It’s been a year since COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, and while many things have changed, one thing remains the same – our mission and commitment to caring for women and children across the Miami Valley.
One of the areas of our organization most impacted by the pandemic has been our Crisis Services team. As the region’s longest-running 24-hour, year-round crisis hotline, our crisis support specialists are often the first line of support for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of intimate partner and gender-based violence.
From isolation at home to the financial strain of unemployment, COVID-19 has created conditions that intensify risk factors linked to domestic violence. We caught up with Leslie Impastato, crisis services manager, for an update on how calls to our crisis hotline have shifted amid the pandemic.
WARNING: The following interview contains descriptions of domestic violence and abusive situations that may be triggering to some readers.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the type of calls we’ve received to the hotline this year?
While call volume hasn’t necessarily increased, call lethality, or the risk for a woman to be killed by her abuser, has noticeably increased. Callers reported increased violent episodes, increased injuries, more severe injuries and threats by abusers to kill them. Women who left their abusers also experienced increased stalking by their abusers. These partners not only threatened and harassed women, they also threatened and harassed family members who were supporting women when they left.
I believe all of these factors can be attributed to the compound effects of the pandemic. Couples who already had a relationship based on an imbalance of power saw those dynamics worsen. Tactics used to gain control worsened under stressors caused by the pandemic – loss of wages, loss of childcare and educational supports, food insufficiency, and financial stress were exacerbated. Increased time at home, stress and isolation increased lethality risk. Women and children lost their ability to leave the home and seek outside resources. Many area agencies had limited access to their buildings, which limited available appointments for mental health, social services and health care.
How has loss of income or unemployment from COVID-19 impacted the calls we’ve received this year?
Lost employment has impacted women being able to save money to prepare to leave an abusive relationship. Accessing unemployment benefits and finding assistance for utilities and rent has also been a challenge. Getting through to agencies to apply for benefits and waiting for benefit assistance has been a challenge reported by many callers. There is such demand for assistance and the process to access assistance has been slow at times.
What are the biggest challenges our hotline team has faced as a result of this shift in calls?
One significant challenge has been the increase in the number of requests for shelter and limited shelter availability. Due to COVID safety protocols, alternative locations were utilized through specialized funds. Safety planning necessitated more creativity due to the challenges of COVID.
An additional complication is the shortage of available affordable housing. Women in shelters often can’t transition from shelter to their own home due to limited affordable housing in the Dayton metro area. Survivors of domestic violence face significant barriers to obtaining housing, including: limited or reduced income; credit history issues; or past evictions that limit housing options.
Available housing units are at a premium for anyone looking for rentals, but especially for those on a fixed or limited income. Public housing units are also limited, and women qualifying for emergency transfers in public housing due to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking are placed on wait lists.
Are there any success stories that you’d like you share?
Our hotline staff and shelter staff have remained committed to providing services to callers and clients throughout the pandemic. Staff have continued to provide onsite services to clients in shelter and walk-in clients throughout the COVID crisis. We have worked hard to provide great care and service, even with personal risk involved for contracting COVID. Our YWCA staff commitment was rewarding to see. We went to extraordinary efforts to ensure everyone’s safety and never stopped serving women in need.
I’m reminded of a client who was recently admitted to the shelter. She called our hotline terrified of her abuser. We remained in contact with her over the course of about 8 to 10 days in order to develop an exit plan. Survivors know that leaving can put them in danger, so they have to wait and plan for the best opening to leave without alerting their abusive partner. Once we had a shelter opening and coordinated the intake date with the caller, she worked out a plan with her neighbors to drive her to our shelter. It took time and collaboration and actively engaging with someone who was often expressing distress, fear, and anxiety.
Our hotline staff employed a great deal of skill to assist her during calls. Throughout the whole process, she expressed such appreciation to the staff who stayed in regular contact and helped her feel safe to leave. It’s rewarding to meet our callers and see them reach safety and, hopefully, opportunities for healing. She embraced all of us when we met her in shelter, and she has said, “You saved me.” That’s so humbling and rewarding.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing domestic violence, YWCA Dayton can help.
24/7 Crisis Hotline: 937-222-SAFE.