Domestic violence on the rise during pandemic

Reta Griffith, executive director of the Family Refuge Center

Although the COVID-19 crisis has caused their offices to close for the past couple of months, staffers at the Family Refuge Center have been busier than ever lately.

Headquartered in Lewisburg, the FRC is a community-based domestic violence project that provides services to residents of Greenbrier, Monroe and Pocahontas counties and support for sexual assault victims in Mercer County.

Executive director Reta Griffith spoke with The Register-Herald as Greenbrier County saw a rising number of domestic violence reports coming into both the 911 Center and the FRC’s hotline this month. The uptick occurred even as the governor’s stay-at-home order transitioned into a less-restrictive safer-at-home directive.

But the stresses of being without the usual diversions and, often, without a job due to shutdowns and layoffs at area businesses were already percolating in some of those homes.

“When utility shut-off notices start coming in, look for violence,” Griffith said. “Generally, we also see a spike at the end of the school year, when there’s the extra stress of having kids at home all day. Everybody’s home all day now, and we’re seeing the result.”

Typically, the FRC receives about two shelter intake calls every day from Greenbrier County residents, Griffith noted. The people who call — usually women — may be looking for a place to go when they leave their abuser or sometimes just need somebody to talk to, she said.

Additional calls come in seeking help securing protective orders. Those average one every other day, although they often seem to arrive in clusters of two or three in a single day, Griffith said.

But the recent increase in the call volume, she said, primarily has come from third parties.

“We’re getting calls from other concerned family members — people who say, ‘My daughter, my niece, my friend is having a problem,’” Griffith said. “But there’s not much we can do with those calls, due to confidentiality concerns. We have to talk with the client to get a protective order or take other action.”

She emphasized, however, that a protective order is not a prerequisite for being granted shelter by the FRC. With a capacity of around 15 residents, FRC’s Anne Blair House provides emergency shelter and supportive services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. If the need exceeds the capacity, the FRC can tap into other resources.

“We don’t turn anyone away due to lack of space,” Griffith said.

There are ways friends and family can help a victim of abuse.

“If you know about a domestic violence situation, let law enforcement know, assist the person if you can, let them know you’ll help,” Griffith said.

Getting the victim away from the volatile situation and into a place from which she can safely talk with an FRC advocate may be the best course.

“Call our crisis line for instructions on how to leave safely and where to go,” Griffith said. “Remember, the most dangerous time is when you leave an abuser, because the abuser will often panic.”

When a call comes in to the crisis line, the FRC employee taking the call asks which county the caller is living in and if she is calling from a safe number or needs to meet at a different location, like a law enforcement office or a hospital. The employee then contacts an advocate in the caller’s county who will obtain further information from the client.

The case management process that follows that initial contact involves finding out what the client needs and facilitating the fulfillment of those needs — everything from finding a rental unit, establishing a checking account and getting a state ID to signing up for benefits and locating a nearby food pantry.

“You kind of meet them where they are,” Griffith said.

All Family Refuge Center services are free.

With FRC offices tentatively scheduled to reopen as early as June 1, staff and volunteers will be focusing a substantial portion of their efforts on sanitizing those spaces for the safety of clients and the people working there. That undertaking will involve tasks such as replacing upholstered furniture with plastic chairs, disinfecting electronic devices and ensuring office furniture allows for proper social distancing upon reopening.

Griffith said she believes volunteers will pitch in on the initial office sanitizing and ongoing disinfection of various donated items, which include the furniture, dishes and other household goods a survivor needs to relocate.

“It’s added a huge labor element to our work,” Griffith said of the pandemic which is also driving up domestic violence.

“With increased tensions due to the COVID-19 crisis, there are more stressors than before, and some people are finding themselves in social isolation with their abusers,” Griffith said, noting that in West Virginia one in six women and one in 21 men will be a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault at some point in their lives.

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For additional information about the services offered by the Family Refuge Center, call 304-645-6334 or visit www.familyrefugecenter.org.

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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