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March 24, 2020 1:08 pm

‘We’re Here to Help’ — Coronavirus Won’t Stop Assistance to Victims of Domestic Abuse, Head of Jewish Social Service Program Pledges

avatar by Ben Cohen

Staff members of the Metropolitan Council’s program assisting victims of domestic abuse are seen organizing a Passover food distribution in New York City. Photo: Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

“There is a small yet mighty domestic violence community in New York that is here to help clients navigate to safety during this crisis. If they need to leave, we will help them leave. If they need me to send an Uber to collect them, then that’s what I’ll do. Whatever we can do to ensure that people who are in abusive situations are physically safe — and also emotionally safe — we will do.”

Speaking to The Algemeiner on Tuesday, Nechama Bakst —  senior director of the Family Violence Awareness Program at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, a body which provides a range of social services both within and outside the Jewish community — emphasized over and again that help was readily available for victims of domestic violence, many of whom were now living in a perilous quarantine with their abusers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The global lockdown brought on by the disease has led to a dramatic spike in calls to domestic violence agencies from victims of abuse. Across the country, demand for places at domestic violence shelters is increasing daily. According to the National Council Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million Americans annually are victims of partner violence or abuse, with one in four women and one in nine men reporting “severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.”

Baskt — a clinical social worker who has worked closely with domestic abuse victims for over a decade — heads a department that serves 800 clients in all five of New York City’s boroughs. Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, “it’s been hectic,” she said. “Safety needs have increased in such an incredible way.”

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Bakst explained that the Metropolitan Council’s policy is to assist victims irrespective of whether they continue living with their abusers.

“We help people whether or not they have left their abusers,” she said. “If someone has to stay with their abuser, we try to help them as best we can by developing a safety plan. Because people are in quarantine with their abusers, and everyone is home living at close quarters, we have seen an increase in level of safety risk and the need for support.”

As well as dealing with existing clients whose needs have changed dramatically with the onset of “social distancing” protocols, the Council’s domestic violence program has been dealing with new cases. Many abuse victims, said Bakst, were left feeling even more vulnerable by the sense that the world around them had shut down — a fact that was sometimes exploited by the abuser.

“Some abusers are telling their partners that they can’t call the police because we’re in quarantine,” said Bakst. “Obviously that’s not true, but if you keep hearing that, you can end up feeling even more alone and more isolated, so we’re proactively reaching out to our clients every hour.”

For many of clients, the calls have amounted to a lifeline. “My staff have been telling me when they are doing wellness checks,  some of our clients are saying, ‘Just hearing your voice and knowing that you’re there makes all the difference.'” Bakst said.

The contact is especially heartening for abused spouses whose plans to leave their partners were derailed by the onset of the coronavirus. Bakst described two such cases, one involving a woman who was stuck living with a physically-violent partner, the other involving a young mother of three children who managed to leave her partner, but was now struggling to feed her family after abruptly losing her job last week because of the virus.

“She was on the phone to us, crying,” Bakst recalled. “She was saying, ‘I don’t know if you know how needy I am, I hate to be the one who’s so needy,’ and we told her that we are here to support everyone and help them get through this in the best way they can.”

As well as providing therapy and counseling services, the Council also assists with more immediate matters like food and housing. On Sunday, the staff of the domestic violence program organized a distribution of food for the forthcoming Passover holiday, leaving packages just outside the recipient’s home for them to safely collect.

“Everyone coming through our program is traumatized, and so how we interact with each person is different,” Bakst observed. In its 14 years of existence, the program has become known for what she described as its “highly individualized approach” to those whom it serves. Preserving that approach will be a formidable challenge with an as-yet undefined period of isolation lying ahead, but Bakst expressed a calm confidence that her department can absorb what lies ahead.

“Right now, our number one priority is your safety,” Bakst said. “Whether you’ve been with us for two years or one month, there is nothing more important than keeping you safe.”

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