– By Gabriel Pietrorazio
As New York State slowly starts to partially reopen after a lengthy stay at home order, plenty are still unemployed and stuck at home – which is where domestic abuse cases are spiking statewide.
According to the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the number of domestic violence reports have undergone a considerable uptick by 30 percent during the month of April in comparison to last year, and even the number of incident calls have increased by 15 percent in March versus last year’s rates.
Jamie Austin, a case manager at the Family Counseling Service of the Finger Lakes explains that their work has not slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York on PAUSE initiative.
In fact, their services for offering trained domestic violence advocates are needed now more than ever with a greater demand on services.
Austin stated that while face-to-face or in person services are no longer offered due to social distancing practices, her office and staff are still accepting new clients and filing claims.
“I’m not doing sit down and takes the clients anymore. We’re doing intakes or phone via telehealth, but we’re still filing claims,” Austin told FingerLakes1.com.
In the absence of face-to-face consultation visits, domestic violence advocates are writing orders of protection for clients, and Family Counseling Service has trained a new batch of advocates in an effort to increase their responsiveness, according to Austin.
Austin also emphasizes that advocates and case managers are able file orders of protection remotely and over the phone for those who are in need of their assistance.
“But our advocates and case managers are still able to file that word protection over the phone with the client, and then talk them through what happens next and safety plan. So, in terms of it looking differently, I’m sure that there’s that machine component for the client kind of makes it harder,” she said.
Even though clients are not physically close to advocates, once the order of protection has been signed, their case work has not concluded.
Family Counseling Service assesses whether the victim is safe at home and if not, their office seeks to find emergency housing for the evening as a part of their comprehensive safety planning.
These assessments and their outcomes are critical and calculative, especially following the recent bail reform measures that were implemented at the beginning of this January.
“We’re sitting down, we’re listening to the DA explain to us what bail reform looks like, what that looks like for our clients, and we’re making sure that that’s part of our safety planning, so that our clients are aware of all potential outcomes, and what this means,” Austin stated.
Although their office may offer earnest advice and input to clients, the decision is solely left with the alleged victim as they critically weigh the consequences of filling for the protection order and subsequent arrest of the spouse or partner.
“So, we’re not going to sit down and do an order protection with a client who might come home later that night and it’s not safe. We’re talking about that when we’re planning with a client because it’s the ultimate responsibility is to make sure that they’re aware of all potential outcomes before they make really big decisions,” she continued.
Beyond that, New York State’s Office of Victim Services assists clients with strategic safety planning consultation for victims who are entrenched in abusive environments or situations altogether.
Aside from accompanying clients to court hearings and offering emotional support, advocates on behalf of OVS also aid victims in receiving compensation for lost wages and even in some cases damaged property, which may be caused by a perpetrator.
Austin also mentions that the sheer presence of a perpetrator in the same living space as a victim impedes their willingness to seek help from agencies like Family Counseling Service, and even now their office is addressing this issue by creating an online web chat to connect with professionals.
“So, if it’s not safe for someone to call in because their perpetrator can hear them. So, what we’re doing is we’re going to have a web chat available soon where they can essentially go online and speak with someone in real-time via web chat to do safety planning, and possibly, get out of the situation that they’re in at the moment. If that looks like emergency housing, or if that looks like for going through the web chat like I want to call the police, I don’t feel safe.”
“If someone you know isn’t really sure they don’t feel like it’s an emergency, the person that’s abusing them is gaslighting them and they just don’t know what’s real, that that’s where DV advocates are just talking about education, and then if the person is comfortable, then they’re moving forward with services,” Austin concluded.
Those interested may contact their office’s 24-hour hotline by calling 1-800-695-0390 where a trained domestic violence advocate answers the phone line to offer any assistance or call their general phone number at 315-789-2613 to speak with an administrative assistant who will get them in contact with a qualified professional.