately, about two dozen child care providers have also been trained in how toxic stress during childhood can affect long-term brain development and how they can implement strategies in their own classrooms to protect kids from those effects, for example by providing structure in their lives and helping them cope with their emotions.

Jovetta Whitfield, assistant director of Child and Family Services at the Durham County DSS, says if no additional grant funding is available at the end of the initiative’s fourth year, the agency will look internally for ways to keep it going. It’s not the county’s only effort toward stemming the traumatic effects of domestic violence; a task force is implementing pilot programs to spot and address adverse childhood experiences in Durham kids.   

“I see that as the big umbrella, and we’re one of the spokes of the umbrella,” Whitfield says.

As they track outcomes of the families assisted through the grant and the barriers they face in connecting with treatment, the grant partners hope their findings can help expand Durham’s capacity to serve more survivors. The county has high-quality services, they say, but if everyone in need was referred to the right place for help, those providers would be overwhelmed.

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.