There is no doubt that pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the social isolation that can result from related stay-at-home orders, is driving an increase in domestic violence and other crimes against vulnerable populations.

Across Texas, advocates’ fears that already abusive households would become more prone to violence were borne out by a spike in calls to abuse hotlines as shelter-in-place orders loomed.

Dr. Ilene Harper

As active members of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), a nation-wide network of 42,000 crime victims with over 5,000 here in Texas, we are witnessing to the pandemic’s dramatic impact on victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes. In light of what we are seeing on the ground, CSSJ is advocating at the local, state and federal levels for increased protection and support for key safety services. Federal stimulus dollars at the state and local level can, and should, be used to fund services that help keep communities safe, such as victims services, violence prevention, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and programming to help people returning to the community find their footing after exiting the justice system.

The reality is that even before COVID-19 appeared, crime survivors and others in underserved communities were burdened with concentrated crime, economic inequality, trauma and incarceration. The community-level services people relied on for their health and safety  were overstretched. The pandemic and its economic fallout have exacerbated these hardships and will hurt more people in communities  at greatest risk, and everyone.

Tricia Forbes

Those of us who work directly with vulnerable Texans are seeing an increased need for services – domestic violence shelters, mental health services, shelter for the homeless, post-incarceration reentry services and the technical support to provide virtual services for clients in need — but a diminished ability to provide them. At the same time, funding and other support is not keeping pace or declining.

We are encouraged by steps Texas leaders already have taken, such as automatically extending food stamps for recipients whose benefits are up for renewal and deeming as “essential” (during the initial stay-at-home orders) many services and workers who serve and support vulnerable communities. We also applaud Governor Abbott’s emergency waiver of federal match requirements for victims services grant recipients.  

But as Texas continues to navigate in the wake of this disease’s first wave and prepare for a potential second one, leaders can take additional steps to assist communities and help crime victims. These steps include:

  • expanding emergency shelter options;
  • accelerating application reviews and reducing barriers for crises support such as emergency housing;
  • establishing a crisis assistance emergency response fund to ensure essential survivor services have the resources necessary to safely provide support for crime survivors;
  • ensuring critical community services can transition to an online platform so that those in need are able to access virtual help; and
  • ensuring availability crisis assistance navigator hotlines and tele-wellness checks to connect vulnerable people to care in lieu of in-person meetings for services so that survivors can continue to receive the support they need (i.e., counseling for suicide prevention or substance use) such as the COVID-19 related hotline launched March 31 by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The coronavirus has revealed a deep need for our local, state and federal governments to focus on priorities that will actually keep communities safe. Our experience as crime survivors has convinced us that additional resources and services for crime victims and communities in need are essential. They will help protect people from unnecessary harm and make us all safer.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column has been penned jointly by Dr. Ilene Harper and Tricia Forbes. It appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with permission of the authors. Dr. Ilene Harper is a Richmond, TX resident and chapter coordinator with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. She has a Ph.D. in Education Administration from Texas A&M University and is the Executive Director of The Family Life and Community Resource Center, a non-profit with the mission to promote positive change through education, training, collaboration, support, health and wellness. Tricia Forbes is a Regional Training Manager for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. She provides support to chapters in Austin and El Paso. Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice is a network of 42,000 crime victims nationally and 5,000 in Texas, is a flagship project of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization that aims to win new safety priorities in states across the country. Alliance for Safety and Justice partners with leaders and advocates to advance state reform through networking, coalition building, research, education, and advocacy.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column comes from a tweet by Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

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