Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Willow Domestic Violence Center in Lawrence has seen an increased number of people seeking its support because of domestic abuse.
The Willow Director of Communications Will Averill reported an approximately 10% increase of victims reaching out to the shelter via social media and other online communication methods since March 30, roughly around the time when stay-at-home orders started rolling out.
Before, the most common way victims would contact the Willow for help was through phone calls. However, workers suspect the increase in online contact is because people are stuck inside with their abusers and need a silent method of communication.
“Overnight, people are no longer going out to work, taking their kids to school or even to the grocery store,” Averill said. “It makes it harder for survivors of emotional or physical abuse to escape their abuser and unfortunately allows more opportunity for abusers to practice power and control over their victims.”
Averill also said there has been a shift in the stage of abuse that victims are in when they decide to reach out to the Willow.
“Before, we would have people calling at an earlier stage of the abusive relationship for general information, but now we are starting to see people come to us when violent situations have already escalated,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult and has pushed us to find new ways in which to be more accessible to more people.”
The 28-bed shelter serves three counties and is now at capacity, said Jessica Beeson, managing director of survivor services. They recently purchased a second home that will accommodate 20 additional beds — it is expected to be ready by the end of this year. In the meantime, survivors are being housed in hotels at the expense of the shelter.
The shelter, which remains at a confidential location away from The Willow's main office, has made adjustments based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep current residents safe from the coronavirus. This includes keeping fewer rooms occupied to help with social distancing, setting up hand sanitizing stations and requiring the use of masks in common areas.
Its limited capacity has forced the shelter to find new ways to accommodate the rising number of people in need of a safe place to live. This includes forming a fundraiser to generate money to rehouse the survivors, and often times their children, as soon as possible.
For the survivors being rehoused, the shelter will continue to provide services to ensure their healing process does not come to a halt.
“Each survivor is provided case management even after they exit our shelter services,” said Amanda Martinez, director of shelter services. “They are given a primary advocate that can meet with them over the phone, email or Zoom pretty regularly and work with any goals they were working on while they were at the shelter.”
While in the process of moving some survivors out, the Willow staff has no choice but to turn new domestic violence victims away due to lack of space.
“Something that has been very difficult is people who are needing shelter and it not being an option. When our shelter is full, we cannot take in more than we can handle,” Martinez said.
In these situations, they do what they can to support these survivors in alternative ways.
“Often times this involves a lot of out of the box thinking,” Martinez said. “We have to think through if they have family in another state they could go to, if we can help them with a Greyhound bus ticket to transport them there or to another shelter.”
According to Kansas Sexual and Domestic Violence Service Providers, there are 25 support providers for survivors in Kansas that are available at no cost to the victim. Two of those support providers are in Douglas County: The Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center and The Willow Domestic Violence Center.
While the Willow staff has had to adjust to the changing circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they still strongly urge victims of domestic violence to contact their hotline at (785) 843-3333 or the Lawrence Police Department.