By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ, FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT, Sunday, January 31, 2021 —
YWCA SONOMA COUNTY
Santa Rosa nonprofit answers call as more abuse victims reach out –
Sheltering in place has helped slow the spread of COVID-19, but in some areas of the country and the world, a worrying side effect has appeared — an increase in domestic violence.
As lockdowns were put in place, health experts warned that the forced isolation, economic strain and increased family stress could create a perfect mix of factors to escalate domestic abuse.
In the early months of the pandemic, police departments in Portland, Oregon, New York City and San Antonio reported increases in domestic abuse calls and arrests of 10 to 22%, according to the National Institutes of Health. A study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, of police records from March, April and May 2020 in 14 large U.S. cities showed a 7.5% increase in 911 calls related to domestic violence.
Sonoma County, too, has seen a rise in domestic violence during the pandemic, according to Jessica Nunn Provost, domestic violence services manager at YWCA Sonoma County.
For more than 44 years, the nonprofit organization has worked to eliminate domestic violence, offering services tailored to an individual victim’s needs, from temporary residence in a confidential safe house, therapy and therapeutic preschool for small children to legal assistance, advocacy and help with finding a job or home. The primary way people access the YWCA’s services is through its 24/7 crisis hotline. In the first few months of the pandemic, calls were fairly infrequent. Forced to isolate with their abusers, victims may find it difficult or even impossible to safely phone for help. At the same time, police witnessed more instances of domestic abuse, Nunn Provost said. “Lockdown was stressful for everybody, but it can be a recipe for disaster in the context of domestic violence,” she said. “We did see some quiet time in the initial couple of months, with many people unable to contact us. At the same time, though, law enforcement saw an increase in real-time abuse. As things have evolved and people have found safer times to reach out, calls to our crisis hotline have doubled.”
In Sonoma County, one in four families experience violence at home, according to YWCA Sonoma County. Those who reach out to the organization are met with a personalized set of services.
“People call in and talk to one of our trained, trauma-informed advocates who assess what the needs are,” CEO Madeleine Keegan O’Connell said.
This is no cookie-cutter operation. Each person seeking help from YWCA has a unique story, and each is provided with an individual problem-solving approach. One person might only require legal guidance, while another needs temporary residence in the safe house, therapy and a range of other services offered by YWCA and its partners.
Some of YWCA’s services have been altered by necessity during the pandemic. For example, the therapy program currently uses teletherapy services with clients, including children.
The pandemic also has made raising funds more difficult than ever. The organization’s all-important annual fundraising luncheon, “Women, Wine, Chefs and Cheese,” couldn’t be held in 2020. O’Connell continues to send direct mail appeals to supporters, has expanded YWCA’s social media and is grateful for long-term relationships with local foundations such as Community Foundation Sonoma County.
Perhaps the most important fundraising tool at the moment is the organization’s website, ywcasc.org. Donations of any amount can be made on the homepage.
Aiding women in need
YWCA Sonoma County was founded in 1975 when a group of community members began to notice women and children sleeping in their cars – a much more unusual sight than it is today.
“When they realized that these women and children were fleeing violence in their homes and had nowhere to go, they wanted to do something about it,” O’Connell said.
The community group applied to YWCA USA to create a Sonoma County affiliate offering domestic violence services. Establishing the crisis hotline was one of the first things the fledgling nonprofit accomplished. Today, the hotline receives more than 3,000 calls annually.
Recognizing the need for a confidential safe house to shelter victims fleeing violence, the organization raised money and in 1980 bought a residential building with eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, two kitchens, a play area for children and a living room for adults. It was one of the nation’s first domestic violence shelters.
Today the residence serves more than 2,000 adults and children each year, with stays that range from a day or two up to two months, depending on the situation. The safe house has stayed open throughout the pandemic, adhering to recommended safety procedures.
“It’s an inviting place,” O’Connell said. “People who come here have given up everything, and our goal is to envelop them in the warm nature of this home.”
‘Totally changed my life’
One of the YWCA’s recent success stories involves a young woman, whose name has been omitted here to protect her identity as a victim of domestic abuse. One day shortly before the birth of her third child, a girl, the woman’s partner attempted to strangle her in front of her two young boys.
Violence in this household was nothing new, but for the woman and for many victims of domestic violence, leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult. A victim may fear the abuser’s retaliation, have little money or worry about becoming homeless. They might be torn over what’s best for their children or have so little self-esteem after years of abuse that decision-making is nearly impossible.
A week or so after the attempted strangling, the young woman’s daughter was born. Her mother and sister, with whom she had been too ashamed to discuss or even acknowledge her abusive relationship, visited her in the hospital.
“They told me they knew everything,” the woman recalled, “and that I couldn’t take my kids and the newborn back to that house.”
She denied being in an abusive relationship, but her mother and sister pressed harder. They had learned about the YWCA’s confidential safe house and urged the woman to call the organization’s 24/7 crisis hotline.
In the end, the woman knew they were right. She called, and she and her kids moved to the confidential safe house shelter where they underwent individual and family therapy. The preschool’s therapeutic program allowed the boys to be able to talk about the stresses they had experienced. Her oldest boy hadn’t been speaking much, but once in the safe house, the woman said, “He opened up. He was smiling, laughing.”
Now, she said, her family is “thriving.” They live in an apartment and she has a stable job, both found with the help of YWCA.
“I’ve totally changed my life around,” the woman said. “I feel that I’ve found my purpose in life, to help others. If it weren’t for these programs, I don’t know where I would be right now.”
While women and children constitute the majority of people helped by YWCA Sonoma County, male victims of domestic violence also seek help. They constitute approximately 5% of those using the organization’s services, including use of the safe house.
“We are here to serve everybody who identifies as a survivor of domestic violence,” Nunn Provost said. “That includes men. Gender identity isn’t a factor. The point is that, when it comes to violence, the story is the same for everyone.”