This story is part of a WKMS News series highlighting organizations and groups helping others amid the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected lives all over the world in many different ways, but one of the most pressing and troubling outcomes is the rising reports of child abuse, domestic abuse and sexual abuse. Kentucky’s abuse crisis centers not only adapted their services to comply with recommended health and safety guidelines, but also adjusted their approach to reach victims during a time when leaving an abusive situation could be harder than ever.
United Nations Women, an organization of the UN, calls it “the Shadow Pandemic.” According to their website, one in three women experienced violence before COVID-19 changed the world, but the virus brings in stressors that experts believe make abuse worse and more frequent. The UN said cramped living conditions, worries over finances, deserted public spaces, and isolation with the abuser are just some of the ways the pandemic could exacerbate abuse.
In Kentucky, abuse crisis centers serve entire regions of the state. They usually offer a hybrid of resources for multiple types of abuse: domestic, sexual and child abuse. They also work together in a network of “sister organizations.”
The Merryman House
Merryman House in Paducah is a domestic violence crisis center that offers a wide range of services to help victims escape an abusive situation and get back on their feet. Merryman House is a refuge to people for many reasons, but particularly because they offer emergency shelter to those fleeing domestic violence. Executive Director Dr. Mary Foley said the pandemic pushed aspects of their services to the limits.
“I would say only within the last month- month-and-a-half, have we not been at or over capacity,” Foley said. “At one time during the pandemic we were sheltering 60 individuals, so our numbers, we have a 36-bed facility. We were almost double.”
Foley said when the pandemic hit, she knew her organization was going to have to make big changes in order to meet the needs of victims.
“I think we immediately knew some of the safety planning tips we give were not going to work. Some of the eyes and ears that are built into institutions are not going to see, so schools and hospitals, or businesses, or coworkers,” she said.
Foley said they made the hard decision to shut down their campus for a short time. She said victims could still seek emergency shelter there, but they had to find a way to make sure they were COVID free before they brought them into their campus.
Director of Operations Amy Abernathy said Merryman House partnered with local hotels in order to provide victims a place to quarantine before transferring to campus. Foley said it was a win-win, because the travel and hospitality industry also took a hit during the pandemic. Abernathy said they eventually got it down to a science, having a 24-hour turnover from when a victim was approved for their emergency shelter services to being admitted on campus. She said this is just one aspect of how COVID-19 changed things for the Merryman House.
“It really changed the dynamics of how everything operated, from how an advocate was able to communicate with a victim, how food services was provided,” Abernathy said.
Foley says the organization’s aggressive response to COVID-19 paid off. She says they didn’t have a COVID-19 case that affected a client until the middle of December.
Hopkinsville-based Sanctuary, Inc. has experienced similar challenges. Sanctuary is a domestic violence and child advocacy center that serves the nine-county area of the Pennyrile Development District.
Sanctuary’s Director of Residential Services Kathy McDermott said housing is a big focus for their organization this year. She said Sanctuary offers several apartments to victims depending on need; ranging from the small and temporary, to larger and more spacious, as staff helps victims navigate finding a long-term housing solution. McDermott said their building also has many communal spaces that victims and staff can no longer use due to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“Like the kitchen has always been a nice therapy space, you know, peer support, everybody just hanging out in the kitchen, and we’ve had to shut that,” she said.
Executive Director Heather Lancaster said Sanctuary has also seen an increase in calls from victims. She said much like Merryman, they have had to change entire aspects of how they operate because of COVID-19 and are concerned about the effects on victims.
Lancaster said control is one of the biggest aspects of many abusive relationships. She said the pandemic makes it easier for abusive partners to take over their partner’s finances and withhold legal documents, like their social security card or birth certificate. She said because many victims don’t have access to their finances, she believes the federal stimulus checks could have given many victims a way to leave– by giving them money to fill up their gas tank, for example.
“Having that stimulus available, if it was available to them, could have been a reason for them to not come and find other ways to seek safety using that stimulus money,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster said despite the hardships related to the pandemic, they were able to expand and renovate the garden area of their facility, which was paid for through local and state grants.
“Gardening out there and getting clients involved in that, really giving them a chance to experience that hands on, and that healing, you know there’s so much healing in nature,” she said.
Sexual abuse and child advocacy center Lotus in Paducah is anxious to share updated spaces with victims and the community. They renovated much of their facility around the time the pandemic started.
Lotus Executive Director Lori Brown said Lotus offers a safe space for victims to heal. She said they also work with local law enforcement and families to provide evaluations of children who have cases moving through the legal system, all in an environment where kids won’t feel as intimidated or afraid.
Brown said raising awareness about child abuse and sexual assault is one of the best preventative methods and became a top priority when Lotus saw a drop in referrals toward the beginning of the pandemic. Brown said usual watchdogs for abuse, like schools, were closed and she knew they had to reach the community in other ways, like posting more often on social media.
“We even did a yard sign campaign, you know, because what we found is that there were more people getting out and walking last spring, more families getting out and walking, you know we saw a lot of kids and neighbors, so we were just trying to get the word out,” Brown said.
Brown described their new “sandbox room,” where a thousand figurines of superheroes, Disney Characters, animals and more lined the walls.
“There’s something really cathartic about creating your world in the sand, so for people who have had their control taken away, being able to actually control their world in the sand, and being able to work through the impact of what they experienced,” Brown said.
Brown, much like Lancaster with Sanctuary and Foley with the Merryman House, said getting through the pandemic required finding creative solutions. All three organizations said they received unprecedented community support.
Merryman House’s annual rubber duck race named “The PaDucky Derby” sold 10,000 rubber ducks last summer, more than any other year of the fundraiser’s history. Brown said Lotus received more interest in volunteering, and Sanctuary also saw an uptick in their community giving.
Sanctuary and the Merryman House always need donations like clothes, toiletries and bedding. There is a needs list, or gifts list, posted on their respective websites, and Lotus in Paducah also has multiple options for giving and volunteering.
Brown said community support is vital for victims who were already struggling.
“This has been hard on everybody, but it’s really hard for survivors who are already dealing with that, so for the community to recognize and offer support,” Brown said.
If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, you can contact Merryman House’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-585-2686. You can contact Sanctuary’s 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-0000 or Lotus’ 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-928-7273.
(This story first ran on WKMS, the public radio station at Murray State University.)