With power-based violence on the rise, local organizations pivot to meet survivors’ needs during a pandemic

My Sister’s Place, A Women’s Shelter in the District of Columbia

By Shannon Durazo

WASHINGTON – Rikki Nathanson’s day usually starts with a meeting with her team, a “pow-wow” about roles and responsibilities for the upcoming shift and a COVID-19 staff report that she has to do daily for the DC government. 

Nathanson is a transgender activist and housing director at Casa Ruby, an LGBTQ community services center and homeless shelter located in the District that has remained open during the pandemic. On a typical day Casa Ruby is normally serving dozens of short-term visitors and assisting many other long-term residents with housing options, but during COVID-19 Nathanson said things have become quiet.

“The major impact that we’ve seen is a slowing down of our activities and our services,” said Nathanson. “Our numbers have been impacted dramatically.”

Nathanson said in a phone interview that prior to the pandemic, the organization’s 24-hour drop-in center saw an average of 50 to 100 visitors per-day, but now that has declined to “next to nothing.” In addition, its long-term residents are currently down by one third of its numbers from this time last year. 

While Casa Ruby has seen a decline in traffic to its services, advocacy organizations in DC have seen a dramatic increase in traffic to their crises hotlines. According to data retrieved from DC SAFE, a 24-hour crises intervention organization in the District, from mid-March to October calls with survivors increased from an average of under 500 minutes per day in March to nearly 1,000 minutes per day later in the year. The organizations states that on multiple occasions advocates logged over 1,000 minutes on the phone in just one day. Across the United States, law enforcement agencies have seen a 35% increase in calls to domestic violence units.

“It’s a very difficult time for survivors,” said Rebekah “Becky” Lee, founder and executive director of Becky’s Fund, a local nonprofit that works to end domestic violence.  Lee said in a Zoom interview that the pandemic can create a “perfect storm” of factors that can contribute to survivors feeling trapped in their abusive relationships. These include illness, job loss, economic insecurity and prolonged social isolation.

Lee said COVID-19 has impacted Becky’s Fund and other member organizations within the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence network in a variety of ways, but one of the greatest impacts is the restriction on in-person outreach to survivors, despite the fact that calls have increased to her organization by about 30%. She said that although technology like Zoom and FaceTime has helped, it also has its downsides.

“There’s still that lack of human connection that I think is very much needed and a big part of someone’s healing process,” said Lee.

Becky Lee on the impact of COVID-19 on survivors of DV/IPV

Amanda Katz, executive director of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that at the beginning of the shutdown in March her organization’s help line was less busy, but over the summer when restrictions began to be lifted “people just started flooding and flooding us with calls.”

 Katz said although there has been a steady increase in demand for advocacy services over the summer, with the pandemic’s economic impacts some other sister agencies to JCADA have had their funding and hours cut, causing clients from those organizations to funnel to her own already strained victim advocates.

“There’s a lot of squeeze in the victim services community right now,” said Katz. “We all have full case-loads and we have wait lists for people to get services.”

Katz said not only have the calls themselves increased as well, but so have the duration of calls due to the necessity of providing survivors with an immediate remote safety plan due to restrictions on in-person consultations. On top of this, she said her organization has had the added financial burden of setting every staff member up with the capacity to work from home in a field where privacy and confidentiality are of the utmost importance.

“So not only are our clients in a situation where they may not have the privacy to reach out for help and speak to a counselor, at the same time our counselors also had to have the capacity to take a phone call privately,” said Katz.

The quiet period of March through May followed by a surge in outreach over the summer was not unique to just the local victim advocacy and nonprofit sector. Civil protection orders are the primary legal option available for survivors to get distance from their abusers, but according to data obtained from the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts, in Montgomery County there were only 63 total domestic violence civil protection order hearings issued in April. In July, that number quadrupled to 266. Similarly, in Prince George’s County there were only 241 domestic violence protective order hearings issued in March, while in July that number rose to 831. 

“The courts basically had to shut down for a while,” said Diane Weinroth, instructor and supervising attorney with the Women and the Law Clinic at the Washington College of Law. 

Weinroth said in a Zoom interview that although local courts initially prioritized offering victims of domestic violence with temporary protection orders, those typically expire in 14 days while standard civil protection orders that can last up to a year. Usually on the fourteenth day of a temporary protection order a victim receives their hearing, but with the pandemic there were significant delays alongside issues with remote coordination.

 “I think it’s very challenging when you can’t go down to the courthouse or go to an offsite location to file,” said Weinroth.

Weinroth said in addition it was important to note the majority of individuals who file for protection orders do not have their own lawyers and legal service organizations that are stretched thin right now can only deal with a small percentage of survivors.

“You could file for a protection order, you could even get a temporary protection order, but there was no way to predict when you would actually have a hearing to get you one-year protection order,” said Weinroth.

“Back in March, you know, the courts were closed,” said Dominique Nash. “There was a big backlog of paperwork so the court system started primarily distributing temporary protection orders and then had that big influx of civil protection orders later in the summer.”

Nash is the operations manager of the Prince George’s County Family Justice Center. The Family Justice Center is an initiative of the Maryland Circuit Courts and provides legal services to survivors of power-based violence. 

Nash said that in PG County domestic violence is “at an all-time high” during the pandemic. She said the biggest adjustment thus far for the Family Justice Center and its network is to provide the same level of in-person care and resources to survivors, something she said ultimately she thinks the organization has adapted well to.

While legal services and victim advocacy organizations continue to adjust to the circumstances of the pandemic, they are also looking for ways to innovate to make the process smoother for the future. Lee said Becky’s Fund recently partnered with Appnector LLC to create a mobile app ENDOVI, which provides safe and silent support to survivors of domestic violence who cannot find safe places in their homes to reach out to advocates.

“I don’t think we are going to be going back very soon to in-person,” said Lee. “We realize our future is not going to change drastically in terms of how we’re going to be providing services and it’s going to continue to be this sort of virtual world.”

Katz said she anticipates the virus to have a great impact on the domestic violence support services sector even after the pandemic is over.

“You know you read articles about after natural disasters, power-based violence just shoots up, and that’s what we’re going to see with this pandemic too,” said Katz.

Regardless of the constraints and challenges ahead, Lee said advocacy organizations will continue to provide as much support as possible to survivors during the pandemic.

“I think that it’s important to note that we’re all going through this together, and what you’re going through you’re not alone and there is a way out,” said Lee in her advice to current survivors in the DMV region.

“As a community, we all have our responsibility to do our part,” Lee said.    

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