By Katherine Cloutier and Sara McGirr
“We’ve changed the term social distancing. We’ve changed it in our agency to physical distancing because we want to emphasize there should still be a social connection…”– Amber Harchuk, Policy Analyst for Domestic Violence Programs
Human services generally rely heavily on in-person connections – meetings in offices, visits in homes, and trips to other organizations. Now, as the world adjusts to a pandemic, agencies must figure out how to adopt physical distancing measures to make sure their staff and clients are at a lesser risk of COVID-19, while maintaining the social connections that are at the heart of this work. The Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) and their community partners are leading this movement, ensuring the quality and compassion of their work goes uncompromised in the face of strict statewide stay at home orders and other precautions to address the global pandemic.
Oregon’s orders have looked much like those seen across the world, including limiting non-essential services and activities, closing K-12 schools or moving to distanced/remote learning, and moving much of ODHS and advocacy work to online or phone services. For many survivors of domestic violence (DV), this order has resulted in extended periods of time inside homes, compromised work statuses, new distance-learning responsibilities for school-aged children, and, unfortunately, increased intensity of abuse in their homes. The Safe & Together Model has been vital for Oregon’s ODHS and community partners as they work to adapt their virtual advocacy and outreach during this crisis to meet shifting needs and safely partner with survivors.
To share what this means for their clients and department staff, Amber Harchuk (Policy Analyst for Domestic Violence Programs for the ODHS Self-Sufficiency Unit), D Howden (Co-located Supervisor of community co-located advocates for the Center for Hope & Safety), and Cheryl O’Neill (Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordinator for the ODHS Child Welfare and Child Safety Unit), described lessons learned and their ever-evolving DV informed child welfare pandemic protocols in a recent interview with the Safe & Together Institute. Amber, D, and Cheryl have all been trained in the Safe & Together Model over the last ten years, and have integrated the suite of tools into their work prior to this pandemic. The Model’s focus on partnering with the non-offending parent to keep her and her children safe has propelled their advocacy efforts forward during a time when many agencies are having to scale back their offerings or put restrictions in place.
Co-Located Advocacy through Three-Way Calls
The ODHS and their co-located advocates provided by the Center for Hope & Safety have observed an escalation in perpetrator behavior severity during the stay at home orders and have been innovating daily to address this reality. Their strategies adhere to the mission of consciously partnering with the survivor, including focusing on her strengths while acknowledging the new dangers of sheltering in place with the offending partner.
Co-located DV advocates are no longer physically present in the ODHS office under the COVID-19 restrictions. As D explained, “A piece of the co-located work that has been pretty difficult working remotely is that benefit that people got… that emotional support while explaining their story…and being able to walk that with them. Even just filling the application out with people. It’s often a pretty overwhelming piece. I’ve had people often break down just
having to write the last name of the perpetrator on the application…Though the form, while it’s pretty clinical, it can be an emotional process in and of itself. So a lot of what we’re doing right now is doing the same kind of prep we would do walking someone through that in person, we’re doing it over the phone. So we’re having more extensive conversations about what to expect over the phone before they go into the appointment and then they’re calling us after.”
In order to maintain support for their clients experiencing DV, the ODHS has instituted a new system of three-way phone calls. This means that while on a call with a client, a caseworker can easily call a co-located DV advocate and merge the lines. This approach has proven beneficial on several fronts. First, the ODHS workers are able to provide a warm handoff to an advocate while staying on the line, providing ongoing support as needed, just as they would in a physical office space. Secondly, this approach may provide a needed level of safety for survivors. On the client’s phone, these calls appear as though she is simply calling into the ODHS, not connecting with a DV advocate. This adds a protective layer for clients whose phone activity is being tracked, given that clients call the ODHS for a variety of reasons, especially during times such as these (e.g., required child welfare calls, food assistance, emergency response). D shared, “Honestly for us, this has been a great option. We’re very excited about that because, with the stay at home orders, survivors are often having to shelter with the perpetrator…It’s always been that someone is being tracked through technology. Right now, it’s even more so, perpetrators are looking through phones, looking at call logs, looking through emails, finding information. And so, the fact that on that person’s phone it’s going to show ODHS but they ultimately talked to an advocate is actually a really great safety measure.”
