Story By: Shira Hanau
(JTA) – The change was clear as soon as New York City’s stay-at-home order went into effect: Calls to the domestic violence department at the city’s leading Jewish poverty nonprofit departed from their regular pattern.
Women used to call during the day while at work or while their abusers were out of the house. But with people living together now trapped at home around the clock, the calls started coming from inside locked bathrooms late at night or during dog-walking outings in the morning and evening.
“We were typically 9-5, it was more business hours,” Nechama Bakst, senior director of family violence services at the Met Council, said of the helpline before the coronavirus pandemic reshaped how New Yorkers spend their days.
In the past two months, she said, the helpline has seen an increase of about 8-10% in calls — spread over a wider swath of the day. Social workers are now working with clients “way after hours,” Bakst said.
This week, the organization officially added hours to the helpline’s operation. The line, the family violence unit’s first line of access for victims of abuse, now has social workers on call from 8 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays.
The hotline changes are not the only ones the coronavirus has induced for the family violence department at the Met Council, one of the largest nonprofits providing food assistance and social services to poor New Yorkers. The organization, which launched in 1972 with the goal of serving poor Jews in the city, now works with New Yorkers of all backgrounds while continuing to provide kosher food assistance.
Calls reporting serious violence are way up, according to Bakst, who attributed the spike to heightened anxiety about the pandemic playing out in the close quarters of New York City homes.
“Being at home and not having any breaks from each other has created another level of stress,” Bakst said. “The financial stress has certainly gotten to people, too.”
And the number of victims of domestic violence reaching out to the organization for the first time has nearly doubled from the usual rate. The Met Council’s family violence department, which offers counseling and help with accessing social services, typically serves an average of 53 new people per month. In the past two months, the average has nearly doubled to 103.
Bakst said she expects to see an even bigger increase when stay-at-home orders are lifted and victims of abuse are able to call without fear of their abuser finding out. Some domestic violence hotlines and police departments have reported a decrease in calls while victims are unable to get away from their abusers to make the call.
“A lot of our clients are very alone and part of the abuse has isolated them from others,” said Bakst, adding that social distancing aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus has isolated them further. “For some of them, we’re their lifeline.”