Jennifer Eyl, Executive Director of Project Safeguard, headshot next to Spur of the Moment cover art

Jennifer Eyl - Project Safeguard and Preventing Burnout in a Challenging Field

On this episode of Spur of the Moment, Annika chatted with Jennifer Eyl, the Executive Director of Project Safeguard. Her organization provides legal advocacy and services to survivors of gender-based violence. They discussed Eyl's path into this position and what she does to prevent burnout in what can be a challenging field to work in.


Hey. Hello. Howdy. This is Spur of the Moment from Lasso Digital. I'm Annika Pelkey from Lasso Digital. On this episode of Spur of the Moment, I got to chat with Jennifer Eyl, the Executive Director of Project Safeguard. Her organization provides legal advocacy and services to survivors of gender-based violence. We discussed her path into this position and what she does to prevent burnout in what can be a challenging field to work in.


I'm Jennifer Eyl. My pronouns are she/her/hers and I am an attorney and a licensed professional counselor. I have been working with survivors of gender-based violence for about 28 years.


So, you are the Executive Director of Project Safeguard. Our new CEO of Lasso Digital is one of the members of the board at Project Safeguard. So, I have a very vague idea of what you folks do over there. But for those of us who don't know, would you mind giving me a quick rundown?


Of course. So, we are a legal advocacy and legal services nonprofit working with survivors of gender-based violence. So, our focus is really on the civil legal system. We help folks navigate civil protection orders, family law issues, housing issues, other areas of civil law that are not about criminal charges, or somebody being arrested and charged with a crime, but are often even more impactful and more important to survivors trying to get safe, to get their kids safe, to stay out of those harmful situations.

And so we do that with legal advocates who are not attorneys but are really highly trained to work in that system and help folks find their way through it. And then we also have attorneys on contract and on staff that provide representation and other legal assistance in those matters.


So as the Executive Director, you must have kind of a unique role. I'd love to hear more about what that kind of looks like for you and maybe how you came into that role.


So I—as I said, I've been doing work in this field for a really long time. I was an executive director and then I went to law school. And when I went to law school, I knew I wanted to continue to do this work. I wanted to get back into this field and really wanted to create legal services for survivors.

And at that time in—I graduated from law school in 2008—it really didn't exist and where it did exist, it was on a very small level, or it was only for indigent folks and things like that. But over time, some funding, some federal funding got focused on civil legal services for victims. And I eventually got hired at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center to run the domestic violence program there, and then was field director at Project Safeguard at a time when Project Safeguard was ready to hire its first-ever staff attorney.

So up until 2019, Project Safeguard had had a legal director for a period of time who oversaw the contract attorney program but never oversaw staff providing legal services directly for our clients. So I joined Project Safeguard with that goal of building a program with staff attorneys and I think this sort of happened in a way I did not expect. And a year later I ended up into the role of Executive Director.

But that has really allowed me to continue to grow and expand what we call our attorney services program, as well as bring all of my pre-law school as a victim advocate and somebody who's done this work for a long time to the legal advocacy side of our work.


Wonderful. Well, I'm a little interested about the victim advocacy side of that. Would you maybe explain what a victim advocate would do in a day-to-day position?


Yeah, and it looks different. There are victim advocates who work in police departments and probation offices, and those are really different. We call those system-based advocates, and their job is really to work side by side with law enforcement or prosecutors to get their job done and to make sure that the Victim Rights Act is complied with. They don't have a confidential relationship with the victim. They are really just a part of that system. They can be very helpful and can really help folks get connected to organizations like ours. 

Community-based victim advocates in organizations that are working with domestic violence and spousal survivors specifically are confidential victim advocates. So when someone comes to a victim advocate at our program, for example, they can really trust that anything they share is going to be kept confidential unless they sign a release or agree to have it disclosed in some way.

And an advocate really is just—they’re that. They're just really well trained to understand the systems in which gender-based violence happens. All of the different players, all the different resources that are available, really importantly, how to create a safety plan that if somebody is coming out of or is in, I should say, a domestic violence or sexual assault situation where, you know, they need some help to navigate, how can I stay safe? How can I keep my kids safe? What are my choices? You know, am I going to leave this relationship? Am I not? Do I need to move? Just really helping someone navigate all of those pieces and understanding the different systems that are at play for a survivor. So a victim advocate is a huge job and it might look different. And then, you know, our advocates are legal advocates with some expertise in the legal system.


