Washington College is Helping MSCFV Better Target Its Mission


A collaboration among a Washington College sociology professor, the College’s GIS Lab, and the Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence (MSCFV) is helping provide resources to women in crisis and creating strategies to reach more victims in the community.

Rachel Durso, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at Washington College, teamed up with Jeanne Yeager, Executive Director of MSCFV, and Erica McMaster, Director of the GIS program, along with four GIS student interns and an analyst, to use the power of data collection and analysis to help the MSCFV in its mission. Their collaboration supported a $1 million Victims of Crime Act grant intended to enhance services such as crisis intervention, counseling, emergency transportation to court, temporary housing, criminal justice support, and advocacy.

Durso, a criminologist who had previously examined gender violence as a doctoral student at Ohio State University, was drawn into the project through the College’s GIS program and her meetings with Yeager.

“I was really impressed by MSCFV’s mission and the fact that [a single office] served the five rural counties of Kent, Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, and Queen Anne’s counties. It seemed like something I could do to use my expertise to make a real difference in our community,” Durso says. “You can imagine that if somebody needs help and she lives in an isolated area of Dorchester County, it’s really difficult to receive services.”

Last summer, Durso interviewed MSCFV clients to collect data sources that could inform the non-profit’s strategies to increase access to services. Accompanied by her research assistant, WC senior Kaitlynn Ecker, Durso spoke with survivors of domestic violence, both English- and Spanish-speaking, to better understand their needs.

“I would read through the interviews and identify the themes that kept coming up,” Durso says. Framing those recurring themes—poverty, transportation, communication—were the concepts of social cohesion and isolation. Durso found that, for victims of domestic violence, living in a rural community “where everyone knows your business” can put them at a disadvantage.

“In a lot of criminological literature, we see the idea that living in a small town can deter crime,” Durso notes. “If a neighborhood is tightly bonded, you can expect that people watch out for each other. But what has not been thoroughly explored is the idea that social cohesion is not great for [victims of] domestic violence. Because domestic violence is often seen as a private, even shameful matter, it can prevent people from seeking help.”

Durso’s interviews revealed how important social media can be for women physically secluded from the outside world by helping them communicate with others who have had similar experiences. GIS responded by mapping broadband Internet access, 4G mobile data networks, Internet pricing, and what types of Internet services are available in areas that MSCFV serves. Durso also began looking at MSCFV’s web and social media presence, running analytics to determine how to expand the agency’s visibility and engagement within the community.

Also, by mapping where MSCFV clients were coming from, Durso and the GIS team were able to generate a macro view of what’s going on in the region and make the case to open an additional office in Cambridge.

With more data on social cohesion and isolation, social media, access to resources, and particular barriers to resources, MSCFV can better understand where they need to target resources, and where other grant money might be directed. One of Durso’s recommendations to MSCFV was to hire a social media director. As a result, MSCFV hired a consultant who has created a social media policy and posting schedule, and is working on revitalizing MSCFV’s platforms.

The interviews informed what other resources could be mapped: hospitals, rehab centers, public transportation, daycare providers, police jurisdictions, public libraries with computers, and access to affordable housing, as well as MSCFV’s clients themselves.

“The partnership with Washington College, through Professor Durso and the GIS team, has helped the agency grow and expand in ways that directly respond to the specific needs of rural victims of domestic violence,” says Yeager. “It has been a tremendous experience for MSCFV.”

Beyond collecting and analyzing the data to inform policy, Durso says the project offered something just as important: validation to battered women who have silently borne horrific cruelty. “When we asked our clients what MSCFV service they are most grateful for, a great majority said they appreciated the chance to tell their stories. For many, it was the first time they had shared their story. Someone believed them.”

About Washington College

Founded in 1782, Washington College is the tenth oldest college in the nation and the first chartered under the new Republic. It enrolls approximately 1,450 undergraduates from more than 35 states and a dozen nations. With an emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning in the arts and sciences, and more than 40 multidisciplinary areas of study, the College is home to nationally recognized academic centers in the environment, history, and writing. Learn more at washcoll.edu.

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