Kristi Taylor sits at her computer and logs on to Zoom. The education director at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County smiles about the technical difficulties using the software. She holds up the soft blanket that covers her lap, just one of the little rituals that get her through long video conferences in a changing work environment.
Kristi Taylor, education director at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County
Putting in endless hours online hasn’t been the only change in Taylor’s routine at the Advocacy Center, an Ithaca nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence. While the Covid-19 pandemic brought a suspected spike in cases of domestic violence, stay-at-home guidelines made it more difficult for victims to reach out for help. In March 2020, the Advocacy Center’s hotline went cold.
“We weren’t able to connect with survivors, and we weren’t hearing from people,” Taylor explained. “And that was really, really concerning for us, because what that told us is that people were trapped with their abusive partners.”
The center moved swiftly to address the new conditions, finding solutions in technology and social media as the center’s work went remote almost entirely (a notable exception being the center’s 24/7 shelter for abuse victims). First, the center significantly increased its use of Instagram to spread awareness and combat any impression that its activities had ceased. It launched an Instagram campaign with the hashtag #wearestillhere. Staff members posted pictures of themselves holding posters with the hashtag message, putting the center’s contact information in the caption. The center also added podcasts and blog posts to its education outreach mix.
By the summer, pandemic restrictions began to ease somewhat and the Advocacy Center’s hotline began buzzing again. The center upgraded its technology to handle multiple hotline calls simultaneously, and introduced a hybrid virtual platform for training additional hotline volunteers to manage the influx.
The Advocacy Center also moved its in-person support groups for domestic violence survivors online, the Survivor Empowerment group and Knowledge is Power group. The groups utilize secure video conferencing software during meetings to give a face-to-face connection while also protecting attendees’ privacy. Group numbers fluctuate due to the center’s “drop-in” policy, but usually seven to 10 people attend the once-a-week meetings lasting an hour or more.
Between July and October, hotline calls increased 55 percent over the same period in 2019. That aligns with a study published in December in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, which indicates that cases of domestic abuse have significantly risen since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Pandemic conditions from stay-at-home orders to work-from-home practices meant that abuse victims became more isolated from their support systems, and as a result, more deeply trapped in their abusive relationships. “One of the most powerful tools that abusers have is creating isolation,” said Taylor.
Between July and October, the Advocacy Center provided support to 34 percent more domestic abuse survivors compared to the same period in 2019. Compared to the previous year, in 2020 the center also supported 44 percent more children and teens who had been sexually abused.
The Advocacy Center was founded in 1977 as the Task Force for Battered Women. At the time, its purpose was to provide women who had suffered from domestic abuse and their children a safe place to live. The organization also helps victims of sexual assault and rape, victims of child sexual abuse, family members of survivors, and people of any age and gender who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.
—By Margaret Kent
Margaret Kent, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College majoring in Communication Management and Design with a concentration in Corporate Communication and a minor in Writing.