To continue with that. I'd love to hear maybe a bit more about the services you folks provide in more detail. I know you touched on this, but if you have anything else to add, I'd love to hear more.


Sure. I think everything starts with safety planning. When somebody comes to us, the first thing we really want to figure out is how can we make sure that you stay safe throughout this process? 

Often, survivors come to us with with an agenda, with, you know, thinking, okay, I want a protection order or I want to get divorced or I need to get custody orders or something like that.
And we want them to take a step back and we're going to really talk to them about what's going on, what different things might be available. 

For example, one of the things that the state of Colorado has available is a program called the Address Confidentiality Program, and that's a state program that allows a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking to have a confidential address, have all of their mail sent somewhere else, have that address put on documents and so forth so that they can keep their location secret, so our advocates can help somebody apply for the Address Confidentiality program, help them get set up with that. We can help folks break a lease. We have a law in Colorado that allows a victim to ask the landlord to break their lease if there has been domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. And our advocates are actually able to assist in that process. 

And then, of course, there is the process of getting a civil protection order or starting to file for divorce or custody. Our advocates can provide extensive assistance on the civil protection order side. Those are typically filed in county court, and they're usually a standalone case. If someone wants to file for divorce or custody, we have a divorce and custody clinic that is available for survivors in any language. We have a clinic in English where we can provide interpreters in other languages. And then we have a Spanish language clinic as well. And we can help folks get the process of filing for divorce or custody started that way without needing to hire an attorney or even access one of the attorneys on our staff.


I know that this kind of work takes a special kind of person to do. My dad is an attorney and has worked on quite a few cases like this, and I know how hard it has been for him when he gets an especially a tough one. I'm curious about when you knew that this was the area you wanted to do your work in.


That's such a hard question to answer, honestly. I feel like I came into this work kind of by accident. I started out doing—I have a master's degree in counseling psychology, and I did my internship at the Colorado AIDS Project, where my supervisor there actually had done a lot of work with victims of domestic violence. And so he started to introduce me to that, to that world of work in a more formal way. I'd done a little volunteer work here and there and had kind of some sense that it existed. But I did. That was with him and through my work at Colorado AIDS Project. And then my first job out of graduate school was at a homeless shelter for families. And what I found there was that every homeless family that came through and they were predominantly single-parent families with women as their heads of household, there had been some kind of victimization. Maybe there had been domestic violence or there had been child abuse or there had been something that had—if it hadn't directly led to the homelessness, it was definitely playing a role in what the family needed. And that actually led to me getting connected to victim service agencies in the Denver metro area and getting involved in some larger collaborative efforts between agencies.

And my next job from there was as a victim advocate at a police department, and I learned pretty quickly that was not where I wanted to be. But I knew at that point that this was the kind of work I wanted to do and I really find that it is rewarding. It is absolutely difficult. It is very hard work. But the community of people that do this work is phenomenal and that has played a huge role in my ability to continue to do this work for so many years and another reason why I'm able to continue to do this work after so many years is that when I say yes, I will come speak to your group or I will serve as an expert witness in your case, I do it with my work time because that allows me to kind of keep it contained.

But I do a lot of legislative policy work. I serve on the policy committees of Violence Free Colorado, which is the statewide domestic violence coalition, and the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is the statewide sexual violence coalition. And both of those organizations do extensive legislative work every year to try to change the law to help survivors, to make sure that when we see that there are problems, when we notice that something's not working or that we can make it better, that we dig into that and I've gotten to be a part of some really incredible, really meaningful policy change in the course of my career. 

I also do a lot of training for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. I really think it's important that lawyers understand domestic violence, that they understand trauma, that they understand what victimization does to a person, no matter what kind of law they practice, because it really does impact all areas of law. We talk about it mostly within the family law context. But if you're somebody that's doing estate planning, it may very well impact your work or it might impact real estate if, you know, you're dealing with a situation where there's been domestic violence and people are trying to deal with selling property. So I think it comes up in all of those settings.

