When shelter in place orders were put in place earlier this year, one of my first concerns was for the safety of children and family members living in a home already riddled with stress. The increase of domestic violence cases as a result of COVID-19 has been described within our field as a pandemic within a pandemic. The confluence of stressors caused by COVID-19 resulted in an initial decrease in reported domestic violence cases (an unfortunate impact of shelter in place orders) proceeded by an eventual sharp rise of cases earlier this Summer. From my time working with victims of domestic violence within the social service world, I knew that a disruption in income, childcare, and a lack of family support could lead to an increase of physical violence for many families.
Sadly, and predictably, cases of domestic violence have increased since the pandemic has taken hold. Financial strain, the conflation of vitriolic immigration talks, and systematic failures have all been contributing factors in the rise of domestic violence. The isolation of the pandemic heightened these stressors exponentially. Burdening the family further, this isolation formed a barricade between the families and the services they desperately needed.
On the frontline of this pandemic within a pandemic are the heroes – clinicians and support staff of our Home-SAFE division. Prior to COVID-19, Early Head Start Home-Based program clinicians worked in the homes of families with children ages 0-3, helping them develop a strong family dynamic as well as preparing the entire family for a successful transition to pre-school. Desiree Torres, a supervisor of the EHS Home-Based program, shared that her number one concern when COVID-19 began was losing contact with the families. Thankfully, the senior supervising staff of Home-SAFE ensured a seamless transition to virtual sessions by having the foresight to establish these services in the event of a clinician’s extended absence in late 2019.
Although Telehealth connection was established, a new challenge arose – detecting abuse in a virtual setting. Our staff had to be focused on getting through, over, and around the 20-foot high, 2-foot thick barrier wall that the pandemic’s isolation created between them and the families served; so they could see, hear and address the family’s needs. This concern was a big one for Desiree who said, “I’m used to being able to see bruises, to see signs of distress within the home.” She adds, “soon though, our families began sharing their harrowing accounts of abuse.” Desiree attributes the close bond formed between clinician and client as to why they felt comfortable disclosing these painful experiences.
“When a victim opens up about the abuse, the first thing we do is make a safety plan which includes providing a safe space for everyone impacted. The longstanding partnership with other nonprofit organizations committed to helping victims of domestic abuse (Peace Over Violence and the SABAN Group) allows victims to easily participate in these programs. Also, as ongoing support, Desiree, and staff would help victims further by enrolling them in support groups such as the Home-Safe’s Socialization Group for Children and Caregivers.
In another subdivision of Home-SAFE, Program Supervisor of the Early Head Start Child Care Partnership program, Hannah Rojas, shares that the threat of domestic violence has steadily been on the rise since the start of quarantine for families. As so, it is imperative that the wellbeing of children and families are always front of mind.
Just as important, is the wellbeing and safety of childcare providers. Hannah, who alongside Partnership’s team members and Professional Development Coaches, supports over 20+ childcare providers, tells us that many have been anxious as they adjust and/or implement to the current reality of operating a childcare facility during COVID-19. Childcare providers now work nonstop to maintain a clean and sanitary environment, all while trying to provide the nurturing care needed for the children they service, some of whose families are inundated with stress. “It’s been more important than ever to ensure that childcare providers are taking care of themselves, and that we are doing our best in supporting their mental health.” The team has implemented various ways to support this. One of which is Partnership’s implementation of Reflective Practice groups for childcare providers, facilitated in three different groups, each reflecting the childcare provider’s home language. The Reflective Practice groups are facilitated in Korean, Spanish and English by mental health practitioners. Prior to the pandemic, the group met monthly in person. Due to a seamless transition to telehealth after the pandemic, there has been zero lapse in monthly sessions.
Hannah credits her team’s thorough response and regular training on child abuse reporting, networking/partnering with other agencies with different expertise such as domestic violence, and program’s protocols for team’s ability to respond to family’s needs, even in times of crisis. For the team to be successful in promoting wellbeing and safety, it is important to credit the individual support staff receives from their supervisors. This allows the program to promote and enhance best practices as well as prevent burnout amongst team members. “This job requires a lot of emotional presence, and our senior staff have been incredibly supportive of our mental health and well-being.”
Although cases have risen, I am uplifted by the heroics of our Home-SAFE staff. Despite not being there in person, the trust formed between family and clinician has allowed us to be just as involved in supporting their well-being as we were prior to the start of the pandemic.