Area nonprofits predict increase in domestic violence, abuse calls as pandemic continues
When Colorado officials issued the stay-at-home public health order March 25, the purpose and intent was to ensure as many people self-quarantine and self-isolate at home as possible to drastically slow the spread of COVID-19.
By limiting people’s movement outside of their home to essential trips and services like visiting the grocery store or post office, health officials emphasized that more locals would be protected from the novel coronavirus, less people would have severe cases of COVID-19 and more lives would be saved.
But for some Roaring Fork Valley region locals, being forced to stay at home presents a different physical threat that may seem like more of an immediate danger than the coronavirus: domestic violence and sexual abuse.
“It’s very true that domestic violence victims are in a lot more danger in situations like this or any sort of natural disaster when there isn’t free movement or open access to their support systems,” Shannon Meyer, executive director of the Response nonprofit, said recently.
“There’s additional stress around job loss and economic security and kids being home right now, and there’s also a lot less opportunity for a victim to reach out without their abuser knowing.”
Response is a local nonprofit that aims to educate people on domestic violence and sexual abuse and to support survivors from Aspen to El Jebel.
Up until recently, Meyer said Response staff hadn’t seen a drastic increase in requests for help from new domestic violence victims as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and its subsequent stay-at-home orders, which in Pitkin County have been extended to April 30 and could go longer.
However, the nonprofit as of Monday has received 83 crisis calls since the start of 2020, up from 65 calls over the same period last year, Meyer said, and over the past week three domestic violence victims have reached out in need of emergency shelter.
Because Response only had received two emergency shelter requests since the start of 2020, the recent increase signals to Meyer that the nonprofit may be seeing the start of an increase in crisis cases — aligning with domestic violence trends that have been identified in other countries further along with their coronavirus outbreaks.
Since the local COVID-19 outbreak began, Meyer said her staff has shifted to working from home and conducting all of Response’s free crisis intervention services and case management remotely through telehealth calls.
Response also launched a chat option on its website, allowing victims to communicate with staff via text instead of over the phone. The nonprofit is still operating its call-in crisis line 24 hours a day and is still able to provide housing assistance, including emergency shelter stays at downvalley hotels, to clients in need. All Response services and information are available in English and Spanish.
Furthermore, Meyer said staff is even working with area essential workers in grocery stores and pharmacies to recognize signs of domestic violence and use the safe word “Mask 19” for victims to use if they are with their abuser but need help.
“I think anytime there’s an external crisis situation it’s only going to exacerbate whatever internal crisis may be going on in a relationship,” Meyer said. “That’s why we’re really pushing to ensure people know our services are still available to everyone.”
Similar to Response, the River Bridge Regional Center — which is a Glenwood Springs-based organization that provides collaborative services to child abuse victims and their families in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties — also is anticipating an increase in child abuse reporting and need for forensic interviews in the weeks ahead.
On April 5, Blythe Chapman, executive director of River Bridge, said it was unusual how few forensic interviews had been conducted since the COVID-19 outbreak and scary because she didn’t feel the numbers reflect what’s actually happening.
Forensic interviews are fact-finding, developmentally appropriate discussions between children who may be experiencing maltreatment or have been a victim of a crime and highly trained professionals, according to the River Bridge website.
By Monday, Chapman said the nonprofit child advocacy center had gotten busier and is seeing more referrals, and that she feels things will get even busier once stay at home orders are lifted.
“We don’t think that child sexual abuse or abuse in general is happening less frequently right now. We do think it’s probably happening more,” Chapman said.
“It’s really scary for us considering we know it’s happening and it’s not being reported. … We expect the need to come in waves as things continue to change with the coronavirus.”
River Bridge is still conducting forensic interviews and exams in-person but with fewer people involved and with screening for COVID-19 symptoms for the parents, children and interviewers involved. However, Chapman said the child advocacy center is exploring what virtual forensic interviewing would look like just in case that becomes the best and safest way to help potential victims moving forward.
Some of the center’s other services, including mental health, have made the full transition to virtual telehealth and staff is still on-call and available 24/7 for any emergency situations, Chapman said.
To be able to deal with the unknown but expected increase in child abuse reports, Chapman emphasized the most important thing her staff can do to prepare is stay healthy.
She also said she wants the community to know that the River Bridge Regional Center is open, still offering virtual and in-person services and remains a safe place for children who may be experiencing abuse.
“The truth is it’s been a lot of scrambling figuring out what’s going to happen, what the next step is and how do we continue to provide services,” Chapman said.
The River Bridge Regional Center and Response have taken a hit financially because of the pandemic. The nonprofits’ biggest annual fundraisers had to be canceled or postponed and both are seeking out additional funding opportunities to keep their staff paychecks whole.
Regardless, the organizations and their staff are working to ensure their levels of service and support for abuse survivors does not drop and victims still know how to find them.
“I think my biggest concern is people will think because there’s a stay-at-home order they shouldn’t report abuse right now and we want people to know that’s not true,” Chapman said. “If a report comes in it will be taken care of so we want the community to keep reporting. If you see something, say something.”
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