And then I do a lot of advocacy work in the child welfare arena. Child welfare is a really different space than victim services, kind of surprisingly so, I think. So we're talking about Departments of Human Services dependency in neglect cases that are filed against parents by the state for child abuse and neglect. And there's just a tremendous need in that arena for the professionals to better understand domestic violence and better understand what is happening within a family when they get involved.


You've mentioned how important boundaries are in your role. In the nonprofit sector especially boundaries can be a huge challenge for people to maintain, and there are just a lot of unique challenges that come with being in the nonprofit sector. Would you mind sharing some of those challenges that you've faced in your role and the nonprofit sector in general?


Sure. You know, the place I start with boundaries when I talk about them is really that thing that I mentioned earlier: Boundaries around my work time and my personal time. I don't check email outside of work hours. I don't respond to requests outside of work hours. If I'm on vacation, I'm completely disconnected, unless it's an emergency.

And I not only find that important for me, but I think it's important that I set that example for my team that they see that that is the expectation that they're not expected to be on all the time or, you know, have their dinner out with their partner interrupted by a work call or something like that. I just, I think that that has actually become even more important over the last three years when people have been working from home more that we just have to be able to recognize that there's got to be a separation.

One of the things I've really noticed when doing so many virtual meetings is that my days are actually longer in the sense that I am working more hours in an eight-hour day than I was when I was going into the office. And I was driving for 15 or 20 minutes to get to a meeting and then I was stopping down the hall to talk to a friend and catching up for a little bit. And so I try to be really attentive to that. At Project Safeguard, we have reduced our workweek to 36 hours, partly to encourage self-care for our staff. We close at noon on Fridays, and I really want staff to use that time to transition into their weekend and feel like they've got a little more space that. 

I think this work can really eat you alive. It is not for everyone for sure, but if you just let yourself be pulled in in every direction all the time and don't protect your personal time, your personal space, your energy, it won't be sustainable and you won't be able to do this work for very long. 

And I think it's very easy to get sucked in in that way. I think because we work with people in crisis, we can get really reactive to that and think, “Oh my gosh, this person is in crisis. It's a crisis. I need to respond in crisis mode.” And as harsh as this might sound, I guess, you know, we at Project Safeguard are not a crisis organization. We don't have a 24-hour hotline. We are not—we don't work 24/7. And so I have to really work to convey to our staff that they need to set those boundaries that that—I almost wanted to say like, you know, “a crisis on your part does not create a crisis on my part” kind of a thing. But that sounds really callous and I don't mean it that way at all. I mean that because someone is in a state of crisis doesn't mean that we necessarily can respond in kind as an organization or as a service provider.


I'm so glad you brought up the kind of issues that have come up from remote work because I have very recently entered the workforce and I just automatically was pushed into remote work, which I am very grateful for. But it is definitely a lot harder to navigate than I think a lot of people give it credit for. So I'm glad you brought that up.

I guess I'm also curious about some maybe more broad challenges that Project Safeguard has faced as an organization and maybe how you guys have overcome those challenges.


Well, there's certainly been plenty in the last few years. But, you know, first and foremost, we were an in-person organization. Our advocates are based in courthouses and at the Rose Andom Center in downtown Denver, which is a family justice center, and the majority of our services worked for people walking in or people who called and made an appointment and came in to meet with someone. And that was true for our attorneys as well. 

So, you know, suddenly in March of 2020, I had to tell everybody to, you know, take all their stuff and go home and thought we'd be back in a couple of weeks, ha ha. But we had to very quickly figure out what does it look like for us to provide the services we provide remotely? And courts were going remote and not allowing people to walk in and file for a protection order. It really changed the way we think about what we do. It also made it very hard for us to reach the people who need our services. So there was a period of time there where we were just not reaching the same number of people.

And also I think there were an awful lot of survivors who were just surviving and their legal needs were less of a priority than, you know, food or shelter or other basic needs. But what we've really learned from all of that, and we did adapt and we did our best and we, you know, came up with new ways to provide services and try to get as creative as we could with different technology and other ways to connect with folks.

We now have those tools at our disposal and there are and always will be survivors who will only be able to access our services remotely, who could never have access to our services when we're only providing them in person. So it really has been kind of a silver lining for us that we have come up with new and creative ways to provide services that are meeting the needs of, you know, people who have disabilities or transportation limitations or other ways or other things that get in the way of accessing our services in a traditional way.


