Story by: M.E. CAGNASSOLA
NEWARK, NJ — At the Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center on Clinton Avenue, Project Manager Keesha Eure wields a phone in each hand as she takes calls and makes more, a juggling act Newark’s many social workers have come to know well as they adjust to the ways of service during a pandemic.
“Can you call the hotel and talk to them about a client?” she asks in one phone before switching over to speak to TAPinto Newark.
Eure is one of the frontline heroes during this coronavirus pandemic, operating the Shani Baraka Center as many hours as possible to continue providing domestic violence assistance, grief support, mental health and substance abuse counseling, trauma support, sexual assault advocacy, job development and computer access for needs like filing for benefits.
She keeps her center’s doors open, exposing herself to an increased risk of infection because she knows better than most that within the coronavirus crisis are social crises putting Newark women in danger.
From March 21, the day Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a statewide stay-at-home order, to April 7, 188 domestic violence incidents have been reported in Newark, an 18% increase from the same period in 2019, according to the city’s Department of Public Safety. March saw a 16% increase compared to March of 2019.
The police department declined to characterize the level of violence in Newark and would not say how many arrests from these reports were made. A spokesperson said that aside from the presence of gloves and masks, the way officers are dealing with these crimes has not changed as a result of the virus.
The uptick in instances of domestic violence reports in Newark isn’t surprising. It’s part of a larger worldwide trend, cities including Houston, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina have reported similar increases, according to the Alliance for Hope International. The social change organization found that between March 28 and April 4, roughly 19 of the 22 murder-suicides that took place in the United States were related to domestic violence, nearly twice as high compared to the average week each year.
While the state of New Jersey has yet to roll out any planning around this component of the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy Tweeted hotline information on March 31, saying that people experiencing domestic violence are exceptions to the stay-at-home order.
For all the calls being made to Newark police, Eure said that aside from a few women who have used Shani Baraka Center’s emergency relocation services to escape their abusers, the center has not been receiving the number of calls for domestic violence services she would expect during a time when untold scores of women and children are trapped in constant abuse.
“The domestic violence shelters are full, so I think some of them may be discouraged because they don’t really have a place to go or don’t really have friends or family to support them during this time. I think many of them are just weathering the storm unless it’s really egregious (and they need to relocate),” she said. “Many of them are trapped financially, especially with unemployment and welfare benefits being held in limbo. So many are stressed and just don’t know what to do. We haven’t gotten a lot of calls in terms of being able to coach them through what to do.”
Sounding frustrated, Eure knows all too well what victims are living through during this time, and with all the catalysts to domestic violence brewing beneath the surface as Newarkers lose jobs and loved ones to the pandemic, she expects more suffering ahead.
The city continues to lead the state in positive coronavirus cases, and as the numbers begin to show a disproportionate death rate in black and brown communities, the road to healing will be a long one for Newark.
“This is traumatic on so many levels. The complex trauma and grief that’s happening are going to take a collective approach to be able to help people through this,” she said. “I’m really trying to work on, what can we do collectively? How can I partner with other people? Because we know that the residual effect of this pandemic is going to have long term consequences.”
CALLING ON COMMUNITY
The Essex County Family Justice Center, located on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard but now operating remotely, is experiencing that same dearth of calls, the opposite of what their team anticipated as advocates braced for the obvious consequences of people being stuck inside with abusive partners.
Executive Director Mary Houtsma, after conferring with other local and national organizations, has come to the conclusion that because people are isolated at home with their abusers and children, they can’t safely place phone calls for help.
Recognizing the safety issues associated with calling for victim’s assistance during the lockdown, both the Essex County Family Justice Center and the Shani Baraka Center are setting up systems for victims to communicate with them via encrypted text message.
“We’re looking at other strategies that are being done in the U.S. and internationally on how to keep victims engaged and give them hope, information on how to stay safe while in isolation and strategies to contact help if they’re in danger,” Houtsma said.
Houtsma is looking to every source she can get her hands on to inform how she leads ECFJC during a once-in-a-century global catastrophe. Like Eure, she’s frustrated by the distance between her and the people who need her organization’s help.
Echoing Eure’s calls for collective participation in addressing domestic violence and trauma, Houtsma said now is the time for community members to make wellness checks and report their concerns. Additional factors like job loss, substance abuse, loss of loved ones to the virus and mental health issues add fuel to violent behavior.
ECFJC is preparing to execute a major public information push as a way to reach people in unsafe situations. But for it to be effective, they’re relying on Essex County’s community stakeholders to spread the message.
“We can’t put up a billboard. It’s not just the cost or the burden, it’s about reaching victims while they’re isolated at home,” she said. “They’re not going to come out and see billboards, everybody’s trapped in their homes.”
Readers can see ECFJC’s safety plan for people experiencing domestic violence during the pandemic here.
Here are some resources if you need assistance:
Crisis Text Line: text “NJ” to 741741
Family Helpline: 1-800-843-5437
Mental Health Hotline: 866-202-4357
Essex County Family Justice Center 973-230-7229
Shani Baraka Women’s Resource Center 973-757-7377
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY
(If you are unable to speak safely): log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.