Story by: Joseph Ostapiuk
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) tore through New York City, Family Justice Centers (FJC) across all five boroughs saw increases of new clients, data provided to the Advance/SILive.com shows.
The centers, which provide comprehensive criminal justice, civil, legal and social services free of charge to victims of domestic violence, elder abuse and sex trafficking, closed in-person assistance as a result of the virus in mid-March — moving to a virtual and remote model.
Between April 1 and July 24, new client visits to the city’s five FJCs increased 14.3%, rising from 2,924 new clients during that period in 2019 to 3,344 this year.
On Staten Island, the last borough to receive a FJC after the facility opened in St. George in 2016, new client visits increased by 11.6% — from 301 new clients in 2019 to 336 in 2020.
“Survivors need us now more than ever in these extraordinary times, and our top priority remains to ensure continuity of services and unwavering support,” said Cecile Noel, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender Based Violence (ENDGBV). “Our centers continue to provide crucial crisis support and advocacy by connecting survivors to immediate safety planning, shelter assistance, legal consultations, and more.”
“COVID-19 puts into sharp focus the vulnerabilities that many people in our city face every day, especially gender-based violence survivors; and it highlights the barriers and challenges that we know keep people from seeking help and finding safety. The city is here for survivors during this crisis and beyond, and will continue to work to identify best practices and innovative approaches to enhance its services,” Noel said.
When the facilities shut down to in-person consultations, experts were concerned that quarantine could force survivors of domestic violence — one of the groups served by the centers — to spend more time confined with their abusers.
The majority of the five FJCs’ visits in 2019 were connected to safety planning, city data showed, which involves individualized preparation of physical and emotional needs for clients of the centers.
During an initial meeting (which was in person prior to the coronavirus outbreak), clients are screened for their immediate needs before they are connected to one of the service providers at the FJC.
“All of them are expected and need to do what we call safety planning, which is really talking to the survivor about their physical and emotional safety,” said ENDGBV Assistant Commissioner of Family Justice Center Operations & Programming Jennifer DeCarli, who oversees the city’s five FJCs.
That planning can range from placement in an emergency shelter to being connected to a counselor, DeCarli said, but the coronavirus has caused that planning to be altered significantly.
“It’s a lot of creative safety planning,” she said of the way organizations like Safe Horizon have had to adjust their services. “We’ve been doing a lot of training with advocates on safety planning and providing services virtually because, as you can imagine, it’s different to provide services over the phone than to do that in person.”
Because of quarantine measures put in place during the early weeks of the pandemic, survivors had to find intuitive ways to reach out to the services provided by the city’s FJCs — going in the bathroom and turning on the water during a conversation, or taking their dog for a walk to have a safe space to speak to advocates, DeCarli said.
By early April, Safe Horizon also created a “safe chat” feature that enabled domestic violence survivors to discretely text chat with the organization over the phone or on a computer.
While the virus wrought challenges against providing survivors with services, DeCarli said the outbreak “challenged us to think about ways that we can provide these services that are even more survivor-centered,” adding that some of the virtual services — which appear to have been effective — could be carried over after restrictions are eased.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON STATEN ISLAND
A report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children (CCC) of New York published in 2018 showed that the intimate partner domestic violence rate on the North Shore of Staten Island — where the borough’s FJC is located — is twice the citywide rate and seventh highest in the city.
The rate of child abuse or neglect is higher than the citywide rate; and though the foster care placement rate has decreased slightly since 2015, when it was the highest in the city, it is still twice the citywide rate, the report said.
NYPD data from 2019 showed the jurisdiction of the NYPD’s 120th Precinct in St. George had 57 chronic domestic violence offenders, the third highest in all of New York City, though down from 66 in 2018.
The NYPD defines a “chronic domestic violence offender” as someone who is arrested for a domestic violence offense three times within an 18-month span.
The CCC report recommended a series of measures to curtail the higher-than-average domestic violence rates, including hiring community advocates who live in North Shore neighborhoods to provide information, make referrals and help residents navigate issues to their resolution.