Wonderful. It sounds like Project Safeguard does a lot of work with people across different sectors to support survivors in many different ways. I'd love to hear maybe your thoughts about the importance of cross-sector collaboration in this arena. Maybe like your work with police departments, lawyers, advocates, government organizations, as well as nonprofits, any, maybe, partnerships that you have in the community.


So we do, we do a lot of that. And I guess the partnership that is happening right now in sort of real-time and is really exciting that I'd like to talk about is one that we're doing in the 17th Judicial District, which includes Adams and Broomfield Counties, the district attorney's office there, and the county government, along with Congress, congressional representatives that represent the districts that that judicial district encompasses, work together to get a $2 million grant to fund a domestic violence high-risk team in the 17th Judicial District.

The 17th Judicial District is actually a location where there is not a domestic violence shelter. There are no domestic violence services housed there, although we've been providing services there since 1996. So other agencies from across the metro area were stepping in to help provide services to victims in the 17th. And the DA's office really wanted to do this high-risk team approach, which really means bringing together law enforcement agencies. And in the 17th, I can't remember how many different jurisdictions there are, but it is a large number and that includes Aurora and it includes Thornton, that includes Brighton, and it's a very large geographic area as well. So law enforcement comes together with nonprofit organizations, including Project Safeguard, to present cases that they have responded to in the last week where there's been domestic violence and they believe that the victim would benefit from outreach from one of the community-based partners that's involved in this collaboration.

And so if someone, you know, mentions that they might want to help with a civil protection order or with divorce or custody, then we might be asked to reach out to that survivor and help them get connected with an advocate on our team and help them navigate those services. And then we also work with all of the other partners, that includes the Brighton Housing Authority that has funding to provide some hotel vouchers; Family Tree, which provides some advocacy services that are not focused on the legal piece of things; Servicios de La Raza, working with Spanish-speaking survivors in that community; and Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, which is also another victim services agency that serves Broomfield.

So we all work together to try to make sure that when survivors are coming into the system through law enforcement, they're getting connected to the breadth of nonprofit services and community-based services that are available in the 17th Judicial District and making sure that they're getting the full wrap-around effect of all of these different agencies working together. And it's been an incredibly successful collaboration so far. And we are just getting started.


That's incredible. Yeah, it's always so wonderful to hear that organizations like yours are working with so many different community members to provide this service and the support for your communities. So thank you for sharing that. So how has the public’s maybe view of domestic violence changed, possibly for the better, in the time that you've been working in this area?


I think that there's been some increased understanding that domestic violence is not just about physical violence, but I think we still just have a really long way to go to have the general public understand what domestic violence is, how common it is, and the harm that it causes. When I talk about domestic violence, I am really talking about a pattern of coercive control that is, really, it's manipulation, it's maintaining power over the other person in the relationship. And the physical violence can often be the least important part of that. And that's really challenging to get folks to understand. I think, if people have an understanding of domestic violence or think they understand domestic violence, they often think about what I consider to be an outdated way of thinking about domestic violence, which is the idea of there being a cycle of violence. Certainly what I was taught early in my career that things are all hunky dory, and then there is this tension-building phase where things get kind of tense and scary and then there's some kind of explosion of a violent episode. And that's followed by the hearts and flowers phase where the abuser wants to make up for it and is sorry and says they'll never do it again. And then the cycle starts all over. 

And that just really isn't how we know domestic violence to work anymore. I also like to think that there's been some improvement in the recognition that children are impacted by domestic violence, regardless of whether they witness it directly. But we also still have a very long way to go with that.

I think what makes changing, kind of, hearts and minds around these issues incredibly difficult is as humans, it is just our instinct to want if something bad happened to somebody, we really want to believe that they did something to cause it because that way we can believe it wouldn't happen to us. And we refer to that as “victim blaming” in this field. And you see it across all kinds of gender-based violence where it's and, you know, the—it comes up so much more, I think, publicly with sexual violence. Why was she dressed like that? Why did she go to his room? Why did she have so much to drink? But we do it with domestic violence, too. We always ask, why didn't she just leave? Instead of asking, why didn't he stop hitting her? Or why didn't he stop being coercively controlling? Why didn't he stop abusing her? And it is most often women that are victims and men that are perpetrating domestic violence. So we're still asking the wrong questions. We're still, really, I think, as a society grappling with these issues.


