‘Home is not a safe place for all Iowans’: COVID-19 and social distancing create challenges for agencies that help abuse victims

Anna Shvets/Pexels

Since community spread of COVID-19 was confirmed in Iowa on March 14, Gov. Reynolds has been encouraging people to stay at home to help keep themselves and others safe from the virus. But at her press conference on Wednesday, the governor said, “we must also recognize that home is not a safe place for all Iowans.”

“Data from past disasters show physical and sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence and substance abuse, increases along with the stress on families in these types of circumstances,” Reynolds said. “Anecdotal information nationwide suggests it is happening now, due to [the] COVID-19 pandemic.”

With closure of schools and businesses, and the limiting of public interactions, abuse can be harder to detect, the governor said. She then asked Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia to speak about the issue.

“At DHS we’re paying very close attention to abuse reports, which sadly have dropped,” Garcia said. “To be clear, as the governor mentioned, we don’t believe that abuse has gone away, but the reports have.”

“Teachers, doctors and other mandatory reporters are not seeing children and vulnerable adults like they normally would and this is concerning. While we’re monitoring this closely, we’re also raising awareness.”

“We’re working closely with the Department of Education, with superintendents across the state, encouraging comfort calls to check on students,” Garcia continued. “We’re also putting out the call to communities, neighbors, faith-based organizations and all Iowans. If you hear something or see something, say something.”

The director urged anyone who believes a child or adult is in imminent danger to call 911 and report it. The Department of Human Services also has a 24-hour phone line; anyone experiencing abuse, or anyone who suspects another person is, can call for help at 1-800-362-2178.

In Johnson County, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) has been providing support and advocacy services for victims and survivors of domestic violence for 40 years.

DVIP grew out of an initiative launched by the University of Iowa’s Women’s Resource and Action Center in the late 1970s. It opened its first shelter for people threatened by domestic violence in 1980, and DVIP now covers eight counties in southeastern Iowa: Johnson, Iowa, Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Lee, Van Buren and Washington.

But COVID-19 has presented the nonprofit with a new set of challenges. The need for social distancing has changed how it can provide shelter for the people it serves.

“Because DVIP is dedicated to keeping not only our clients but also our staff safe, we have moved individuals from our communal emergency sheltering space into temporary shelter throughout the community,” Alta Medea-Peters, DVIP director of community engagement, explained in a written statement last week.

“Though emergency sheltering looks different it is still available!” Medea-Peters emphasized.

The nonprofit has been able to move its clients to smaller living accommodations, thanks to assistance from “The Housing Fellowship, Johnson County Public Health, FEMA, and local property owners within our community.”

“Moving from a single communal emergency shelter space with overflow at hotels has created a unique situation in which DVIP now has nearly 10 virtual offices and eight sheltering locations throughout Johnson County,” Medea-Peters said. “With the changes in our physical location, we will maintain our business number 319-356-9863, our shelter line 319-351-1043, and our emergency hotline number 800-373-1043. Anyone in need of services, resources, or safety planning are encouraged to reach out to our advocates 24/7.”

These changes mean DVIP is facing unexpected expenses as it continues to provide service during the pandemic. Anyone interested in supporting DVIP’s work can donate through its website.

DVIP is also looking for assistance in providing some basic needs for the people it serves.

The most needed items are:

• Cleaning Supplies

• Pots and Pans

• Silverware

• Dishtowels

• Bath towels

• Dishes

• Cups (not glass)

• Gift Cards to restaurants/grocery stores

• Gently used cell phones

Anyone interested in donating one of these items should call 319-359-9353.

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