ST. ALBANS — For some Vermonters, the shelter-in-place order is as dangerous as COVID-19. According to advocates across the state, sexual and domestic violence increased since Gov. Phil Scott ordered Vermonters to stay home; many survivors are trapped at home with their abusers or are in environments where the ripple effects of the pandemic have created further instability.
In some cases, reports of violence dropped. But silence does not mean abuse has disappeared. Instead, advocates fear survivors can’t access help and abuse is going unreported.
During a virtual meeting on May 1, Rep. Peter Welch heard from members of the Vt. Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence about how the pandemic has affected survivors, how organizations have adapted, what kind of needs still exist, and what the aftermath of the pandemic might resemble.
The network is a federally recognized coalition made up of 15 independent member organizations providing domestic and sexual violence advocacy to survivors.
When the virus first began to creep into Vermont, Director of Voices Against Violence, Kris Lukens, remembered hotline usage dropped—then shot up, following the “Stay Home” order. “That always worries us a little; it’s not that violence has stopped, but for some reason survivors are not able to access us,” she said.
Voices Against Violence is a domestic violence service in ST. Albans which covers Franklin and Grand Isle Counties. They run a temporary emergency shelter called Laurie’s House and offer support for transitional housing, legal aid through Relief from Abuse orders, family support, education, and supervised visitation via their All About Kids program.
According to Lukens, the complexity and severity of hotline calls also increased following stay home directives. “We’re seeing a lot of violence because people are in homes with their batterers,” she said at the meeting. “For the most part, we’re not getting calls around sexual violence as much as domestic. Before, we were getting a lot of sexual violence calls. That might mean if someone is assaulted, people are not necessarily going to the hospital. We’re worried about that—people not reporting it.”
Network member Anne Ward with Mosaic Vermont spoke to this silence as well, noting how children and youth in unsafe situations might be disproportionately affected in the pandemic. Usually, she sees multiple cases investigating child sexual abuse a week. “We’ve seen only one in the last several weeks. That is terrifying,” she said. “Children right now don’t have access to safe adults if they’re in a harmful home situation. My heart is very scared for the silence of the children right now.”
She’s also seen a “rapid destabilization” for folks who have recently exited violent situations, pointing specifically to folks in sex trafficking situations, that could create a relapse into unsafe environments. Ward also said she’s seen the “same lack of folks attending sexual assault exams at the hospital,” which Lukens pointed to.
“As things adjust, the collective ‘we’ need to be really prepared for the trauma that is invisible right now that will be uncovered in the next couple years. I wonder if our systems will be able to support that,” said Ward.
“My heart is very scared for the silence of the children right now.”
Executive Director of the Clarina Howard Nichols Center, Becky Gonyea, sees challenges in how the pandemic has left many survivors feeling stagnant. “Folks can’t make progress. Everything is stopped right now. [Survivors] can’t search for housing, employment; it’s a huge new overwhelming barrier. Right now, it’s hard to keep hope,” said Gonyea. “We have seen folks return to abusive situations because it’s defeating.”
While her organization has extended outreach to survivors not in active engagement, Gonyea said many feel a “huge sense of isolation, especially for victims who just started a new job or just moved out of an abusive home.”
Communication barriers walk hand in hand with social separation, further complicating systems in place for responding to violence.
Lukens recalled situations when individuals’ phones have been taken away or smashed by abusers. “When [survivors] have reached out, we’ve found that there are not enough ways people can contact us. Not everyone has a phone, not everyone can use it, not everyone has wifi,” she said.
Normally, the organization is able to provide phones for survivors in need but according to Lukens, phones are not deemed essential goods in terms of coronavirus-related orders. “We did get some by begging Walmart,” Lukens said.
Other Network members echoed Lukens’ sentiments, pointing to communication as a barrier for many individuals.
Avaloy Lanning, who runs the NewStory center in Rutland, bought a batch of phones in mid-March because she heard that they soon wouldn’t be available. Now her store is dry.
Lanning has also seen increases in contact through different electronic means including email, text message, instant message and more. “We’re working with someone right now who we’ve been emailing back and forth for the past several days,” she recalled. “She emails us when her abuser is out of the room or outside. We’re able to work on her relief of abuse order in bits and pieces.”
Lanning explained at the virtual meeting that while the organization was fortunate to have upgraded their phone and tech system a year ago, she’s worried about meeting needs post-pandemic. “We’re concerned about the aftermath of all of this. We have 23 survivors and 16 children in emergency housing; I expect that’s going to go up when people are able to get out and I’m concerned about having enough places to put them and enough resources,” she said.”
While video conferencing app Zoom also has enabled many organizations in the network to stay connected with survivors in crisis, many advocates agree that something irreplaceable is lost without face-to-face interaction.
Ward with Mosaic Vermont raised concerns about added stress on LGBTQ+ youth feeling isolated in this pandemic, especially increases in self-harm and how to stay connected in rural settings. “It’s very hard to [connect] in a Zoom type setting [with youth],” said Ward.
“LGBTQ+ people are experiencing a variety of things; particularly unique to youth is feeling trapped at home with people who don’t understand their identities,” said Skylar Wolfe who works with LGBTQ+ youth and survivors statewide as the director of the SafeSpace Anti-Violence program with the Pride Center of Vt.
Wolfe noted that domestic and sexual violence perpetrated against LGBTQ+ people is also often a hate crime. “When we think about survivors, there is that added barrier of discrimination,” said Wolfe. “’If I apply for a job is there going to be added discrimination from the hiring committee? If I’m moving, are those roommates going to discriminate because of my identity?”
Executive Director of the Pride Center of Vermont Mike Bensel said the center is struggling financially because “we fall outside of federal grants.” While limited assistance was provided through the Payroll Protection Program, he noted trouble with the short period of forgiveness and lack of flexibility.
Lack of internet access has also been an issue for advocacy groups attempting to maintain connections without face-to-face contact.
In late March, Welch and Rep. Roger Marshall (R.-Kansas) introduced a $2 billion bill, Keeping Critical Connections, to “compensate small broadband providers that provide free or discounted broadband services for low-income families or students impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” according to a statement from Welch’s office.
“The COVID-19 crisis is showing that access to high-speed internet is as important as having access to electricity,” Welch told members of the Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Welch also addressed issues with the Payroll Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses to continue paying employees during COVID-19, and the lack of funding allocated to victims of sexual violence in the CARES Act, an over $2 trillion dollar coronavirus relief package passed in late March.
“The rules are getting in the way of the purpose of [the Payroll Protection] program. We’re trying to see in the next package if we can get more flexibility,” Welch said. “We have a problem with the CARES Act, that it doesn’t give specific funding for assault victims. A lot of us will be advocating for that in the next round of funding.”
Welch ended the meeting with deep thanks. “This trauma is going to be with us a while. You’re dealing with people in enormous stress; you have to comfort them as well as do concrete things to get that confidence to move on and move away from abusive situations. It takes a lot of heart and solidarity. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”