I think also the legal system is so tied into public opinion. This is, kind of, I'm sure, a similar answer, but what would you like to see improved upon in the legal system in regards to domestic violence and how it's treated?


First and foremost, judges just have to be trained better and our judicial officers in general. That is a really challenging thing. It's something that for my entire career has been discussed and we go round and round and round about how we make that happen. 

And oftentimes judicial officers think they understand domestic violence. So they have their own perspective on domestic violence. And it isn't an accurate one and it isn't one that takes into account the impact of trauma or how children are impacted on an ongoing basis long after parents separate. 

And we need some changes to our laws. We really need to have laws, particularly in the civil legal system where Project Safeguard operates, that hold the offenders accountable first. We make it so hard for the victims to get through this process. We expect them to be the ones to go to court. We expect them to be the ones to prove their case. We expect them to be the ones that do everything right and are perfect victims. And we don't hold the offenders accountable nearly enough.


Thank you so much for sharing that. So as Lasso Digital, we are a marketing and fundraising organization focused on nonprofits. So I'm always super curious about what the nonprofits we're talking to have to say about fundraising and marketing, and maybe what you've learned along the way, and any tips you might have for organizations starting off. 

So I think I may have heard that you get a fair portion of your funding from the government. I’d love to hear what kind of maybe good comes from that, maybe what kind of challenges that come from that. Any thoughts around that side of funding and fundraising?


I think most organizations working in the gender-based violence space are very reliant on government funding. And it's the reason we've been able to create the organizations that we have. We wouldn't have been able to add our attorney services or expand our organization without that government funding. 

But that cuts both ways. Then those are very restricted, very limited funds in terms of what we can spend them on. And they're typically very much focused on direct services and don't give us a lot of room for administrative and overhead or a fundraising positioning or a development position or an administrative position. And that's really the difficulty. I see across our sector is so many organizations where, you know, maybe the executive director is doing all of the grant writing and all of the grant reporting and all of the finance management and all of the what little fundraising there is the capacity to do, and that's just not sustainable. We need diversified funding and we need unrestricted funds and that takes time and it takes resources and it takes a lot of work. We are really just starting on the journey of trying to diversify our funding at Project Safeguard, and it's not easy. This work is not as appealing to a lot of funders or a lot of individuals as other areas are.

And I think particularly coming out of the pandemic, donors are focused on basic needs, and rightfully so. Housing is such a huge issue here. And I think across the country food insecurity is a huge issue. People need those things. They need those things first and foremost before they need a civil protection order. But that is the struggle that we find ourselves competing when we really should just keep working together. And it's a very difficult thing to figure out how to bring in those unrestricted funds and increase individual giving in an organization like ours.


For sure. Yeah. Kind of tied what we talked about just a second ago with the public's view of domestic violence and what needs to change for the better in that. What kind of things do you think still need to be done to support survivors? In a perfect world, what kind of programs might be lifted up?


I think in a perfect world we would really shift the focus, as I said earlier, to holding offenders accountable, that instead of survivors having to leave, having to find shelter or having to access the legal system, having to call the police or whatever that might be, that the focus really is on on the offenders and on making offenders stop. Instead of survivors having to scramble for resources and for services and for safety, let's focus on the offenders. And I don't have some magic vision of what that might look like, but I just feel really strongly that we put that burden far too much on survivors. And that's just been the case since the beginning. And I'd really like to see us shift that conversation.


Wonderful things, too. So to finish up, I guess we will maybe give you some time to maybe do a shout-out for your organization. I'd love for you to maybe talk about how listeners can support Project Safeguard, and support survivors in their community.


Okay. Well, we would love to have you follow us on social media. We are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. Please follow us there. We are just about to launch a new website which we're really excited about at www.PSGHelps.org. Check us out there and we would very much love your financial support. Any contribution you can make, no matter how small, will really make a difference in our ability to serve the survivors who really need our help.


Spur of the Moment is produced by Lasso Digital, a marketing and fundraising agency with the goal of helping nonprofits raise more funds to spread their vision and achieve their mission. Our host is Annika Pelkey, and our music is by Sean Hess. To find more episodes of Spur of the Moment or to learn more about Lasso Digital, check out our website lassodigital.co.

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