To enact this three-way calling system, the ODHS had to navigate the problem of required signatures. The ODHS could not waive the requirement that a client provide a signature to allow for the release of information from their caseworker to a co-located advocate. However, with this calling method, caseworkers are able to work around this requirement by simply connecting a client with a DV advocate on a voluntary basis; and then letting her choose to share information to the extent she is comfortable on the call. This provides an innovative workaround for the signatures that would otherwise be required to refer a client to an outside agency, imitating the physical co-location of advocates within the ODHS. As Amber explained, “It also helps that the survivor is driving that connection time and saying ‘I’m safe to talk right now, I’d like to talk to an advocate’ versus giving a referral and waiting for an advocate to be able to call back. So, it gets at that immediate connection…”
Safe Technology Use
The Center for Hope & Safety has continued to work with ODHS to ensure all DV-related advocacy conducted via phone or internet is conscious of the safety risks involved with these technologies. For example, they have worked to refine scripts provided to the ODHS that make specific recommendations for how to offer the three-way advocacy call described previously to survivors who are actively monitored by the offending parent. Their recommendations include sandwiching the advocacy offer between two other resources, making it seem as though the ODHS staff member is simply providing a list of services that are still operating during the COVID-19 crisis.
The center has also developed and shared innovative methods such as code words, signals, and other strategies that can be used to ensure survivor safety when using online platforms. Each worker and advocate find safe ways to agree on these codes that work for the survivor. If on a video call with an ODHS staff member, clients can use these tools to let that staff person know that someone off camera is listening. The ODHS and advocates have been working within their own agencies to share these code words and signals during secure calls with clients so they will be able to use them, if needed, without the perpetrator realizing what they are communicating to their caseworker. The ODHS continues to refine its guide on pandemic safe technology use with their clients.
Partnering with Survivors is Key
Finding it challenging to provide the same level of emotional support over the phone that they would offer in person, advocates and ODHS staff are going the extra mile to explain every single step of ODHS processes to their clients so there are no surprises along the way. Every moment they are working to minimize trauma and provide as much emotional connection as possible. This emotional support goes a long way when children are involved. Due to the stay home order, both parents now have increased access to children, often providing another opportunity for control and manipulation by the offending partner. As a result, many clients are having to placate the offending partner and comply with their behaviors and abuse to keep their children safe. Recognizing this as a safety measure taken by the survivor is key in staff and advocates’ current efforts to compassionately partner with the non-offending parent.
DV advocates and ODHS staff in Oregon are also playing a critical role for survivors in these difficult situations by dedicating substantial time to noticing and documenting their strengths. Understanding and validating clients’ skills, safety practices, and protection strategies can have a profound impact on clients who are experiencing emotional abuse. Because of their training in the Safe & Together Model, Oregon’s advocates understand that survivors may decide to stay with an offending partner as part of a safety plan for their children. Indeed, keeping the family intact and retaining a sense of normalcy and routine during the pandemic may provide safety for children whose lives have been turned upside down. Reminders of the safety and protection they are providing to their children is essential to help keep hope alive for survivors. When working with their clients, advocates are steadfast to maintain a balance between acknowledging and reflecting the danger of their clients’ situations, and respecting when clients can’t disclose the severity of their situation. Constantly focusing on the severe danger while there are limited resources available may not be “trauma-informed” as D explained, so advocates are working gently and strategically to maintain this balance in a way that provides safety, validation, and support, without causing further trauma or crisis within the survivor’s life.
Wrapping up the call, D shared that advocates and ODHS staff are continuously wishing there was more they could do, more they could offer their clients. D explained that many survivors have said “‘You’re on the phone with me right now. This is huge. Just being able to talk to you, just being able to hear another voice, just knowing that I’m not alone, is important and has made a difference’…That emotional support, that human connection, just having a positive interaction with someone when in a really difficult place is a big piece of what we do inside social services, it’s a huge piece of advocacy. Especially when the world is shutting down right now, the fact that there is still someone to listen. Even if the resources look different, even if we’re safety planning around them staying in the home…Just that emotional support matters.”
For more information about partnering with survivors to ensure safety, check out the Safe & Together Model COVID-19 Quick Practice Guide.