Loudoun Abused Women's Shelter volunteers

Staff from the Loudoun Abused Women's Shelter stand outside of the Loudoun County Government Center on Oct. 6 during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The stories of Stacie Lynn Harper, Divya Mandanapu and Karen Ludwig may be unknown or forgotten by some Loudoun County residents, but they were loved ones who died at the hands of their partners before the age of 40.

Their deaths are reminders of Loudoun’s fight against domestic violence in an effort to raise awareness and prevent abuse at home.

As more people stay home to minimize the spread of COVID-19, advocates say they are seeing an increase of violence and higher-danger cases.

“These things have always happened, but they’re happening more frequently and at higher rates,” said Josephine Gonzalez, manager for the Loudoun Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART).

DART, which is a subgroup of Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter (LAWS), works in collaboration with several offices to prevent domestic violence, including the Leesburg Police Department, Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Dr. Judy Hanley, executive director for LAWS, said last year the office supported 41 people. In the past seven months, the office has served 131 people, including 65 adults and 66 children.

The number of bed nights has also increased from 1,641 in 2019 to 4,300 this year as of early October.

“It’s not people who just had a fight with their spouse and one little respite. These are people that are fleeing imminent danger,” Hanley said.

Gonzalez said the cases recorded by DART involve violent instances toward pregnant women and described uses of strangulation and weapons. She said raising awareness of abuse and connecting with the community is important, especially with more people staying home due to the pandemic.

DART and LAWS staff are finding alternative tools to reach the community by promoting tips and resources online.

Additionally, advocates are promoting the regional theme #PowerUpNOVA and remembering victims from Loudoun County through a national initiative called Silent Witness. Exhibits were built at the Department of Family Services offices in Leesburg and Sterling.

“We definitely want to be even more visible to the community, so that survivors don’t feel alone,” Gonzalez said. “There’s so much increased isolation and it’s just been prolonged. It’s going to be an entire year soon. That’s a long time.”

The Loudoun County Department of Community Corrections has also taken alternative measures to protect victims from offenders, despite the challenges with processing while meeting social distancing demands and pandemic restrictions.

April M. Higgs, deputy director for the department, said one of the modest increases is in GPS monitoring with ankle bracelets. Nine people charged with domestic violence offenses have been under GPS supervision since March 1.

“Our staff has been very resilient and committed to their jobs. They are still trying to do the best that they can while still holding people accountable,” Higgs said.

Hanley said people did not feel safe calling the domestic violence hotline (703-777-6552) in the spring. But as more people have been unable to leave their homes or the violence became more severe, people have called law enforcement.

Hanley said the office had to increase its staff in order to accommodate the number of calls and to maintain the same level of service. She said the office has also met with child protective services and other community partners to make sure child abuse is not going unnoticed as more students are learning from home.

Additionally, LAWS has created additional housing space for victims to meet social distancing requirements. A total of $218,000 from the CARES Act relief funding has been spent since March to provide housing to 24 people, according to Hanley. The office has supported at least 38 people during the past seven months.

Hanley said once federal funds run out in December, her office will have to find another funding alternative. She said the office is spending between $40,000 to $50,000 a month for housing.

“We are keeping people safe at a really high level right now,” Hanley said. “When I talk about the worry about the funding, it’s not about the money, it’s about how are we going to keep these high danger clients who are at risk from dying at the hands of their perpetrators.”

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What to do if you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence:

•Call or text 911 if anyone is in immediate danger.

•Call Loudoun County’s Domestic and Sexual Violence hotline 24 hours a day, every day at 703-777-6552.

To get help in Virginia:

•Text 804-793-9999

•Chat at vadata.org/chat

•Call 1-800-838-8238

To get help anywhere across the country:

•Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. If you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.

•Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN) at 800.656.HOPE (4673). Survivors can call RAINN or chat on the website. It’s free and confidential.

Make a plan

A safety plan is a personalized, practical plan that includes ways to remain safe and that can help a survivor avoid dangerous situations. This plan includes ways to remain safe while in the relationship, planning to leave, or after leaving. Safety planning includes how to cope with emotions, tell friends and family about the abuse, take legal action and more.

Although parts of a safety plan may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that in moments of crisis a person’s brain doesn’t function the same as when they are calm. Having a safety plan laid out in advance can help a survivor protect themselves in stressful moments.

Safety planning looks different for everyone. A safety plan should be tailored to a person’s specific situation. For help with safety planning, call the LAWS Hotline and speak to an advocate: 703-777-6552.

What you can do to help

If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, experts say it’s more important than ever to check in with them during the pandemic. Encourage people who are experiencing abuse to make a safety plan, call for help and guidance and let them know that the abuse is not their fault. Let them know you are there to listen, help and support them without judgment.

(1) comment

LetSanityPrevail

Unfortunately another outcome of the continued lockdown. Mental health, social workers and domestic abuse experts warned of this. At some point the tradeoff of physical health needs to be evaluated against the damage these lockdowns are having on the long term mental health of our citizens, adult and children. It is also interesting that the ones making these decisions are from the 'political' and upper classes that don't have to live with these decisions in the same way single parent and lower economic households do.

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