(Posted 2023 February)
When Domestic and Sexual Violence Services Division Director Toni Zollicoffer found out she was going to receive the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance Hope Award last fall, she was honored yet humble.
Zollicoffer received the award for a study group she led on partner abuse intervention and prevention. Recommendations from the group have led to changes in the way local and state agencies address the harm that takes place within intimate partner relationships.
Her work on this subject started before the study group came into existence. “In the state advisory committee, I felt an obligation to highlight that if we were ever going to get upstream in reducing intimate partner violence (IPV), we needed to involve those who cause harm,” she says. “We had been siloed in our approach to survivor services by having this false demarcation between what survivors are asking for and need and the services we provide to those who cause harm.”
Still, Zollicoffer says, it’s not an award she earned alone.
“I’m shying away from this as my honor. I feel like perhaps I am the face or poster child for this award that really goes to many people who have been sounding the alarm and doing the work to bring into view the importance of good service delivery and accountability for those who cause harm,” she says. “It’s the spotlight part. I could talk about this issue all day long. But there have been people who have been fighting for much longer and are much more dedicated than me.”
No one else was surprised she’s the recipient. The Hope Award, those around her say, seems tailor made for what Zollicoffer does on a daily basis.
“Toni’s creativity, passion, and dedication help increase recognition between accountability and safety statewide,” her senior management team wrote on the day of the award ceremony.
Angela Yeboah, advocacy services program manager in DSVS, echoes this statement. “Toni is a fearless and innovative visionary. She is a change maker with an infectious commitment and passion for ensuring communities are uniquely and equitably served.”
But preventing gender-based violence wasn’t on a young Toni’s radar screen.
College Toni knew she wanted to help those who seemed to be overlooked. “I knew I wanted to be in the field of helping particular marginalized populations access services and access them better. That was important to me,” she says. “I wanted to elevate voice and give opportunities for voice. I was drawn to that.”
So, Zollicoffer took her brand-new degree and her talents to the McKinney Act, housing homeless adults and families. She did that for a while, and then took a break to raise her children, having no idea a part-time facilitator job working for a batterer intervention program in Montgomery County, Maryland, that gave her the time to balance career and her children would change her path.
“I got an interesting perspective on those who cause harm, which was meaningful for me with helping decide my beliefs about what we need to do to prevent violence again women,” she says.
That led to a position as a program manager at the House of Ruth, which solidified her professional passion. “I fell in love with the ability to walk alongside someone in their journey and be a resource. I fell in love with understanding the complexity of IPV, particularly in the context of relationships. It drew me into wanting to make a difference in how we see domestic violence and in how we respond in a way that’s meaningful for survivors. That job was the job that sealed for me that this was my life’s work.”
After stints with So Others Might Eat and providing victim services for the mayor’s office in Washington, D.C., the division director of DSVS position in Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services sort of fell into her lap.
“I wasn’t looking for a new position,” Zollicoffer, who came to the county in 2018, says. “This position was the culmination of all I’d done before—program design, grant making, administration, with folks who experience trauma and need a way to get to the services they need to alleviate those symptoms, the ability to design programming that was meaningful for those we serve. Someone sent me the job and I felt, like, ‘oh my goodness! I can’t pass up this opportunity to take all I’ve learned and all I know and apply it to a position that had all those things rolled within.”
So far, it has exceeded her expectations, providing her with an opportunity to engage in a strategic planning process that defines the division and helping survivors get what they need so they can feel valued and that they matter. “I do a really cool job!” she says.
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