The executive director of a local domestic violence services agency said the low number of requests for services during Illinois’ stay-at-home order don’t tell the whole story about what victims experienced during that time.
Jennifer Gabrenya is executive director of South Suburban Family Shelter, a nonprofit in Homewood that assists families experiencing domestic violence. She said their hotline has been quiet lately, but of course that doesn’t mean incidents of domestic violence suddenly decreased.
“In the first few months, we were getting zero requests for new counseling. That, in itself, was really scary,” Gabrenya said. “What we’re worried about are people who can’t safely get to a phone. They can’t reach out because they’re in the house with the person who’s hurting them, 24 hours a day.”
Many SSFS clients must lie to their abuser in order to leave the house for counseling and other services, Gabrenya said. Women might say they’re going to church or to the home of a friend or family member. Since the pandemic closed establishments and restricted people’s movements, those excuses went away.
“One of my colleagues has at least one client who’s able to leave the house and go for a walk. That’s when she calls in for services,” Gabrenya said.
“If you’re afraid of the person in your home, you’re not going to be able to go in the bathroom and make a call. There’s no privacy, there’s no safety, there are no boundaries.”
An essential operation, SSFS continued its work when Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a virtual state shutdown in late March. The agency has maintained all its programs, except for medical advocacy, since hospitals wouldn’t permit non-patients to enter.
To continue counseling sessions for people experiencing abuse, Gabrenya said SSFS set up a system to connect with clients via video messaging. It had to be secure, discreet and simple — nothing requiring a client to set up an account or provide an email address — so it wouldn’t be noticed by an abuser going through his victim’s phone.
Even with a robust system, Gabrenya said she recognizes that connecting through technology isn’t the ideal way to share problems and feelings with a counselor.
“Of course, the virtual stuff doesn’t work for everyone. We’re very painfully aware that counseling, therapy and group services are more ideally served in person,” she said.
The counseling staff has been saddened and alarmed, Gabrenya said, to find certain clients unreachable. Some don’t answer their phone, while others’ numbers have been disconnected.
As SSFS staff has developed new and safe ways to connect with clients, Gabrenya said they simultaneously faced an enormous challenge in housing victims of domestic violence, which often include children as well as adults.
SSFS does not operate a physical shelter. Instead, it uses a system of hotelling for clients in immediate need. The agency rents hotel rooms to provide clients with emergency shelter. If needed, it then places clients at shelters operated by other domestic violence and nonprofit agencies.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, most of these congregant shelters have closed or stopped admitting new residents, Gabrenya said. SSFS staff were forced to use solely the hotelling system for clients who need a safe place to stay — a costly solution.
“We’ve experienced over a 500% increase in nights. It’s cost us $40,000 in the last two months,” Gabrenya said.
She’s thankful, however, that SSFS already had a structure in place for sheltering clients in hotel rooms. Gabrenya said other agencies with no such system have reached out for help setting one up, and SSFS has been able to advise them on billing and other logistics.
Though the constraints of the pandemic shutdown have strained the agency’s operations and finances, Gabrenya said she feels impressed by what her team accomplished while facing serious challenges.
“There were some amazing things that came out of this because you can see the innovation that the staff has,” Gabrenya said. “We have found people have talents we didn’t know they had. We’ve had to pivot and shift so fast, it’s amazing that we still have our head on our shoulders.”