Domestic violence agencies face ‘horrible, perfect storm’

By Kelly Nichols, as published in Greenville Online.

Being confined to home during a pandemic is stressful enough — but for those living with an abuser, it could mean life or death.

The very measures put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus take away some of the few outlets survivors of abuse have for respite: A woman living with an abusive husband no longer can find solace when one or both are away at work. A child with an abusive parent no longer can easily turn to a teacher or guidance counselor.

Nationally, one in four women has been a victim of some act of violence. And South Carolina continues to rank among the worst in the nation when it comes to violence against women.

Often, abuse is about control. And in the midst of a global pandemic, being in control is in short supply.

If abusers feel they’ve lost control of certain aspects of life, they know they can still control you. When they control you, it gives them security. The loss of work can exacerbate these feelings of not being in control — and, in turn, their need to target you.

Substance abuse factors into 70 percent of these cases, and alcohol sales have skyrocketed. Gun sales are also spiking, which can make dangerous situations even worse.

History has shown that after a major crisis — such the Great Recession or Hurricane Katrina — reports of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse increase when life returns to normal. The centers that work with these survivors are bracing for a significant influx of new clients.

In February, these centers were told to expect an 18 percent cut in federal funds through the Victims of Crime Act — in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Many centers have also canceled or postponed their annual fundraisers, adding tens of thousands more in lost revenue. And with fewer people donating due to economic uncertainty, we have a horrible, perfect storm.

The centers have had to pivot to provide their services via telehealth, adding unplanned expenses. Some needed basic equipment, such as laptops.

Safe Harbor, which supports domestic violence survivors in Greenville, Anderson, Pickens and Oconee counties — faced an unplanned expense of $50,000 as it moved its clients into hotels. The SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition in Spartanburg implemented social distancing at its shelter, lowering its capacity to only 14 families. That agency may have to consider housing people in hotels, too.

And then there are the federal cuts — a $150,000 annual loss, for instance, for the Greenville-based Julie Valentine Center, which serves sexual assault and child abuse survivors.

There is little safety net for these essential services.

The state Legislature for the past two years has made one-time funds available to children’s advocacy centers ($9,500 per center) and domestic violence shelters (about $61,500 per agency). Making these payments recurring would help.

Legislators need to take note that these centers are essential services, often the first responders in a crisis. A woman fleeing an abusive boyfriend will likely call a shelter before law enforcement because her top priority is to get to safety. Any assistance the state plans to bolster our public health organizations needs to recognize the vital role our centers play.

Last year, Silent Tears founder Bob Castellani donated $5 million to help fund these 31 front-line organizations across South Carolina. About half of that has been disbursed so far to get everyone on stable ground.

Future funding was to focus on long-term needs, but we are pivoting, too. The centers, together, will receive nearly $500,000 in this phase, mostly to offset the costs of telehealth equipment and housing clients in hotels.

It’s a crisis that we’re funding, but we hope the investment makes us a stronger network in the future.

Kelly Nichols is executive director of the Silent Tears Organization.

It’s scary enough that you or a loved one could contract COVID-19. It shouldn’t be scary to simply stay at home.

To learn about the centers near you, visit

Kelly Nichols is executive director of Silent Tears.