If you were abused by a loved one or sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, would you know where to turn for help? The average person doesn’t think about the sexual assault crisis center or domestic violence program in their community. Yet, every day, trained advocates at these community-based programs are ready to respond, at some of the most dangerous and vulnerable times in our lives. These programs make up a significant and invaluable part of Virginia’s social safety net.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, requests for crisis services (including emergency shelter) drastically increased here in Virginia, with one sexual and domestic violence agency reporting a 150% increase in the number of individuals residing in shelter as compared to the previous year. Stay-at-home orders and closures designed to protect the public from widespread infection left many survivors and families isolated or trapped at home with their abusers. Ongoing job loss resulted in more survivors becoming financially entangled with their abusers while safe and affordable housing remained in short supply in many localities. And the complexity of presenting traumas only grew. But frontline, life-saving help was still available in every community across Virginia.
Sexual and domestic violence advocates risked their own health throughout the pandemic to offer 24/7 services, quickly pivoting shelter and housing services in ways that comply with CDC guidance and moving counseling into the virtual sphere while preserving confidentiality. Advocates transported survivors to emergency healthcare facilities when many other transportation services were unavailable, assisted survivors in filing protective orders and immigration visas to ensure their rights and safety were protected, and so much more. According to statewide data collected via VAdata.org, on a single day in 2021, 1,705 individuals received advocacy or hotline services from sexual and domestic violence agencies across the Commonwealth. These services included thinks like emergency shelter and transitional housing, crisis response, safety planning, counseling, healthcare navigation, legal advocacy and support groups.
Trained advocates, who are often social workers, counselors, and survivors themselves, are a force for good in survivors’ lives, helping them find safety, build resilience, and move forward after experiencing abuse. Each year, hundreds of survivors tell us that working with an advocate prevented them from living in cars or on the streets. Many even report that these services literally saved their lives by helping them to escape increasingly lethal violence. Yet, the pandemic has strained local sexual assault and domestic violence agencies’ resources at a time when the need for them has only increased.
While we seek to move past the pandemic, its effects continue to ripple throughout our communities. Pre-pandemic barriers to survivor safety were exacerbated by COVID-19, including a desperate lack of affordable housing and quality childcare, as well as the loss of economic security that comes with earning a living wage. Moreover, survivors of color continue to bear the brunt of those shredded safety nets as their attempts to find safety and justice for their families are thwarted by discriminatory actions across all sectors of society, including in healthcare, education, public safety, and social services.
Virginia’s sexual and domestic violence agencies have shifted from handling short-term COVID-19 pandemic response to managing longer-term changes as they adapt their organizations, programs, and resources to meet all survivors’ needs in an altered landscape. The pandemic continues to challenge local agencies that have struggled to maintain staffing and meet increased and complex service-requests as pandemic-era relief programs are ending. As with many other frontline essential workers, staff at local agencies are exhausted and burnt out from struggling to keep 24/7 emergency services and support programs operating.
If Virginia is to make progress in addressing the public health issues of sexual and domestic violence, we need sustainable community support and investment. We need people throughout the Commonwealth to support advocates at their local sexual and domestic violence programs. Start with a simple, “thank you, we see you and the work you do in our community.” Consider a personal contribution, or even a monthly pledge of support. In addition to individual donations, we need the financial investment of private foundations. We need government funding both in the short-term response to COVID-19 pandemic and in the longer term. Right now, Virginia’s legislators are currently considering allocating $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to Virginia’s sexual and domestic violence agencies. We urge the Virginia General Assembly to invest in these life-saving community services and to continue to sustain our essential work into the future.
Advocates aren’t always in the spotlight, but they are always on the front lines. We’re thankful for the advocates who show up each day and do what must be done to make sure that safety, healing, and justice are accessible to every person impacted by sexual and domestic violence. They’re ready to listen and help you, your friend, or your family. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Connect with the Virginia Statewide Hotline by phone at 800-838-8238, text at 804-793-9999 or chat at https://www.vadata.org/chat. This resource is free, confidential, and answered by trained advocates 24/7/365. Hotline advocates are available to listen and connect you to resources in your community.
This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch online (https://richmond.com/) on April 7, 2022.
Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for 40 years.
Karrie K. Delaney is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing Virginia’s 67th district, which includes parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. Delaney served on numerous boards and commissions in Virginia before her election as state delegate and has served as a sexual assault advocate.Read more news