Suzanne Smith describes the layers of worry and fear.
COVID-19-related isolation has led to increased numbers of people reporting abuse and sexual assault.
And victims are facing a mountain of obstacles.
Smith is executive director of The Bridge, a Fremont-based agency that serves victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Dodge, Washington, Saunders, Burt and Cuming counties.
During the fiscal year 2019-2020, the nonprofit agency has seen a 26% increase in the number of new clients and a 30% increase in the number of sexual assaults.
“I think that everything we have done to support ourselves through the pandemic to create isolation, social distancing — to keep us safe — has made it more dangerous for those who are living in homes where abuse is occurring,” Smith said. “It’s made them more vulnerable.”
Lynne Lange, executive director of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, agrees.
“While this is a trying time for all of us, for individuals experiencing domestic violence, our times are creating additional dangers. Victims may be forced to stay at home in a setting that is not safe,” Lange said.
Under normal circumstances, victims may go to work or someplace else and have someone ask if something is wrong.
But that’s not happening due to COVID-related job losses and pandemic-caused quarantine.
“When you’re home together (with the abuser) and you have no way to get out, you don’t have any of those support people to let them know you need help,” Smith said.
Financial crisisEconomic fallout from the pandemic has intensified the situation.
“The financial crisis that has been associated with the pandemic has hit hard,” Smith said. “Many of our clients — themselves and their partners — have lost their jobs or have lost hours, which has created financial stress and also forced them to be at home more together.”
Who are the abusers?
Smith said the increase in new clients has involved someone with whom they were in a relationship.
The same is true of sexual assault.
“When we talk about sexual assault cases, we’re not talking about strangers,” Smith said. “The majority — if not all — of our sexual assault cases were either sexually assaulted by someone in their home, a partner, someone they’re dating, an acquaintance.”
Smith said the physical abuse has included pushing and shoving. Clients have been choked or had sprains. They’ve had injuries when an abuser has pulled on their shoulder.
Much evidence of physical abuse is hidden by clothing.
What’s more, abusers maintain control in various ways.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to in the last couple weeks, who don’t have access to their bank account,” she said. “They don’t know how much money is in there.”
Many victims’ paychecks are directly deposited by their employers, but the clients don’t have access to their account.
“One woman I talked to recently said they do everything online and she doesn’t have log-in information. So we talked about going to the bank and actually getting the information and she was like, ‘Will he find out that I looked?’ because she is so fearful,” Smith said.
Many abusers have been turning off their victims’ phones as well.
The toll of emotional abuse
Clients have been suffering mentally and emotionally when — due to the isolation — they haven’t heard anything but their abusers’ comments like: “This is all your fault,” “You’re stupid,” “You can’t keep a job.”
When the only human interaction victims have is with their abusers, such things can chip away at the clients’ self-worth.
“It’s a hard place to dig out of,” Smith said. “The impact of the violence can be so great that when survivors begin to start over and become safe again, they first have to find themselves to really begin to rebuild what the abuse has destroyed.”
Finding the confidence to take the bold step of finally leaving an abusive situation is a process.
Smith talks about layers of fears that clients face.
“Our clients worry about their safety for themselves and their children,” she said.
Smith said the agency can meet clients’ immediate needs to get them to safety, but they’re overwhelmed with not knowing what can happen next.
Having enough funds to leave an abusive situation is critical.
“They want to make sure they can leave and care for themselves and their children by having a job and having a vehicle and — with so many of our clients being laid off or furloughed or job hours cut — it’s really jeopardized all those things that were going to help them leave and be safe,” Smith said. “It’s been overwhelming. It’s been a tough year.”
Smith commends her staff.
“That’s what our staff and our volunteers are so incredible at — helping people find their self-worth and reminding them that they’re important and valued,” Smith said.
But Smith also said there are more barriers now than ever for those seeking services.
Many medical and therapy appointments are being conducted virtually so clients are home with abusers and can’t readily and safely indicate they need help.
The Bridge has remained very busy and continues to provide all of its services, but is social distancing and has limited staff on a daily basis. The agency still sees clients in person as needed, but much of the work is done virtually, which isn’t ideal.
“There’s been barriers and challenges of how we can be responsive to everybody given what our world is like right now,” Smith said.
Smith said some referrals have come from schools or doctor’s appointments, when victims can get someplace where they can tell what’s going on at home.
Yet many times, the abuse already has occurred and has been taking place for a while.
Smith encourages people who need help to reach out via the agency’s website at http://www.bridgefromviolence.com or its Facebook page called The Bridge formerly Crisis Center or by calling the 24-hour crisis line at 1-888-721-4340 or 911.
Smith said people seeking help may use social media to stay connected, but must be cautious because many abusers will check to see what their victims have been following.
She urges victims to find someone they can trust and ask for help. She asks the public to know what resources are available.
“Don’t be afraid to intervene,” Smith said. “Do it in a way that keeps yourself safe. You can certainly call law enforcement and ask them to check it out. You can call The Bridge and we will talk with you about steps you can take. The most important thing is to let the person you’re worried about know that you’re there and you’re willing to help, even if it’s just making a phone call.”