At Sojourner House, a domestic and sexual violence agency where I serve as the executive director, we have witnessed a marked increase in requests for help during the COVID-19 era. The social isolation that victims are experiencing, coupled with the increased opportunities for violence to erupt in the home, is resulting in unparalleled requests for help. At the same time, I have seen the media and the community at large express more significant concern for victims of abuse during this pandemic.
While I certainly appreciate the additional attention that these issues are currently receiving, I know this to be true, rates of domestic and sexual violence are not going to decrease when the coronavirus is no longer confining us to our homes. Before COVID-19, rates of domestic and sexual violence were distressingly high, and after this era comes to a close, incidents will still occur at alarming rates.
How can we truly start to work towards decreasing rates of abuse? Victim services agencies like Sojourner House have continued to implement crisis intervention services during this period of social distancing, and we have learned some lessons in the past few weeks that would be useful to integrate into our post-coronavirus world. Namely:
- There are still salient income and social status disparities that our tech-savvy world can’t overcome. During this time of quarantine and home confinement, most of Sojourner House’s staff has moved to work remotely, aside from keeping a limited staffing structure at our shelters. We have made ourselves available via phone, email, and even a texting feature. However, if a client doesn’t have access to a phone or a computer, the technology we’ve mastered is rendered useless. We have no way to communicate with the clients who used to be in touch with us in person through our Drop-In Center or Housing Office. Technology is undoubtedly a tool in our work, but it cannot be the only solution.
- There are not enough resources to meet the demands for help. Funders, community leaders, and elected officials have approached me over the last few weeks, asking how they can support Sojourner House’s work. The relief offered is welcome and essential to helping us meet the increased need for our services, but these resources must continue to flow to providers even after we get through the COVID-19 pandemic. People often ask me why we have so many families on our waiting list who want to access housing. My primary response is that we don’t have enough funding to provide housing and supportive services to everyone who needs them. We have to commit to making housing and safety a priority for everyone. To make that happen, we need funding – and a lot of it.
- Laws are not enough. Laws that protect domestic violence and sexual assault victims are essential, and many existing laws should be stronger to hold more perpetrators accountable, but legal remedies aren’t going to solve the root causes of violence. We need to invest in prevention education and be mindful that changing cultural attitudes is a multi-generational process. Restraining orders are life-saving to some, but at the end of the day, they are a piece of paper. We have to be committed to working towards a world where violence doesn’t happen in the first place.
- We can’t ignore gender when addressing issues of domestic and sexual violence. We aren’t going to solve the problems of intimate partner violence until we recognize that gender oppression exists in our society. While individuals of any gender can be a victim of abuse, domestic violence in a relationship is the result of how we construct ideas about gender, power, and control in our society. We must recognize these dynamics, and we have to address them directly.
- Intersectional approaches to service delivery are the only way forward. Victim services agencies can’t do this work in a vacuum; instead, we have to partner with other organizations that have the expertise that can complement our services. Our clients present various struggles, often all happening at the same time. They need legal counsel, immigration assistance, child care subsidies, health care, a job with a living wage, help with securing their first month’s rent and their security deposit, and affordable mental health treatment, among other needs. As a crisis intervention agency, we can help with some of these urgent needs, but not all. We have to be better at working collaboratively with other service providers.
Domestic and sexual violence have always been complex social issues; they just haven’t been as visible as they are now. Victim services agencies are accustomed to working on shoe-string budgets to solve these challenging, multi-faceted issues. We have work to do – now, during the COVID-19 era, and after this pandemic is over – to ensure everyone is safe at home, at work, and in their daily routine.
By Vanessa Volz, executive director at Sojourner House