Maria Aranibar, a REACH intern, interviewed Director of Advocacy, Maria Pizzimenti, and advocates Blanca Huari and Gladys Ortiz on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted REACH, and how the Community Team has been able to incorporate new forms of advocacy work using technology.
How has COVID-19 impacted domestic violence and advocacy work?
Advocacy work has been impacted by COVID-19 in multiple ways. Maria explains that “going remote meant no longer being able to meet face-to-face with survivors.” The interpersonal aspect of advocacy was interrupted, and in the beginning of the stay at home order, it seemed impossible to provide these services without personal contact. Some of these services include filing restraining orders, accompanying survivors to court dates, and walking survivors through various applications. In addition, many survivors had fear and confusion about COVID-19, (federal) stimulus checks and whether they would be eligible for those or increased food stamps. Maria emphasized that due to the outbreak, many survivors went through overwhelming obstacles like unemployment. Advocates had to learn how to respond to these needs and be creative in how to connect with survivors. Because many survivors are isolated, possibly at home with their abuser, it can be harder to connect due to the increased risk.
“The work never slowed down, to the contrary it has increased in many different aspects,” explains Blanca. She elaborates that for many survivors, their advocates were the only source of support during this pandemic and that safety planning has to be tailored in a very unique way for each survivor. The pandemic not only made the work more difficult for advocates, it also made situations more dangerous for survivors. Many situations, like preparing to go to court, have also changed and become more anxiety inducing and time consuming. Gladys finds that instead of taking two hours in person to prepare for court, it now takes long phone calls over several days in order to fully prepare for court hearings conducted on the phone. Advocates have to work harder in order to help survivors overcome the anxiety of facing their abuser over video or teleconference while they are physically alone.
How has accessibility affected work with survivors?
While many say that the pandemic has resulted in more documents and information being widely available online, Maria states that for many survivors, language proficiency and limited access to technology are still significant barriers. Advocates spend hours on the phone with survivors and agencies translating back and forth, as well as walking through documents and applications. Blanca explains that “[advocates] spend hours on the phone guiding survivors in how to have a teleconference to extend a restraining order, helping them to activate EBT/ P-EBT cards, reading and translating letters for them, teaching them how to use apps or how to withdraw money from the bank to finally get some cash to do a month of laundry.” Gladys talks about how many survivors and their families are frontline workers of this pandemic, at grocery stores or restaurants, and that spending hours on the phone plus dealing with this crisis have become overly draining. The pandemic has exposed that under difficult circumstances, available resources often exclude many folks from different backgrounds, like minority communities and the working class.
Due to the pandemic, advocates have had to have difficult conversations with survivors such as dealing with housing insecurity. Many documents to apply for housing have now gone online, however, survivors still have to manage language and technology access barriers. Because housing applications have not paused, Blanca has worked closely with survivors to ensure that they can complete the steps that are required. “I can proudly say that during this pandemic situation I got a survivor in housing, proving documentation for housing, and translated a lease for the survivor to sign and finally get the key,” claims Blanca.
Advocates do recommend some online resources for survivors. For teens, they recommend LOVEISRESPECT. For survivors looking for online groups, they have created a list of available groups and they have also created lists for each community to let survivors know of food pantries, meal deliveries, and housing assistance funding. Maria recommends visiting the Attorney General’s information line if survivors have questions about stimulus or unemployment checks, other domestic violence resources, or downloading the DTA Connect App which lets you view your case information.
In another effort to be accessible to more people, REACH has launched a new online chat function. The online chat might make connecting with trained advocates and volunteers more discrete or safer for survivors, especially if they are stuck at home with an abuser and calling the hotline isn’t a safe option.
What is something you want the public to know about the current state of COVID-19 in relation to domestic violence work?
Blanca describes several new concerns that are arising. With the start of school approaching, survivors are worried about school, and also childcare, finding a new job, needing more resources to take care of their physical and mental health during the pandemic and more. Blanca worries that this is probably the beginning of stage 2.
The media has been able to provide some good coverage on how “Safe at Home” isn’t true for many families and individuals. “People seem to be more aware of the ways domestic violence thrives in isolation and how they can be active in checking in on neighbors or friends,” Maria says. “We are all in this together and everyone has a role in speaking out about the systems of oppression, cycles of abuse, and available services.”