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Case Study #16: Adding Veterans to a Prior Agenda

Blue Shield of California battles domestic violence

“We’re not a foundation that had previously invested directly in military families,” states Bess Bendet of the Blue Shield of California Foundation (BSCF). Each year, the foundation receives $25–$40 million from its corporate parent (Blue Shield of California) and most of this is donated to two causes: increasing healthcare access, and reducing domestic violence. As California’s largest private funder of domestic violence services, BSCF keeps shelters open, educates high-risk populations on how to keep relationships healthy, and funds research. The foundation has contributed more than $40 million to the cause of domestic violence since 2002.

Back in 2008, when thinking about new populations the foundation could serve, Bendet began to “wonder about military families, if we could help in terms of preventing violence, because combat seems to create a lot of challenges that affect families.” About a year later, several of the foundation’s grantees began reporting anecdotally that they noticed increases in the number of military families experiencing relationship stress and conflict, and that these families’ experiences seemed different from civilian ones.

In 2009, BSCF started giving grants for research on helping military families avoid domestic violence, donating more than $2 million to the subject in their first three years. Very little was known concretely about this problem. And although Bendet had some contacts with family advocacy programs on local bases, they were nervous because “they thought we were going to produce a bad press story about violence in military families.”

The Blue Shield of California Foundation first measured the problem, then linked families to organizations that can help.

Initially, the foundation struggled to bring the military community together with domestic-violence service providers. Getting over cultural and even vocabulary barriers proved difficult. It became clear this topic had not been addressed systematically. Rather than deterring, though, this motivated the foundation to invest in new research and programs that could bridge the gap. It asked: “What tools do families need to ensure that their relationships are healthy during reintegration after tours of duty?”

What Is the Scope of the Problem?

When it came to basic questions about the level of family violence in military families, says Bendet, “We found no one was counting. The data that was available was from prior wars, so the most often-cited statistics on family violence were from Vietnam. There was no way the V.A. or Defense Department was going to make any decisions about services without data from today’s wars,” she explains. So “we decided to document domestic violence in the context of post-combat trauma.”

First, the foundation funded Blue Star Families, a chapter-based organization for military parents (see case 18), to include in its annual household survey questions about incidents of domestic violence. Alongside that survey, BSCF funded an independent research center co-located with the San Francisco V.A. hospital to conduct the first-ever large-scale study of the prevalence of domestic violence in post-9/11 military families. Finally, BSCF funded the San Jose State University Research Foundation to determine the prevalence of intimate partner violence on college campuses in California.

Collectively, these three investigations painted the first authoritative and up-to-date portrait of this subject. The studies found that higher rates of family violence correlate with post-traumatic stress, rather than with military culture or with deployment experiences as a whole. By nailing down those important distinctions through its research investments, the foundation has developed a body of evidence that other private philanthropists and public agencies can now use to make intelligent funding choices addressing family violence.

Introducing Prevention into Existing Relationships

Beyond research, BSCF has funded pilot programs that insert violence prevention into various programs and agencies that already work with military families. For instance, one BSCF grant to the organization Swords to Plowshares provided training to police departments across the state of California. Bendet explains that “police are first responders—if you get a call to a family situation at a house and it involves someone who’s been in the military, the way you approach it might be different.” At San Jose State University, BSCF funded the development of two anti-violence programs, Warriors at Home, and Loving a Veteran, which have been rolled out on community-college and university campuses throughout the state.

In another grant, BSCF funded the National Center on Family Homelessness to develop and evaluate a couples-based violence-prevention program specifically for military families. “It is a 12-session intensive program for couples developed by experts in military family wellness. Initial results are very promising,” says Bendet.

This pioneering work of the Blue Shield of California Foundation shows how private philanthropy can bring to light previously unaddressed issues. Rather than forcing its funding priorities onto the field, the foundation started with a question: Just how much does domestic violence affect military families that have experienced combat deployments? Since no current evidence existed, the foundation built accurate answers with a range of partners—independent and university researchers, a military family organization, and a domestic-violence service organization. Using organizations that were already working with military families, BSCF then developed and evaluated prevention programs. Now, rather than flying blind, agencies devoted to helping the families of servicemembers and veterans have tools to work with.

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