Story by: DANA GERBER

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Montgomery County programs are reworking their services for domestic violence survivors to combat the effect of months of isolation.

To boost outreach, the county launched an information campaign on April 23 to educate residents on the warning signs of family violence and the resources available to them. Materials with this information on them, in both English and Spanish, were distributed to and displayed at local businesses.

Founding Farmers in Potomac and Giuseppi’s Pizza in Rockville added them to their takeout orders. Manna Food Center put the cards in their food distribution boxes.

Stickers were posted to plexiglass barriers at Montgomery County Liquor & Wine Stores. Phone numbers people could use to seek help were printed on receipts.

After a week, 12,500 cards and stickers had been distributed locally, posters were put on 65 Ride-On buses, and social media graphics and targeted ads were pushed out by the county.

Debbie Feinstein, chief of the Special Victims Division at the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, gave an update on the campaign’s effect at a County Council session on April 30. She said the Montgomery County Police Department’s domestic violence unit, which generally handles domestic violence incidents with serious injuries that will likely result in felonies, saw a 33% spike in cases after the campaign launched.

According to Lt. Gerald McFarland of Montgomery County police, the domestic violence unit saw an increase in quantity and severity of cases at the beginning of the pandemic.

The number of cases peaked in June. In the first week of June in 2019, 84 cases had been assigned, and in 2020, 108 cases had been assigned.

Cases numbers are now nearly identical to the 2019 numbers, McFarland added.

Feinstein added that many county agencies — including the Family Justice Center, the Abused Persons Program and the Montgomery County Crisis Center — saw increases in calls after the campaign began.

“Our biggest concern is we want to make sure that people know that these resources remain available, that they’re free,” she said in an interview. “There were concerns that people didn’t know that crisis services were available, that the domestic violence shelter was open and receiving clients.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, is “abuse or aggression that occurs in a close relationship.” It can include physical violence, sexual violence, stalking or psychological aggression.

The Family Justice Center (FJC), a free resource center in Rockville that serves domestic violence victims, saw its website hits more than double the day the campaign launched, Feinstein said.

Thomas Manion, director of the FJC, said abusers often control victims’ access to technology, which is now one of the only ways people can connect to their support systems.

“In the vast majority of intimate partner violence abusive situations, the abuser has complete access to any communication devices — cellphones, iPads, computers. They’ve got the passwords to your social media accounts,” he said. “Sometimes, the only safe way for a victim to engage their support system is in person, verbal.”

In response, the FJC set up a dedicated email in April, safe@montgomerycountymd.gov, for victims to contact if making a discreet phone call isn’t possible. It also made an informational flyer and video on domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, explaining warning signs and available resources.

The center stayed open during the pandemic, and continues to provide on-site services.

Manion said that throughout the pandemic, it has seen a decrease in the number of walk-ins and an increase in the number of phone calls and emails. To match the need, the FJC now offers essentially all of its services virtually, including career counseling, therapy and immigration legal services.

The Montgomery County Crisis Center in Rockville has also boosted its telehealth capabilities. The center has set up “cyber cafes” at the crisis center, where there is technology on-site for clients to use to attend telehealth appointments. This is for clients who might not have reliable transportation or don’t have the technology at home.

“If people are having financial issues or troubles getting to one of their county-provided therapy, psychiatry, mental health appointments, they can walk in and we have the ability to set them up so that they don’t miss appointments,” manager Dorné Hill explained.

However, some victims still don’t feel comfortable receiving the help they need because of the continuing health risk. Trauma Services Program manager Nadja Cabello said there was a drop in victims choosing to go to the Betty Ann Krahnke Center in Rockville, a shelter for those fleeing domestic violence.

Sexual assault and domestic violence victims are also unwilling to go to the hospital to receive treatment, even after violent events like attempted strangulation, she said.

Both decreases, Cabello said, are because victims are afraid of catching COVID-19.

“That worries us, because people are choosing either to stay in a violent relationship or they are trying to go someplace else … because they are afraid to go to our shelter,” she said. “That is a worrisome trend that we have seen.”

To lessen the health risk, Cabello said, the Forensic Medical Unit at Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville set up a separate waiting room for victims, so they didn’t have to pass through the emergency room.

The shelter has instituted social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning protocols. Only one family there has tested positive for COVID-19.

Though the risk of catching COVID-19 compels many to stay home, for those experiencing domestic violence, the ramifications of staying at home are severe, Cabello said.

“One of the tactics that physically abused women use is to kind of separate themselves from the abuser — or, we teach abusers, if you’re escalating and you can’t control your anger, go out, take a walk, get out of the house, do whatever. Separate the two parties,” Cabello said. “But now, with the pandemic, it’s just the opposite.”

The combination of global stressors wrought by the pandemic — such as financial struggles, child care and health concerns — and the limited access to services creates what Manion calls “a perfect storm of horror” for those experiencing domestic violence.

The number of cases put on “alert,” when a case appears particularly high-risk, is generally consistent each year, Manion said. This year, the Family Justice Center hit its annual average by June.

Cabello noted that from January to July of this year, there was a 91% increase in referrals to Trauma Services compared to last year during the same months.

Additionally, Manion said the severity of domestic violence cases has worsened since the pandemic began, with an uptick in cases “involving strangulation in cases involving weapons such as firearms or blunt instruments or knives or other sharp instruments.”

To navigate these changes, the county established the behavioral health and domestic violence work group in June as part of its COVID-19 recovery plan. According to co-leader Athena Morrow, the 20-member group includes representatives from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, Montgomery County Public Schools and the sheriff’s office, among others.

One area the group is focusing on is a need for better telehealth access, specifically in disenfranchised populations, like homeless people who might not have phones or computers, according to Hill, a co-leader of the group.

“[The group is] really looking at behavioral health and domestic violence and what we can do in the community in a way that’s equitable, prevention and advocating for the clients and community that we serve,” Hill said.

Hill said the number of walk-in domestic violence victims are still higher than they were pre-pandemic, and domestic violence phone calls have doubled. The bulk of cases and calls the crisis center got during the pandemic have been related to domestic violence.

Morrow, the manager of Adult Forensic Services at Behavioral Health and Crisis Services, said the strides various county services have made to boost access and outreach — such as telehealth capabilities — will help those in need long after the health crisis subsides.

“That’s how we connect to post-pandemic,” Morrow said. “Because those were things that, I think, have always been issues.”

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@bethesdamagazine.com

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