(Source: Melanie Kreutz on Unsplash)

Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | Black Voice News

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, domestic violence support organizations in Riverside County scrambled to adjust how they provided services to their clients. The pandemic presented new challenges that forced the organizations to find creative ways to live up to their missions and keep offering critical resources to their clients whose lives depend on them.

By the time the Coronavirus crisis hit the United State in 2020, it had been building like a giant wave at sea spotted from  a distant shore. 

Then, in January 2020, the storm hit. The world heard about a new coronavirus variant in Wuhan, China causing a “strange” pneumonia and a great deal of concern. By the end of January the first cases of the virus were reported in the United States and economies around the country and across our state shuttered to prioritize keeping people safe. . 

Even in those early days, there was debate about how the country would be impacted by the disease. More than a year later, we find ourselves still measuring the costs as we push our way out of an unprecedented pandemic that has left significant suffering and an alarming death toll in its wake.

ADV has grown to become an indispensable provider of domestic violence services, training and information to the inland community and the state of California.

Domestic Violence: Riverside’s First, First Responders

Long before COVID-19 crashed onto the shores of the United States and changed life as we knew it in Riverside County, there was a precursor to the most well-known local domestic violence support organizations in our community. Called the Alternatives to Domestic Violence (ADV), the organization provides a path of healing to men, women and children impacted by domestic violence. 

It began its mission in 1977 as an informal group of citizens concerned about the lack of domestic violence services in the area, meeting to talk about and create what was needed. From those first days of advocacy and hard work they began to build a web of support for what was then a silent, under-discussed problem in our community.

Those civic-minded residents helped advocate for temporary restraining orders for victims of domestic violence and in 1978, the group also helped advocate for SB 91, legislation which created the first six domestic violence shelters in the state. The same year–with a grant from the state–they launched the first 24-hour crisis hotline, and opened Horizon House, the first domestic violence shelter in Riverside.

From these beginnings, ADV has grown to become an indispensable provider of services, training and information to the community and the state. The organization is led by Florence White, Chief Executive Officer of ADV, who spoke with the IE Voice and Black Voice News about the challenges to the organization brought about by COVID-19.

“When it first hit, no one knew what it was. It was just an emergency. I think the entire nation was that way.  Of course, the numbers went up tremendously,” stated White. 

According to White, the group experienced a near 30% increase in calls. The requests for restraining orders also increased as did episodes of violence. 

At that point, explained White, “Everything was  just pretty much put on hold because no one knew what to do. Our normal process of going out on calls and assisting people directly–all of that shifted.”

For most of March through much of May 2020, White continued, “We were pivoting our services to become…or looking at what we were going to become. We didn’t really know at the beginning.”

White explained how she was looking at different things and trying to decide, “What we were  going to do. What were the courts going to do? It was kind of a big haze while we figured out the urgency of everything.”

A Sense of Urgency

In discussing the immediacy of the need to change the way the organization offered services in light of its primary mandate which is safety, White stressed by the time May rolled around, “We just had to play it by ear. We still had  to move because we had so many clients in therapy and  needed to remain in therapy, who were regressing.” 

White and the ADV team could not let their clients go backwards. “Whatever they were dealing with, PTSD,  or whatever cognitive disorders they had, we had to turn around and figure out how to get them back to where they were and then still move them forward in light of this issue.”

White described it as “a real ping pong game” when it came to mental health and safety.  “We had women who were in the house with their batterers.”  The urgent question for White, as she explained, was “What’ll I do now?”

It was “a real ping pong game” when it came to mental health and safety. “We had women who were in the house with their batterers.”

Safety is the primary concern for the clients of ADV, the organization’s staffers say, and it has relationships with service providers all over the area as well, including the sheriff’s department and the Department of Aging. 

According to White no one quite knew what to do. Everyone was being cautious, including the police and the courts were shut down. This meant even the ability to get temporary restraining orders was made complicated.

Everything was up in the air,” she acknowledged.

The Big Shift

Like many agencies, businesses and nonprofits during the pandemic, ADV has shifted to offering services digitally. 

White explained, “We realized we were in a different norm, we were going to have to shift… everything had.to shift. We had to scale up our services for safety. For COVID  issues—we had to start providing preliminary checks for COVID  symptoms. We couldn’t have everybody in the same place, it was a huge undertaking.” During the surge of activity, in this crucial period, twenty percent of the calls came from the Black community.

During the surge of activity, in this crucial period, twenty percent of the calls came from the Black community. (source www,domesticshelters.org)

“What we started doing, as we are still doing, is having services on Zoom. So, everything just went on a technology platform” said White.

Going digital isn’t as easy as it seems. Especially with a group of underserved, at risk individuals. Many clients didn’t have the requisite technology or skills to make the switch to online service administration,  but ADV stepped in to help.  

White continued, “Then, we had to work through those who had devices and those who didn’t. Did they know how to use the devices in these ways? We went through training . . . by phone.  Everyone knows how to use the telephone. We provided telephones. We provided tablets. That was something we scaled up for and we just taught them how to use it, and it worked out. We lost very few people through the transition.”

The staff at ADV worked hard during the transition. Getting very little sleep until the new process was up and running. When speaking of those days White reminisced, “Until we stabilized, some of us worked day and night. We were first responders. Though not of the same magnitude as hospitals, White clarified. “But, we were essential workers.”

The Abusers

ADV’s mission to keep people safe required them to also provide counseling services to abusers as well as victims using the new technology.

“Our issue is safety, that’s our primary concern. From a safety perspective White noted, “If we continue to instill the idea of being safe in whatever environment you’re in, even if your batterer is in your home, we had to adopt conversations with both the batterer and the victim.”

“We can’t just say we’re going to just talk to the victims when he or she is standing over them with an ax.”

According to White, digital conferencing enabled ADV to provide therapy for both victims and abusers at the same time, all of this in the midst of crisis situations.  This occurred frequently during the period as reflected in the number of temporary restraining orders (TRO) requested which went up 60% according to White. Of those, only 20% were granted. As a result, ADV had to stand in the gap.

Getting Back to Normal

These days, the numbers have declined and stabilized. White believes it’s because people get used to situations and have adapted to a new normal.

The crisis has brought surprises as well as trauma and offered a glimpse into an unexpected strength, endurance and compassion:

“I think everybody got a real good look at who they were at that time. This whole pandemic was a huge disaster at the beginning. I think what has happened now is we understand a little bit more about what occurred and the urgency of it.”

She offered, “Whether we wanted to believe it or not; whether it is a conspiracy theory or not; no matter what it was, millions of people died. Here it is,”  White proclaimed. “Are we going to deal with it? Did you survive it? Did your marriage get stronger?”

When California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order in March 2020 in response to the accelerating spread of COVID-19, many domestic violence victims were locked- in with their abusers. (source: Phyllis Kimber Wilcox)

“We do have some people who say, ‘Hey, I found out I really like the girl. I’m going to stay right here,’” White shared. “Or, ‘I really like the man. He was a good man. I was sick and he stayed right there with me.’”

White concluded there were instances where one or the other got COVID-19 during the peak of the crisis and the  husband nursed the wife, or the wife nursed the husband.

“There were a lot of reconciliations.”  

Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is an undergraduate student and history buff,  a grandmother, a parent, a sister, an aunt and lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet. 

The Black Voice News Domestic Violence Series is supported by California Black Media’s Domestic Violence Journalism and Awareness Project and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of California.