Health

Even as large swaths of society hunker down, Kentucky’s domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers are preparing to stay open — and deal with a potential influx of clients. 

“We really, really need to get the word out about the fact that we are open, we’re doing business, we’re here for the community,” said Angela Yannelli, the executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The coalition’s member agencies provide domestic violence services and shelter across the state. All 15 agencies are, at this time, planning to continue to provide services during the coronavirus, Yannelli said, and each is coming up with its own emergency action plan to ensure they can keep the doors open. 

KCADV

But they are reducing some services, and eliminating others altogether. Some rape crisis centers are no longer offering in-person hospital advocacy to people getting rape kit exams, and domestic violence shelters are concerned about how to reach people who may be isolated with their abusers. 

At Greenhouse 17, the domestic violence shelter based in Lexington and serving central Kentucky, the majority of services are running as usual. They have more than 40 women and children living there currently, and shelter employees have had to implement new procedures, like preparing to isolate residents and taking temperatures every time someone comes in or out. They’re also scrambling to provide activities for children suddenly out of school.

The shelter has suspended non-residential support groups, but they’re considering ways to have virtual meetings. And they’re still attending court as advocates for people trying to get protective orders. (Though courts are largely closed, emergency hearings like those for protective orders are still happening.)

For Greenhouse 17 executive director Darlene Thomas, her main concern is keeping her staff healthy and keeping the doors open. They’ve sent some employees to work from home already and are transitioning to a new schedule: five days working at the shelter, 10 days working from home, to ensure people aren’t showing symptoms when they return. 

She said the only pushback she’s gotten from staff is from those who want to work more. 

“This agency is no different than a police officer who shows up every day,” she said. “They wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s why they do this work, it’s in service to others.” 

The Center for Women and Families, serving Louisville and the surrounding counties, has also instituted temperature checks at its domestic violence shelter and has reserved a room for quarantining, if needed. 

“We’ve asked [the residents] to take on the responsibility of making sure that their rooms are extremely clean,” said CEO Elizabeth Wessels-Martin. “They often will ask for more [supplies] because they’re watching the news, they’re hearing all this so they want their environments to be kept clean.”

The center also serves as the region’s rape crisis center, one of 15 across the state. As a result of the coronavirus, they have scaled back some of their therapy services, and are no longer providing in-person hospital advocacy for people getting rape kit exams. 

Wessels-Martin said they’re working with hospitals to provide phone or FaceTime advocacy instead. She said they’ve gotten fewer hospital calls than usual recently, which is a concern. 

If victims are worried about going to the hospital right now, she said, they can always get a rape kit exam at the Center itself, at 927 S 2nd St. in Louisville. 

Pandemic Spurs Domestic Violence Risk Factors 

In addition to preparing for a pandemic, domestic violence and rape crisis centers are also concerned they may see an increase in the number of people requiring services. 

“Economic stress and social isolation, low income, unemployment, heavy alcohol, and drug use, these are all risk factors for the perpetration of domestic violence,” said Yannelli. “All of those are byproducts of the coronavirus pandemic.”

She said the state’s crisis lines, which can be found at KCADV.org, are open and staffed 24/7. They are prepared to offer people resources as they need them. But the greater concern is people who may not be able to reach out for help because they’re isolated with their abuser. 

“A lot of victims call us when the perpetrator has left the house and the kids have gone to school, and they have that privacy,” said Wessels-Martin. “They don’t have that privacy anymore.”

The crisis centers are talking about ways to reach people in those circumstances, but Wessels-Martin encourages people in a situation that may get volatile to make a safety plan ahead of time, if possible. That may include being honest with a friend or family member about your fears, and giving them a code word to indicate that you’re in danger. 

The concern is particularly heightened for people with children that are home from school.

“With children being in the home 24/7, they are potentially going to witness domestic violence at a larger rate than before,” said Yannelli. “That’s something that we know is also a risk factor for future perpetration. We can’t allow that to happen. We need to protect the children.”

All three women interviewed for this story equated their role to those of first responders, responsible for keeping people safe. Much like police departments or EMS, that responsibility doesn’t go away just because there is a pandemic. 

Even as they see schools, restaurants and public facing businesses shut down, they’ll keep offering services as long as they are able.  

“It’s very possible that, at some point, the governor may tell us that we have to shut down,” said Yannelli. “It would be an awful day when we have to do that, because lives will be lost.” 

How to get help:

Find the closest domestic violence shelter here 

Louisville area: Center for Women and Families, 844-237-2331

Lexington area: Greenhouse 17, 800.544.2022

National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE

How to help: Shelters reported needing cleaning supplies (bleach, hand sanitizer, wipes, paper towels), diapers and baby supplies, and food, particularly fresh meat. They can always use monetary donations as well. Contact your nearest shelter to see what they need.

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.