A voice for victims

Leslie Starsoneck works to shape policy to fight family violence.

By Todd Cohen

As a classically trained pianist, Leslie Starsoneck picked her college for its music school.

But a lifelong interest in what drives people to go astray led her instead to study psychology and criminal justice.

Working as a professional advocate for women and victims, particularly with social-service agencies and law-enforcement agencies that often are at odds with one another, Starsoneck has merged her passions, using her instinct for harmony to guide her efforts to shape policy.

“You are here to fight for people who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have access to the people or places they need access to, to change their condition,” she says. “You’ve got to learn to work together.”

Now, after directing the North Carolina Domestic Violence Commission, and the state Council for Women, Starsoneck has taken on the job of helping the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem shape its role in fighting domestic violence and sexual assault.

The foundation has contracted with Starsoneck to assess the funding mechanisms and the role that policy and advocacy play in addressing the issue.

Leslie Starsoneck

Job: Consultant, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation

Born: Syracuse, N.Y., Aug. 26, 1961

Education: B.A., psychology, State University of New York, Potsdam; M.S.W., University of Pittsburgh

Previous employers: Program for Female Offenders, Pittsburgh; New Hope, Attleboro, Mass.; Massachusetts Coalition for Battered Women’s Service Groups (now Jane Doe Inc.); Governor’s Domestic Violence Task Force, North Carolina.

Family: Husband, Paul

Hobbies: Piano, golf, running

Favorite movie: The Color Purple

Just read: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The perspective that Starsoneck brings to her new role has evolved over the course of her career.

While always fascinated with the “social control” aspect of criminal justice, she says, she initially thought in terms of “individual pathology and what happens to people and what leads them down that road.”

But as a graduate student in social work at the University of Pittsburgh, she says, she started thinking “in terms of societal or external factors.”

And a succession of internships and jobs gave her a close-up look at the systems that affect not only victims but also the services available to them.

A common thread in her work has been the role that economic self-sufficiency plays in helping women overcome problems such as property crime, drug addiction and welfare fraud, she says.

Working in Massachusetts for the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence, for example, she studied the level of domestic violence among women living in poverty and on welfare, and looked at how federal “welfare reform” legislation passed in 1994 would affect those women.

Equally challenging, she says, have been the antagonism and lack of coordination among agencies that work on family violence issues.

“When I was trained as a social worker, part of being a good social worker would be to antagonize when you had to, and the sign of a bad social worker would be someone who got along with everybody, someone who was well liked,” she says. “And that, I don’t think, has served anyone well.”

That adversarial approach to social work “gives people a reason not to want to deal with you,” she says, and cuts off the social worker from access to information critical to representing clients and advocating effectively.

Agencies also have tended to represent interests that can be competing, with some representing women, others representing children, and still others representing violent offenders, typically husbands or boyfriends.

Based in part on recommendations made by a task force coordinated by Starsoneck, a select committee of the N.C. House this year passed what she characterizes as “landmark” domestic-violence legislation.

With nearly two-dozen provisions, the law addresses a broad range of topics.

It expands legal services for victims of domestic violence, provides for treatment for offenders, addresses the role of schools, and directs the state Department of Health and Human Services to recommend a plan for dealing with victims of domestic violence who have substance-abuse or mental-health problems.

The law also bars discrimination by employers against victims of domestic violence who are seeking relief from the courts, ensures safer and more consistent handling of child custody and visitation in domestic violence cases, and expands the state’s Child Fatality Task Force to include advocates for victims of domestic violence.

And based on recommendations by the same group, the state is beginning to take a more integrated approach to addressing domestic violence, Starsoneck says.

Departments of social services in all 100 North Carolina counties, for example, now must follow a uniform state policy that spells out their role and responsibilities for dealing with families suffering domestic violence.

Cross-training between government and nonprofit agencies also will be critical, Starsoneck says, so everyone involved can better understand the complex dynamics of family violence.

Now, as she begins her work to help the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation define the role it wants to play in shaping policy, Starsoneck says, she is finding many agencies are reluctant to change the way they work.

But she still is aiming for change through better understanding and coordination.

“I am more convinced than ever,” she says, “that this is a preventable problem.”

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