Local domestic, sexual violence rise during pandemic

TESTING, TESTING: The pandemic has prompted organizations including Our VOICE to provide case management, legal and medical advocacy virtually. Clockwise from left, Our VOICE program director Amparo Penny, volunteer coordinator Quinn Nevel and court/legal advocacy coordinator Cynthia Clark go through a trial run of a software that allows survivors to connect with volunteers. Photo courtesy of Angelica Wind

At night, Angelica Wind lies awake worrying. As the executive director of Our VOICE, an Asheville-based nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking, she fears that her organization’s already-limited resources will run out. That she won’t be able to help someone in a moment of crisis. 

Wind recognizes that for many, Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order was a protective measure to keep the community safe from COVID-19. But for others, home isn’t safe: If someone is trapped in close quarters with an abuser, social distancing becomes incredibly dangerous.

“COVID-19 has a way of exacerbating sexual violence and human trafficking, as well as domestic violence and child abuse,” Wind explains. The inability to seek safe shelter, housing insecurity, lack of access to food and high rates of unemployment, she says, can all contribute to increased violence. 

With no end to the pandemic in sight, local organizations are preparing for a rise in violence despite their limited resources. Because at the end of the day, Wind says, “It’s all about survivors.”  

A looming need

Asheville-based Helpmate, which provides domestic violence services, has seen a 25% spike in calls to its emergency hotline during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to last year, says executive director April Burgess-Johnson. Over all of 2019, the nonprofit sheltered 225 people; this year, it’s sheltered 108 from April through June alone. 

When stress is high in a family, those already disposed to use control and violence are more likely to use these tactics, explains Burgess-Johnson. 

“That, combined with the overall stress of the pandemic and the fact that batterers and victims are in close proximity to one another, trapped in a house together, means that need will continue to swell,” she adds. 

Sexual violence and human trafficking are among the country’s most underreported crimes due to social stigma and the fear of being blamed for one’s own victimization, notes Wind. Our VOICE is now receiving a “dramatic difference in calls” from what the nonprofit saw at the pandemic’s onset in March, she says, although overall numbers remain slightly lower than last year’s count. 

Asheville’s Mountain Child Advocacy Center, which focuses on child abuse and neglect, is also reporting lower numbers overall, says Executive Director Geoff Sidoli. Child sexual abuse is less likely to be reported until years after the fact, Sidoli says, though he suspects the rise in domestic violence driven by COVID-19 is impacting children both directly and indirectly now. The seriousness of physical abuse cases received has also escalated.

“It’s tough to hide if your two-year-old has a broken femur. They’re going to scream until you get them help,” Sidoli says.

Running low

Under normal circumstances, Helpmate can house 20 individuals at its permanent shelter — but that count relies on occupants sharing rooms and bathrooms, Burgess-Johnson says. Instead, the nonprofit has partnered with a local hotel to provide secure shelter with maximum social distancing. 

To help pay for the auxiliary shelter, Helpmate received $15,000 from Buncombe County and a $20,000 contribution from Dogwood Health Trust. An application for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pending. But the uncertainty leaves Burgess-Johnson concerned. 

“The scary reality is that we’re running out of money before the pandemic is ending,” she says.  

Our VOICE has cut its housing capacity in half to accommodate social distancing guidelines. The organization has also experienced cuts in funding, including two grants reduced by 21% and 35%, respectively. 

“The reality is that there are a lot of survivors who are making that difficult decision to stay in a difficult situation because they’re seeing across the community that there needs to be more resourcing of these crucial services,” Wind says.

Adapting to a virtual world

Like everyone else adjusting to remote work and virtual services during COVID-19, violence support organizations are facing new challenges. One wrinkle, Wind says, is the importance of reading body language when working with survivors, which has proven more difficult to do from a distance.

Our VOICE volunteer advocates are now using video calls to provide support to survivors who go to Mission Hospital for medical examinations, as well as telehealth services for counseling sessions. Helpmate is also using telehealth services and video calls to assist survivors, as well as confidential virtual intake sessions to individuals seeking walk-in assistance at Buncombe County’s Family Justice Center. 

Typically, September is MCAC’s busiest month because kids return to school and begin to report abuse that occurred over the summer, Sidoli says. With the uncertainty around the return to in-person classrooms, MCAC anticipates new needs will emerge from remote education. In response, both MCAC and Helpmate are working to develop a series of remote learning modules for area schools to ensure students can still learn how to set healthy boundaries and resolve conflicts without violence.

MCAC has also shifted to virtual mental health services for roughly 170 children, Sidoli notes — an obstacle when more than half of child abuse cases occur in children ages zero to eight. “Doing video therapy with a four year old is challenging at best,” he says with a laugh. 

Using a computer to look up resources may not be an option for many who need help — especially if a batterer is monitoring internet activity. To bridge that gap, the three organizations have partnered with the YMCA of Western North Carolina to share printed flyers with resources at food distribution markets.  

But as the world increasingly moves online, Burgess-Johnson emphasizes the need to be aware that violence is still occurring and that help is available. 

“This is a time when we’re asked to physically distance from one another,” Burgess-Johnson says. “But please do your best not to socially distance from your neighbors who may be isolated and at a greater risk now if there is violence going on in their relationship.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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