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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Coronavirus Shatters Kansas And Missouri Support Systems For People At Risk For Domestic Violence

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
With playgrounds and other public places now off limits under municipal stay-at-home orders, it's harder for victims of domestic violence and child abuse to get outside help and support.

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Counties throughout the metro have issued stay-at-home orders to protect residents from the spread of the novel coronavirus. But advocates worry that families vulnerable to the dangers of violence and abuse are at greater risk under the stressors of sheltering in place. Intensifying that risk is the loss of community touchpoints for intervention, such as worship services, routine wellness visits at doctors' offices and daily check-ins at school. 

"The fact that we are bracing for an increase in child abuse and neglect is really the worst feeling that someone can have who works day in and day out to protect children," says Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children's Alliance of Kansas, a statewide organization that serves child welfare providers.

Best practices in child welfare call for keeping families together whenever possible, but that model relies on what Appelhanz calls "community touches": visits from social workers, access to mental health services, interactions with teachers and healthcare workers.

"These families we were trying to keep together may have been struggling with addiction. They may have been struggling with poverty, they may have been struggling with mental health needs. All of that has been intensified now."

The benefit of sending social workers out on home visits must be weighed against the risk of spreading the coronavirus, which has Appelhanz and others exercising caution. Schools, where children interact with mandated reporters of abuse, are closed.

"That system has clearly been shattered," Appelhanz says.

There's also the question of where children can go if advocates determine they need to be removed from a home.

"One of the big stress factors on the child welfare system is that we can't rely on grandparents to the extent that we have in the past," Appelhanz explains. "The supply of caregivers at a time like this is significantly decreased."

If a child has been exposed to the coronavirus or has tested positive, that adds to the complexity of the  placement process.

"We have to make sure that the child is not exposing other people. We have to make sure that they're not exposing caregivers. We have to take into consideration the risks that our residential homes are dealing with. It really is about keeping kids where the risk of infecting others is minimized, but at the same time, giving the child what they need."

Corinavirus might increase 'coercive control' in intimate partner abuse

Orders to shelter-at-home present unprecedented challenges for those working to prevent all kinds of violence that occurs behind closed doors, including intimate partner abuse.

Tanya Draper-Douthit is the director of community programs for Kansas City's Rose Brooks Center, an organization that provides shelter and support for victims of domestic violence. She says the COVID-19 outbreak could be an opportunity for abusers to "increase coercive control" over their intimate partners.

"Vulnerabilities for survivors may have increased or changed," Draper-Douthit says, "but the basics of coercive control have not changed. It's still about isolating survivors from support systems. It's still about controlling their ability to maneuver through their daily life and activities. It's still about threatening people physically and emotionally causing fear, those sorts of things. COVID-19 has allowed for a powerful set of new justifications for that control to continue or maybe increase."

Being trapped at home with an abuser creates obstacles for seeking help, including the inability to access sufficient privacy to reach out. Additionally, the loss of work outside the home due to COVID-19 may leave some people even more financially dependent on abusive partners.

Advocates are trying to create new pathways to safety for those who need it as freedom to leave the home may be reduced. Draper-Douthit has been working with the courts to develop ways for clients to seek orders of protection without appearing in a courthouse, for example. But they're making it up as they go.

Meanwhile, shelters remain open, but Draper-Douthit says there's "constant and daily" conversation around how to balance the safety shelters provide with the safety the social distancing provides in the context of a pandemic. 

How to support victims as coronavirus disrupts access to help

Something that Draper-Douthit always includes in her trainings for domestic violence intervention is the importance of getting clients to set up code words and visual signals for help with people they know they can trust. This is especially important when people may not be able to have private conversations unmonitored by abusers.

The goal is to "create as many pathways as possible for help," she says.

When checking in on friends and relatives, it's also important to begin a conversation by asking if it's safe to talk. According to Draper-Douthit, questions to ask include, "Are you able to find privacy? Are you able to step outside? Is it a good time to talk? If we get disconnected or if we need to provide some followup call, is it safe to do so? Is it safe to leave a message?"

But the best thing to do is still to refer people to hotlines. Both the Rose Brooks Center Hotline (816-861-6100) and the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233) are still taking calls.

Christie Appelhanz and her staff are continuing support to those families already in the system through virtual visits, but that can only go so far. She says it's time to reimagine support as coming first and foremost from within people's own communities. 

"We need people more than ever thinking about their neighbors, thinking about the children out there or the parents out there who might need extra support right now. And we have to get creative about the form that that support comes in," she says, noting that the church potluck or school baseball game isn't a place to ask how folks are doing right now.

"So, maybe you're dropping off Legos on the porch of someone who could use it," Appelhanz suggests. "One of the most important ways to reduce violence is really through connection and support. People have to feel that there is someone there who can help."

She notes that it's not by trying to guess where abuse might be happening, but by checking in with all our friends and neighbors so that nobody is slipping through the cracks.

"Right now, all people can use support," she says, "and we know child abuse and neglect happens in all zip codes at all income levels. So you're never going to go wrong by reaching out."

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can contact her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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