Cindy Southworth knows how it feels to be at the center of the fire. As the Executive Vice President for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), Southworth has found herself, like many nonprofit and crisis aid workers, pivoting almost daily to meet the needs of victims of domestic violence around the country.
Speaking to Women Moving Millions during a webinar session in early April, Southworth laid out the organization’s mission, as well as the deep plea for help from domestic violence organizations around the country.
“We want to get the message out that domestic violence shelters are still open,” she says. “What we’re all working to do is create a world where the idea of domestic violence no longer exists, where it doesn’t even seem fathomable that somebody would use violence and control to harm their partner. And in the meantime, we want to make sure that, until we create that new world with different gender norms and different social and cultural expectations, that we are serving every single survivor who needs and wants to reach out for help.”
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, NNEDV is at the center of efforts to reach domestic violence victims where they are. And in these unprecedented times, the team has had to make some major changes to continue helping as many people as possible.
One such offering is the organization’s Resources on the Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19), an online collection of resources ranging from information about local shelters to legal assistance and information about serving victims through the use of technology. The entire collection can be reached with the shortcode NNEDV.org/coronavirus.
“We’re doing it creatively,” Southworth says of the shelter movement’s response to COVID-19. “The shelters in our networks are housing survivors and families in hotels, making sure that each family is in individual apartment units, using AirBnB listings–at the end of the day, we want victims to hear that we’re still here for you. It’s just so much more challenging.”
Indeed, serving domestic violence victims in the middle of a pandemic offers huge financial and safety challenges. These challenges come in addition to the usual hurdles of privacy, security, and other logistics.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) is a network of networks. Formed in 1990 as the Domestic Violence Coalition on Public Policy, NNEDV grew from a small group of domestic violence victim advocates to become the organization it is today: a massive alliance of domestic violence shelter programs, statewide groups and coalitions, and regional relief programs.
In less trying times, the organization works to empower and support victims of domestic violence and their families, offering educational and financial resources that can help victims find a way out of oppressive living situations. Additionally, NNEDV fights to bring high-profile media attention to the domestic violence crisis while lobbying for state and federal legislation that protects survivors and their families.
During the coronavirus crisis, however, NNEDV has had to find a way to keep all of their current programs active while finding new, creative ways to reach victims safely and serve the needs of a huge number of people facing new dangers that may not be immediately apparent.
“We know that stress and health issues do not cause domestic violence–domestic violence is when one person believes they have the inherent right to control and abuse their partner,” says Southworth. “But we also know that if you are trapped in your home, if your partner perhaps lost his or her job, it is much more deadly because there is just no way to know where to go.”
One of NNEDV’s flagship programs is WomensLaw.org, an online resource center that offers plain-language legal information for victims of abuse. As part of the program, NNEDV offers a free email helpline where survivors can have their questions answered by the NNEDV legal team. (For people who worry their email accounts are monitored, the service can even send their replies from an innocuous account, like a gardening tip site.)
NNEDV would like to keep the email helpline open at all times, but financial strain from the COVID-19 crisis makes that impossible.
“We close [the helpline] sometimes because we don’t want survivors to reach out expecting a response in a few days, then not hear back from us for weeks,” Southworth explains. “So unfortunately, we’re closing it about 40% of the time, simply because we don’t have enough resources to keep it open. If we got some extra funding, we would be able to pay additional staff and consultants to keep the helpline open 24/7.”
“We know how desperately this service is needed,” she adds. “WomensLaw.org offers the only encrypted email legal advice hotline in the country. We want to be able to reach every victim who needs help, and we can do it in a secure way by email, and it’s endlessly frustrating that money is our only barrier to offering that program around the clock.”
Southworth joined Women Moving Millions as a guest in their COVID-19 webinar series, where she explained the understated dangers a pandemic presents for victims of domestic abuse.
“I was so taken aback at the outpouring of warmth and concern from WMM members,” Southworth says. “They asked important questions about coping with COVID and how domestic violence survivors are getting support. Above all, the members wanted to know how they can make a difference. They just warmed my heart because they have such passion for helping.”
To funders and individuals interested in fighting domestic violence, during and after the COVID crisis, Southworth stresses the importance of donating to organizations like NNEDV and the crisis centers they support.
“Now more than ever, nonprofits need support,” says Southworth. “They are absorbing tremendous unexpected costs. They are paying for hotel rooms, individual Airbnb listings, apartment rentals to keep families safe and separate. They’re having to pay for the cleaning. They’re having to search high and low to find PPE, because those same shelter advocates reaching out to survivors need to have masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies in a time where it’s almost impossible to find them.”
