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SAFE Alliance reports escalating domestic violence is ‘another public health pandemic’
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Between April and June, the SAFE Alliance recorded a 25 percent increase in calls to its 24/7 SAFEline compared to the same time period in 2019. This spike in calls coincides with a reduction in visits from survivors of sexual assault to the nonprofit’s Eloise House for post-trauma care.

The SAFE Alliance hotline is a secure and confidential communication line for survivors of violence who need to access assistance and resources to exit a threatening domestic situation.

“We are definitely seeing escalated abuse and more lethal or more dangerous situations,” Juliana Gonzales, the alliance’s senior director, said at Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting. She said while some of the calls are from people looking for mental health and financial assistance, the majority are related to domestic violence.

Gonzales told commissioners that the dramatic increase in the danger levels stems in large part from external stressors ignited by the Covid-19 pandemic. Layoffs causing financial stress, fear of visiting hospitals due to exposure concerns, and isolation that leads to more time spent with abusers all contribute to a rise in family violence that Gonzales called “absolutely combustible.”

She said child abuse is of particular concern as kids are interacting less frequently with outside caregivers who might otherwise notice and be able to report abuse.

In addition to the swell in violence within Austin, accessing the help offered by the SAFE Alliance is more difficult for many. “We’re seeing a lot of admissions having to be rescheduled,” said Qunisha Simmons, who works at SAFE. She explained that crafting an exit strategy is more challenging right now due to the increased likelihood that the abuser and the victim are sharing close quarters, and that simply finding a private space in which to contact the nonprofit hotline can be a barrier.

Fewer victims of domestic abuse are coming to the nonprofit’s Eloise House care center where they could receive medical treatment following an assault or report an incident to the police. According to Gonzales, the number of exams conducted per month during the stay-home order is “significantly lower” than during pre-pandemic months. In April, the number of exams dropped nearly by half, although this past month she noted that numbers began increasing.

For those using the SAFE Alliance’s services, Simmons said the space in their emergency shelters is short. While usually there are 100 beds available, social distancing requirements have reduced that number and led to a waiting list that is “all day, every day.”

To help alleviate the pressure on the shelter, the nonprofit is piloting a program called Shelter Away, which  allows for SAFE to shelter families in local hotels in order to make room at their on-site facilities for those in immediate danger.

However, the pilot ends at the end of August, and Gonzales said SAFE has not been able to secure funding to continue the program. Nevertheless, she does not expect demand to diminish.

“Family violence is functioning as another public health pandemic right now,” Gonzales told commissioners.

Commissioner Daniela Nuñez explained to the commission that she is concerned relationship violence is making up a disproportionate amount of violent crime in Austin. She said this issue needs to be addressed through non-policing services like the SAFE Alliance.

“Public safety is not just APD. It’s social services. It’s looking at prevention. It’s caring for survivors,” Nuñez said.

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