If you were abused by a loved one or sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, would you know where to turn for help?
The average Virginian doesn’t think about sexual and domestic violence agencies in their community. Yet, every day, trained advocates at these community-based programs are ready to respond, at some of the most dangerous and vulnerable times in our lives. These programs make up a significant and invaluable part of Virginia’s social safety net.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, requests for crisis services (including emergency shelter) drastically increased in Virginia. One sexual and domestic violence agency reported a 150% increase in the number of individuals residing in shelter, as compared to the previous year.
Stay-at-home orders and closures designed to protect the public from widespread infection left many survivors and families isolated or trapped at home with their abusers. Ongoing job losses resulted in more survivors becoming financially entangled with their abusers, while safe and affordable housing remained in short supply in many localities. And the complexity of presenting traumas only grew.
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But front-line, lifesaving help still was available in every community across Virginia. Sexual and domestic violence advocates risked their health throughout the pandemic to offer 24/7 help. They quickly pivoted shelter and housing services in ways that complied with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and moved counseling into the virtual sphere while preserving confidentiality.
Advocates transported survivors to emergency health care facilities when many other transportation services were unavailable; assisted survivors in filing protective orders and completing immigration visas to ensure their rights and safety were protected; and so much more.
According to statewide data collected via VAdata.org, on a single day in 2021, 1,705 individuals received advocacy or hotline services from sexual and domestic violence agencies across the commonwealth. These services included things like emergency shelter and transitional housing, crisis response, safety planning, counseling, health care navigation, legal advocacy and support groups.
Trained advocates often are social workers, counselors and survivors, themselves. They are a force for good in survivors’ lives, helping them find safety, build resilience and move forward after experiencing abuse. Each year, hundreds of survivors tell us access to these programs prevented them from living in cars or on the streets.
Many people even report these services literally saved their lives by helping them escape increasingly lethal violence. Yet, the pandemic has strained local sexual and domestic violence agencies’ resources — at a time when the need for them only has increased.
While we seek to move past the pandemic, its effects continue to ripple throughout our communities. Survivors of color continue to bear the brunt of shredded social safety nets, like access to affordable housing, living wages, or quality, affordable child care.
Virginia’s sexual and domestic violence agencies have shifted from handling short-term COVID-19 pandemic responses to managing longer-term changes. They are adapting their organizations and resources to meet the expanded needs of survivors in an altered landscape.
The pandemic continues to challenge local programs that have struggled to maintain staffing, and meet increased and complex service requests as pandemic-era relief programs end. As with many other front-line essential workers, staff members at these agencies are exhausted and burnt out from struggling to keep 24/7 emergency services operating.
If Virginia is to make progress in addressing public health issues of sexual and domestic violence, it needs sustained and diverse investments in this work. We need people throughout the commonwealth to support their local sexual and domestic violence agencies.
Start with a simple, “thank you, we see you and the work you do in our community”. Consider a personal contribution, or even a monthly pledge of support.
In addition to individual donations, we need the investments and resources of private foundations. We need government funding both in the short-term response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the longer term.
Right now, Virginia legislators are considering allocating $9 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the commonwealth's sexual and domestic violence agencies. We urge the General Assembly to invest in these lifesaving community services, and to continue to sustain our essential work into the future.
Advocates aren’t always in the spotlight, but they always are on the front lines. We’re thankful for the people who show up each day and do what must be done to make sure safety, healing and justice are accessible to every person impacted by sexual and domestic violence.
They’re ready to listen and help you, your friend or your family — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Kristi VanAudenhove is executive director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Karrie Delaney represents the 67th District in the Virginia House of Delegates, which includes parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Contact her at: DelKDelaney@house.virginia.gov
Connect with the Virginia Statewide Hotline: by phone at (800) 838-8238, by text at (804) 793-9999 or by chat at https://www.vadata.org/chat