Service to victims also changed 

COVID-19 has altered the ways victims react to domestic and sexual violence and the ways advocates help them.

Escaping violence and finding safe places to shelter is complicated by the pandemic. Support services are provided by phone or email. Isolation contributes to mental health crises triggered by past incidents of sexual violence.

Those are some of the conclusions of staffers at Burnsville-based nonprofit 360 Communities, whose services in the south metro include family shelters in Eagan and Hastings and support for sexual assault victims.

A total of 417 people, more than half of them children, stayed at 360 Communities’ two Lewis House shelters in 2020, the agency reported. It helped 2,026 people obtain orders for protection and harassment restraining orders. A total of 211 sexual assault victims received support services.

“If you just think about the different stressors people are under, which have grown in magnitude since COVID, that’s all stuff that compounds the problem of domestic and sexual violence,” said Jeff Mortensen, CEO of 360 Communities, which held a virtual event instead of its traditional annual luncheon this month to mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.

“People are stuck in the same space,” Mortensen said. “There’s a different power and control dynamic that goes on. It has definitely affected it.”

Agency staffers have seen some hesitancy among domestic abuse victims to seek protection orders against their attackers, said sexual assault services specialist Jenna M.

“It feels harder for them to do because now they’re putting them out on the street in the middle of a pandemic,” said Jenna M., going by the abbreviated name the agency assigns its sexual assault and domestic abuse advocates to help protect their safety. “There’s been some hesitancy to take some of these initial steps.”

Victims’ isolation from support networks of family, friends and co-workers doesn’t help, she said. The demand for Lewis House shelters hasn’t declined, but concerns about COVID-19 are heightened, she said.

The agency is doing a feasibility study on switching to efficiency suites instead of communal living at the shelters, Mortensen said.

In a few cases, clients have been put up in hotels if they were COVID-19 positive, symptomatic or had had close contact with someone who was positive, said Vicki Illa, who supervises both shelters.

But there have been no outbreaks.

“We’ve had a few staff have it, but we’ve kind of nipped that in the bud,” Illa said, noting that public health nurses have held three vaccination clinics at the shelters. “Everything’s kind of so far, so good.”

Among sexual assault victims, Jenna M. said she’s seen an erosion of mental health during the pandemic.

“Just anecdotally, we have had a huge influx of crisis calls, mental health,” she said. “The work is by all means not diminishing in the slightest. If anything, it’s been going up. It’s just the services that are being sought are a little different.”

The majority of clients she’s been working with are retraumatized by events of more than a year ago, Jenna M. said.

“People are triggered,” she said. “People are desperately in need of mental health. There’s a lot of that emotional crisis, people are in a very dark place, talking about thoughts of harming themselves, reliving and revisiting that assault. There’s just a lot of trauma that’s being compounded by this pandemic. People are reaching out for help.”

As the sexual assault services advocacy group serving M Health Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville and Regina Hospital in Hastings, 360 Communities sent volunteers to the hospitals for victims undergoing forensic exams, Jenna M. said.

That has been done over the phone during the pandemic, she said.

Instead of offering its live sexual and domestic violence support groups, 360 Communities has offered a chat room service, she said.

Helping victims obtain protection orders has been done by phone and email, though some in-person services are resuming, Jenna M. said.

“It’s gone OK,” she said. “Obviously, none of it is ideal. Ideally we want to be there step by step with the victim survivors. But we haven’t been able to do that. We’re still providing that support, and we’re still providing those core services to help people navigate things moving forward, whether it be with law enforcement or just moving forward on that healing path.”

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