“Give. Just give,” she adds. “If you can give five dollars, give five dollars. If you can give five hundred, give five hundred. Give whatever flexible money you can right now. The only way to be flexible in responding to a global pandemic is to be able to go out and buy tablets on a dime to make sure that victims in your shelter can participate in support group by video chat. The only way those shelters can put every single family in a separate apartment or hotel room is to have the cash on hand. There is no dollar too small.”
She brings up another interesting point about foundations, organizations, and individuals that have already pledged donations to fund programs: flexibility.
“Our next goal was going to be to create a video series helping victims navigate the courthouse, but there’s no use preparing to go to the courthouse when all the courts are closed,” she explains. “Instead, the WomensLaw team is focusing more on the email helpline, answering requests, and considering adding in a live chat feature. We’re pivoting to make sure we’re meeting victims where they are, and offering support in as close to real time as possible.”
She asks funders to apply this same flexibility to their donations.
“What we need most is flexible money,” says Southworth. “If you are currently a funder, please be flexible in allowing your grantees to change the use of the funds. That innovative campaign you funded six months ago may not be relevant today, when everybody is responding to COVID-19. Let your grantees change their funding to use your resources to meet the needs of survivors during COVID.”
Southworth and the NNEDV team have already seen great results from this approach.
“Some funders have already reached out and said, ‘If you need to extend the grant period, or you need more time to complete your deliverables, we’re going to be here for you. We’re not closing down, we’re not taking your funds, and if you’re going to be late on filing a report, that’s fine.’ Our federal grant funders have said, ‘We want you to rewrite what you’re planning to do with all of our grants to make sure it’s relevant, timely, and truly what victims need.'”
The fight against domestic violence and the fight against COVID-19 are inextricably linked. There is no “cause” of domestic violence–the choice to abuse your partner is always just that, a choice–but the circumstances surrounding coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, and waves of unemployment can exacerbate problems that are already very much there.
“Domestic violence is not caused by a global health crisis, or job loss,” says Southworth. “It may be exacerbated because now, the offender is around twenty-four hours a day, but abusing your partner is a choice. It’s not because of mental health, it’s not because of substance abuse. It is a choice you make, so if you’re a loving, equal partner before job loss or before other crises, you don’t become an abuser just because of bad luck.”
Southworth described domestic violence horrors that are coming about due to the pandemic. Ecuador, for example, is so overloaded with COVID-19 deaths that local officials simply don’t have the capacity to arrange body transportation to coroners’ offices. Victim advocates in the area worry that there will be an increase in domestic violence-related homicides, and that abusers can simply blame the death on COVID-19. The system is so overburdened that the likelihood of these cases being properly investigated is negligible.
On the other side of the battle, she also speaks to the inspirational and creative strategies of advocates, survivors, and their loved ones. Victim advocates from crisis centers around the country are on the front lines of COVID-19, delivering groceries and cleaning supplies to survivors’ doors. Individuals are finding creative ways to check in with loved ones, from holding covert chat conversations inside word games and other innocuous apps (in cases where they worry text messages and emails are monitored) to doing the legwork involved in researching local shelters and crisis centers to help loved ones get out of danger as quickly and safely as possible.
A major part of the battle comes from changing our society’s perspective on domestic violence.
“We’re trying to do more work with bystanders,” Southworth says. “When somebody’s out at the at the pub or the bar, and he makes a rape joke, we want to see his friends turn and say, ‘Hey, that’s not funny.’ Or when a man sees or overhears his brother talking down to and demeaning his wife, we hope he says, ‘No, that’s not okay. She’s amazing, and you need to treat her with respect.’
“We’re really encouraging people to hold other men accountable, and not put the pressure on the victim,” she adds. “We shouldn’t be asking ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ or ‘Why didn’t she reach out?’ or ‘Why didn’t she tell anyone?’ Instead, we need to reach out and say, ‘Hey, that’s unacceptable behavior. Not in my world, not in my family, not in my community.'”
For more information on the National Network to End Domestic Violence, visit their website at NNEDV.org or check out NNEDV.org/coronavirus to access resources related to COVID-19. Follow Cindy Southworth on Twitter here.
If you or a loved one are facing violence at the hands of a partner, you are not alone. Organizations like NNEDV are here to help, even in the face of an unprecedented global crisis like COVID-19. We strongly encourage you to reach out to local shelters, crisis centers, and advocates to learn more.
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