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31 Mar 2020

Pandemic Stories: Agencies That Help Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Adapt to the New, Stay-at-Home Reality

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Even in the best of times, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. That adds up to more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.

But these aren’t the best of times. As the nation and the world try to limit the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told to stay home as much as possible—and that means that under these stressful circumstances, a lot of domestic-abuse and sexual-assault victims are being forced to constantly stay under the same roof as their abusers.

Angelina Coe is the executive director of Shelter From the Storm, the Palm Desert-based shelter and service provider for victims of domestic violence. She said the organization has needed to make a lot of changes during these unprecedented circumstances.

“Clients who are not currently in shelter but are receiving services from us are impacted, because everything is being done by teletherapy and telephonically,” she said. “There are no in-person meetings, for their safety and the safety of our staff as well, in order to maintain social distancing and make sure were not adding to the spread of the coronavirus. We don’t know what interactions (our clients) have had, and they don’t know what interactions (our staff members) have had.

“To not be able to come here for solace, safety, counseling and guidance (makes) a huge impact,” Coe said. “They (in the past) came in to receive in-kind donations and food distribution, things like that. Now they don’t have that readily available to them.”

Over at Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS), program director Winette Brenner and her team help victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. She said it’s important for people to know that there is still help available.

“We have had calls, but I feel that we are getting fewer calls, and I do think that it has to with the pandemic,” Brenner said. “People are afraid. People do not know what to do, or who to call, because everyone is in panic mode. Now, do I think that’s going to continue? No, I don’t. I think the more that the media get out there and let people know what services are available and where, that’s going to help. That’s our No. 1 focus—to let people know that, yes, we are in a pandemic, but we are still here to help you in the best ways we know how, and to the best of our abilities.

“We still have our 24-hour crisis hotline up, and anybody can still call that number and get a live person, not an automated recording,” Brenner said. (That number: 800-656-4673.) “We work closely with the law-enforcement agencies and SAFE services at Eisenhower Medical Center. We all work as a team for the sexual-assault victims, (and) we had to come up with a plan for the best way to continue to give services. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic going on, at this time, we’re not able to respond physically to be at the hospital or the police department, but the hospital’s SAFE services (personnel are) still able to do the exams, and then they are referring the client to us, and we do the follow-up work. The same is true with law enforcement: Each particular law-enforcement agency has established their own protocols as to how they (participate), but we’re all still continuing to provide services for the victims and their family members.

“Because of the pandemic and because of the world we live in, sexual assault and human trafficking does not stop. Sad as that is, it doesn’t. So we’re really trying to come up with new ways to use the platforms that we have available, like Zoom (the video conferencing platform) and telephone conference calls.”

Back at Shelter From the Storm, Coe said that she, too, wants people to know that some help is still available.

“We are seeing a decrease in calls,” Coe said. “But we’re not sure exactly what the dynamic is. Is it because everybody’s home? Is it because of the uncertainty about where they’re going to go? Is it because there’s an additional fear about what happens next, and, ‘Am I going to be even more exposed (to the coronavirus) at a shelter than I would be staying home?’ There are a lot of factors there. But our hotline is still available. Our staff is still present and available in both English and Spanish.

“Our main focus now is safety planning—not safety planning around the client leaving (an abusive environment), necessarily, but safety planning if they have to stay.”

Coe ran down a list of challenges her team is trying to address.

“We are in the process of working on teletherapy via video conferencing, but that takes some time to set up—to make sure (victims) have a confidential location where they can take that video conferencing,” Coe said. “Our service is all about anonymity and confidentiality, so they can’t open up and disclose what’s really going on, or what the issues are that they really would like to discuss, if their children are in the room, or if their partner is still in the household, or if they’re living with other people for their safety. You really can’t get into that one-on-one dynamic. … A lot of (victims) do not want to participate in the telephonic counseling, because they don’t feel it’s effective, or they don’t have a phone available. Not everybody has a cell phone that they’re not sharing with someone else, or (they don’t have) the minutes to do that, especially if they (have no) income right now, because they’re not working due to the businesses being closed. Or they don’t have child care, because the schools are closed, which is a huge impact to our community clients.

