In many ways, Nayely Sanchez’s job as the immigrant coordinator at the Center for Women and Families prepared her for this unprecedented year.
“I see a lot what people go through and it helps me reflect on how I can get through this,” she said.
In what she calls “normal times, quote, unquote,” Sanchez helps immigrants, refugees and non-English speakers who are facing domestic violence. She helps them navigate the court system, find resources and make short and long-term safety plans.
COVID-19 changed a lot of how that work gets done, from diminished shelter space to virtual court. But Sanchez said, domestic violence didn’t go away, and the agency never stopped providing services.
“What also gets me through is knowing that I’m able to help those in whatever way possible,” she said. “I’m sure that working here has helped me become a stronger person in general.”
In the early days of the pandemic, “it got really quiet” at the Center for Women and Families, Sanchez said. The crisis line wasn’t ringing, people weren’t coming in seeking shelter and they had to suspend some services, like group meetings.
Data from the Administrative Office of the Courts shows a 25 percent decline in applications for protective orders statewide in March and April, compared to the year before. Advocates and shelter directors told KyCIR that they believe domestic violence actually increased while the state was under stay at home orders, but victims likely weren’t able to access resources as easily.
But even with fewer people seeking services, shelters remained busy. The Center for Women and Families converted its dorm-style accommodations into single rooms to support social distancing and switched up its staffing to minimize the number of people in and out every day.
Even though she’s usually a court advocate, Sanchez stepped up to work in the shelter. At one point, they had to tell residents they couldn’t leave the shelter.
“You could tell that people were tense,” Sanchez remembered. “I tend to be the optimist, so I would distract people to lighten the mood. That’s kind of the role I usually take.”
When she wasn’t at work, Sanchez distracted herself by getting back into hobbies, like painting and experimenting with makeup, and listening to audiobooks.
Eventually, courts reopened and Sanchez found herself facing a different challenge: figuring out how to advocate for non-English speakers in virtual courtrooms across seven counties. Every judge handled virtual court differently, she said, and it’s an ongoing process to find ways to connect with victims without meeting in person.
Normally, she said, she’d meet a victim at the courthouse ahead of time to explain the process and make sure the interpreter is there. Now, she tries to get contact information ahead of time, but it’s hit or miss.
And without someone helping them through the process, some of these victims inevitably fall through the cracks, Sanchez said. The language barrier alone for someone who doesn’t speak English makes it harder to attend remotely.
When they do manage to log in, “they’re just going to hear a lot of English of all these other [emergency protective order] hearings that are going on,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on, so it’s kind of stressful.”
Sanchez said this year has forced her to become a good problem solver, and to think creatively about how to deliver services to clients in ways that best meet their needs. She’s eagerly looking forward to the day when their court advocacy work can return to it’s normal, in-person approach, but even with the vaccine beginning to roll out nationally, she’s not getting her hopes up just yet.
“I’ve had a lot of uncertainty this whole time,” she said. “They said it would just be a few weeks, and now it’s the end of the year. We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence or sexual assault, you can reach the Center for Women and Families 24/7 crisis line at 502-581-7222.