Q&A: Peg Dierkers of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Photograph of Peg Dierkers.

This is the second in a series of articles highlighting statewide efforts to combat family and sexual violence. The first installment looked at Alaska's Choose Respect campaign.

The nonprofit Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence was the first agency of its kind when it opened in 1976. A liaison between the Pennsylvania government and a network of local services providers, the coalition disburses state funding for domestic violence services and ensures that such services are available near every resident. It also collaborates with the Departments of Public Welfare, Crime and Delinquency, and Health to provide training and technical assistance to public and private organizations. Above all, the coalition is a central resource for Pennsylvania’s family and youth workers, and a way for local advocates to have their concerns represented at the state level.

Executive Director Peg Dierkers spoke with NCFY about the progress her organization has made over the decades, and the new challenges facing family and youth workers in Pennsylvania, from the recession to gas drilling.

NCFY: How have your priorities and mission changed since your organization was founded in 1976?

Dierkers: We collaborate with 60 community organizations with a goal of providing services within 50 miles of anyone experiencing domestic violence in Pennsylvania. That used to mean just a shelter, but now we know the housing needs of violence victims go beyond short-term housing.

So we work with state housing agencies and supply money for relocation and security deposits and rent for victims who need to relocate. We also educate our network and community partners about federal housing laws, because these victims are often discriminated against by landlords. Landlords don’t want the noise from a fight or regular visits from the police, but you should be able to call for help whenever you need it.

We also work with the child welfare system to help case workers understand domestic violence and promote the protective, non-offending parent’s relationship with the children. The long-term resiliency of the children really depends on maintaining that familial bond with the protective parents. Often the child welfare system and the courts don’t have the training around the dynamics of abuse, like the barriers to a woman leaving—from economics to the threat of death. It results in dual custody after an incident. So we help train all case managers in county children and youth agencies.

NCFY: What new challenges or opportunities exist today that weren’t around decades ago?

Dierkers: Natural gas drilling is one. The drilling companies come in and rent or buy up all the available housing stock for their workers, often at an inflated price because they need a lot of it quickly. So then there’s either not housing available for victims, or it’s so expensive that the agencies can only help a few people where they used to help many. At least one recent study documented this.

And of course in Pennsylvania, the brightest spotlight possible is currently on child sexual abuse in light of the Sandusky case. There’s been a huge expansion of who counts as a mandated reporter and proposals to increase the liability for those who see something. We are right in there, explaining how dynamics of abuse work and how the protective parent is often the sole mitigating factor. There is a tendency to blame the mom instead of really focusing on holding the abuser accountable for the behavior. Our concern is that if we don’t advocate really hard for those dynamics to be considered, many children will be removed from their caregivers, endangering their long-term health and success.

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