Coe said Shelter From the Storm has needed to stop accepting donations of physical items during the pandemic.

“That creates a huge impact, because a lot of (clients) rely on those items of clothing and food and hygiene (products), backpacks and other every-day regular things that you’d (normally) just run to the Dollar Tree for,” she said. “… Without an income, they need those items even more, and we’re unable to provide them. So, it’s just huge for our community clients.”

The pandemic is causing challenges for the nonprofit’s in-shelter clients, too.

“The biggest impact for them is the uncertainty about what happens to them when their time (in shelter) is up,” Coe said. “Maybe other programs aren’t accepting new clients, or everything is on hold, because a landlord doesn’t want to take in a new tenant right now, since they don’t know what (that tenant) could expose them to. So that’s a huge fear factor, in addition to (the realities that) the client has already left their family; they’re here by themselves; and there’s no outlet, since we’ve restricted their movement in and out, because they’re sheltering in place. California has said everyone should stay at home, and that’s their home. They’re interacting only with the staff at the shelter, and they are missing out on many support services that would have been available to them during a normal stay. That’s causing additional anxiety, and our counseling has changed its focus to anxiety and coping skills, along with understanding the factors of: (What happens) if you are exposed? What are we doing to keep you safe? Why are we keeping you on ‘lockdown?’”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is currently unable to accept new in-shelter clients because of concerns over COVID-19.

“We’re not taking in any new families, because we have no way to isolate them and to ensure that they’re safe, (while) not exposing our current clients to additional factors that we can’t afford to expose them to—and the same thing with our staff,” she said. “So what happens to them?”

Then there’s the financial picture: The nonprofits rely on government support, as well as community support via donations—and the pandemic and shelter-in-place reality has financially devastated both government budgets and members of the community. However, both Brenner and Coe said their organizations will do what it takes to keep offering the much-needed services they provide.

“All of our services are free of charge, and we work hard to keep it that way,” Brenner said, reassuringly. “I think right now that the best thing I’m doing for my staff is telling them not to panic, and that we will continue to offer the services that we have and that we can. As far as our financial security, right now, it’s a day-to-day issue. I think it’s too early to say what the future holds. But as long as we’re still working, I think we’re going to be OK. I haven’t heard anything different from the state. We’re still being supported (by the state), and our doors are still open, and we still have some (staff) in here for the victims.”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is planning for the worst, but she remains optimistic.

“We are working on contingency plans in case we do have to reduce staffing numbers, or if we need to shut the shelter down (due to) whatever mandate might come down the line,” Coe said. “But we don’t think that will happen, simply because of the kind of shelter that we are, and what we’re doing to support the individuals who do reach us. But if that happens, how would we be moving forward? What would that look like? How would our staff survive? We don’t have anyone working here just because they enjoy the job. They all need an income—so we have to make sure that they’re sustainable as well.”

Despite all the darkness, Coe—whose shelter for victims of abuse is the only such refuge in the Coachella Valley—managed to find some proverbial silver linings.

“It’s been an intense time,” Coe said. “The Coachella Valley has been really good. Supervisor (V. Manuel) Perez’s office and the county have been really good about having weekly call-in meetings with providers and sending out updates. The (California) Partnership to End Domestic Violence has been a wonderful support network as well, (providing) scheduled weekly and bimonthly meetings to check in with other shelters, other leadership and get the most updated information.

“Again, we’re always pushing everyone to wash their hands, to keep social distancing, and to clean hard services as much as possible. We’re just doing our best to keep going.”

If you are dealing with domestic violence, call Shelter From the Storm at 760-328-7233. For more information on Shelter From the Storm, call 760-674-0400, or visit www.shelterfromthestorm.com. If you are a victim of sexual assault, get help by calling the 24-hour crisis line at 800-656-4673.

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