The office building that houses Womanspace, Inc. on Brunswick Avenue in Lawrence Township is dark, but that has not slowed it down from helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
To the contrary, Womanspace staff members are still answering calls for help around the clock on its hotlines at 609-394-9000 and 1-800-572-SAFE (7233). The hearing-impaired may text 609-619-1888.
Womanspace, like all businesses and agencies deemed “non-essential” under Gov. Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order, closed its administrative and counseling offices on Brunswick Avenue last month.
While many families are enjoying quality time together, there are others whose family members continue to be victims of domestic violence or sexual assault – and it is for them that Womanspace continues to operate.
“All of our emergency services are available 24/7,” said Patricia Hart, the executive director of Womanspace. “Our programs are fully functioning and supporting survivors as they try to cope with both the violence in their homes and this new threat (COVID-19) to their health and well-being.”
Womanspace’s Safe House, which is an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence, is providing shelter to four families that includes six children under 10 years old. It has the capacity to shelter eight families.
Six families are living in Barbara’s House, which is short-term transitional housing where the families can stay as they learn job-readiness skills and take steps toward self-sufficiency.
If it is safe to do so, Hart said, counselors will get in touch with their clients every week to offer remote counseling or just a call to check in with them. Clients also can call and leave messages for their counselors, who check for messages daily.
Calls for help from sexual assault victims will be handled by trained hotline advocates, Hart said. They will guide the victims through the proper procedures and offer referrals, if needed.
Domestic Violence Victims Response Teams, which would have responded to the police department in person, are responding by telephone when the victims go to the police department, Hart said. They will continue to work with the police to ensure the victims’ safety.
The stay-at-home order has had an impact on victims of domestic violence, Hart said. They cannot leave the house to go to the library and its computers for secure email conversations, or to attend counseling sessions. They cannot use their phone to call for help.
“Whenever there is a stressful situation, the possibility exists that domestic violence may intensify. That is what is supported by the research literature and our experience,” Hart said. “Being closed in together with someone who is abusive could perhaps lead to an increase in abusive behavior, and it definitely lessens the options for escape or support.”
Hart said that an informal poll among domestic violence programs in New Jersey revealed that calls for help are either the same or have gone down, when compared to the days before the stay-at-home order was issued.
When Womanspace checked in with its law enforcement partners, the police also reported that the volume of calls for help was about the same as before the stay-at-home order was issued, Hart said.
“All but one police department said that domestic violence calls were down from last month, which is additionally scary. It’s the calm before the storm,” she said.
Hart suggested that if someone is concerned about a friend, a phone call to ask how they are doing or if they need anything would be helpful. It would lessen their fear of being isolated, she said.
“Domestic violence victims are often already isolated from family and friends, but with the quarantine, the isolation is total and complete. That is a concern. It is the calm before the storm that we worry about,” Hart said.
The shut-down and stay-at-home order also has had a “huge financial impact,” she said. The staff members are working from home every day, and they need to be paid.
“The (total) impact on finances is yet to be seen, as delays and cuts are inevitable. Private fundraising as a result of everyone’s financial situation is questionable. The State of New Jersey is freezing nearly $1 billion and we have no idea if that will impact our funding,” Hart said.
“The State of New Jersey has been excellent in keeping us informed, but unfortunately, they can’t promise (funding). I think everyone is thinking, ‘Let’s get the job done and we will sort it out later.’ That is a tough position to bank on,” she said.
For those who can donate financially, those donations can be done securely on Womanspace’s website at www.womanspace.org, Hart said.
Gift cards to Walmart, Target, Best Buy or Amazon would be “incredibly helpful,” she said. There is an increased need for cleaning supplies, as well as technology that allows Womanspace to offer remote services, and gift cards would help it to meet those needs.