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Pandemic increases domestic violence; La Casa steps up

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Even as state public health orders to stay home during the health pandemic have resulted in a sharp increase in domestic violence reports in Doña Ana County – and the Las Cruces shelter for abuse victims and their children was already at capacity when COVID-19 hit in March – La Casa, Inc. domestic violence program has stepped up to meet the challenge.

“People were able to come forward, and we’ve been there to help them,” La Casa Executive Director Henry Brutus said. “We’ll help in whatever capacity we can.” 

When the pandemic began, Brutus said La Casa staff quickly transitioned to working from home and meeting remotely. Staff members who work with abuse victims in the shelter and La Casa’s housing program – services that could not be provided remotely – got the protective equipment and training they needed to continue doing their jobs safety.

More than six months into the pandemic, La Casa has had only one employee (who was already working remotely) and one client (who was staying in a hotel) test positive for COVID-19, Brutus said in early October, and both tested negative a week later. Working with Amador Health Clinic, La Casa is able to offer onsite testing at least weekly, he said.

About a month after the onset of COVID-19, La Casa had seen a nearly 100 percent increase in the demand for shelter for domestic violence victims, Brutus said. There have also been more clients coming forward who need access to the courts to file retraining orders against their abusers, and who need help with immigration issues.

Overcoming those barriers “shows how wonderful this community is,” Brutus said. “Through established connections, we were able to get things done.”

One example is leadership from the City of Las Cruces, he said. The city council authorized additional funding for La Casa and other local nonprofits, because of COVID-19, and the city provided utility-payment assistance to La Casa clients and others struggling to pay their bills.

With the capacity of its 90-resident shelter reduced by as much as 75 percent by state public health orders, La Casa reached out to community organizations, air B&Bs, motels and others to find additional housing for clients escaping violence in their homes, Brutus said. Less than a month into the pandemic, La Casa was working with as many people accessing shelter within the community as were using La Casa’s onsite shelter, he said.

Before COVID-19 struck, domestic violence often went unreported, Brutus said, because victims got some respite while their abusers were at work. But once businesses and schools began shutting down and more people – adults and children – were forced to stay home, some victims found themselves saying, “’You know what? I can’t take this anymore,’” he said.

And, because La Casa staff have adapted to doing assessments remotely, it has been able to expand its service area, he said. A good example is a family on the East Coast looking to relocate to Las Cruces to escape a domestic violence situation.

La Casa staff were able to do an online needs assessment, and the family made the move west “knowing there was space for them,” Brutus said. That kind of service and outreach will continue after the pandemic, he said.

Brutus said staff has been able to stay in closer touch remotely with clients who have been placed in motels, air B&Bs and other community housing and don’t have the same services and security as shelter residents.

Even in a global health crisis, leaving an abuser is “a better situation than what it was before,” Brutus said. Being “removed from that place, you’re able to have rest, sleep with both eyes closed and know there’s no one coming for you.”

Another silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud has been how much closer La Casa staff have grown toward each other, Brutus said.

“We started communicating more often than we had,” he said.

Staff meetings that had been held every month increased to every week and sometimes daily to discuss rapidly changing state health guidelines and to touch base and talk about “What does it mean to be successful? – just that human element,” Brutus said.

That has helped La Casa staff deal more effectively and warm heartedly with clients and also with their own families and children and each other, he said.

La Casa opened in 1981. It provided more than 22,000 days of care and comprehensive services to more than 2,000 people in 2019.

State award

On Oct. 18, La Casa earned a New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Community (NMCADV) Hero Award 2020. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

"The Community Heroes Awards commemorate the actions community leaders, businesses and organizations have made to advance domestic violence advocacy in their communities, said NMCADV Communication, Education and Outreach Coordinator Teresa Garcia. “Community Heroes promote work against violence, safety for the entire community, and have shown their commitment to making a difference for victims and survivors in our state."

NMCADV was established in 1979. Based in Albuquerque, it provides support and assistance to domestic violence programs across the state. Visit www.NMCADV.org.

How you can help

“The community has been very generous in the past, and we hope that can continue,” Brutus said.

La Casa clients in-shelter need toiletry items especially, he said, and those La Casa is assisting in finding housing outside the shelter “need everything,” Brutus said. La Casa also welcomes donations of non-perishable food items, coats and blankets, gift cards, laptops and tablets, books and clothing, especially professional clothing for men and women.

La Casa also hopes to be able to provide holiday gifts for its clients, especially children, he said. You can adopt a La Casa family for whom to buy holiday gifts.

Take items to 800 S. Walnut St. in Las Cruces, or 325 First St. in Anthony, N.M., Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Send cash donations to La Casa, Inc., P.O. Box 2463, Las Cruces, N.M. 88004. Donate online at www.lacasainc.org/donations.

Contact Brutus at 575-526-2819 or contact@lacasainc.org. Visit www.lacasainc.org.