Domestic violence providers continue virtual services, hope for continued funding – Boston University News Service

By Allison Pirog
Boston University Statehouse Program

Massachusetts domestic violence service providers had to shift to virtual counseling, close their emergency shelters and take steps to protect their clients when the pandemic began. As COVID-19 cases continue to decline, they have chosen to maintain some pandemic-induced practices after learning that increased flexibility can benefit customers and staff.

However, as government emergency funding begins to dwindle, some fear that services for survivors may have to be cut.

Marcia Szymanski, executive director of New Hope, which provides counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence in south-central and southeast Massachusetts, said she plans to stick with a model hybrid where customers can visit virtually or in person.

The nonprofit has had a better exposure rate for virtual counseling because appointments are more convenient for many clients, Szymanski said.

“It’s not always about just being in our office and waiting for people to come to us,” Szymanski said. “How do we make ourselves available in multiple ways? »

The agency purchased the technology for clients who needed it to access virtual services, she said.

New Hope, which has offices in Milford, Southbridge, Worcester, Attleboro and Taunton, has used virtual advice to balance the workload, by allowing clients to virtually meet with the adviser from another office if the nearest office is complete, she said.

The virtual model has posed challenges for New Hope’s supervised visitation program, where non-custodial parents with a history of domestic or sexual abuse have staff-supervised visitation with their children, Szymanski said. Children need the help of their custodial parents to set up the technology, so non-custodial parents sometimes worry that the custodial parent is listening, she said.

New Hope returned to in-person supervised visits last summer, Szymanski said.

Szymanski said the agency is focused on providing services to those who didn’t have access to them in the past, especially people of color, Indigenous communities and LGBTQ people. New Hope recently added Spanish and Portuguese speaking staff to some of its sites, she said.

The organization received additional funding during the pandemic, but Szymanski said uncertainty about future funding makes long-term planning difficult. New Hope would have to downsize if it lost funding, which Szymanski said would mean fewer survivors receiving services.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said federal funds from the U.S. Bailout Act are temporary state revenue, so cutting taxes now will lead to domestic service cuts across the country. coming.

Governor Charlie Baker tabled a $700 million tax relief plan alongside his budget proposal in January. Baker also called on lawmakers to pass his dangerousness bill, first introduced in 2018, which would require a hearing to determine whether defendants charged with domestic violence and certain other crimes should be held without bail.

Eldridge said the state should focus on providing services for victims of domestic violence without taking an overly punitive approach to justice.

“The concern is that at a time when we are looking to reduce mass incarceration and focus on treatment rather than punishment, why has Governor Baker introduced this bill which is more focused about penalties?” said Eldridge.

Cities and towns should increase funding for services and train police to respond to domestic violence calls, he added.

Eldridge said he supports increasing the number of witness victim advocates in court, providing more shelters for women and children and closing the gap in services for rural and suburban areas.

Sue Chandler, executive director of Quincy-based service provider DOVE, said her organization secured funding to maintain six furnished apartments where survivors lived after the pandemic closed their emergency shelter. This will double DOVE’s capacity when the emergency shelter reopens in May, she said.

Clients living in these apartments have more independence and space but still benefit from the support of DOVE staff, she said.

Chandler said DOVE moved all of its meetings virtual last year, which reduced travel time and made meetings more efficient for customers and staff. The service provider will hold half of its staff meetings virtually and allow customers to choose the option that suits them best.

DOVE will also offer a virtual version of its biannual domestic violence awareness training for community members, allowing a wider audience to attend, Chandler said.

Chandler said she observed more severe mental health issues in survivors as they faced isolation. She said demand for services is still high compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The organization has had difficulty filing critical positions because many job seekers want to work remotely, which isn’t possible for this job with survivors, Chandler said. DOVE has increased wages by 6-8% and is being “as creative as possible” in hiring staff without sacrificing customer needs, she said.

“We compete with other amazing, mission-based organizations that are also looking for talented, passionate people to help others,” Chandler said. “We just do our best to be a flexible, responsive and supportive employer.”

DOVE received Payroll Protection Program funding to continue paying all of its staff at the start of the pandemic, as well as flexible funds to help customers pay for first and last month’s rent, vehicle repairs, groceries and security systems, Chandler said.

Chandler said while the state is doing well financially, it cannot maintain all federal emergency fund programs covered earlier in the pandemic. DOVE is advocating for higher budget allocations to domestic violence service providers and affordable housing, she said.

“There has been a lot of government support through federal emergency funds which has certainly helped many survivors,” Chandler said. “That money is going to run out, and people are definitely going to be deported.”

This article originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle.

Perry A. Thomasson