Editor’s note: If you are struggling with domestic violence, or know someone who is, there are resources that can help. In Mendocino County, Project Sanctuary provides free resources and support. They have temporarily suspended walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but can be reached 24/7 at (707) 463-4357 for the inland county area, and (707) 964-4357 for the coast.
MENDOCINO Co., 4/22/20 — The global pandemic and resulting shelter in place order has has been tough for all, but has brought unique hardship to people in difficult or precarious housing situations, and who may be sheltering with partners or family members in abusive relationships.
The Mendocino Voice talked with Lia Holbrook of Project Sanctuary about how the organization is providing services and support to domestic violence and sexual assault victims during the pandemic, how family, friends, and community members can help those in violent relationships, and how the shelter in place is creating new challenges for those in already difficult relationships.
In Mendocino County, a number of public cases of domestic violence, including the alleged murder of a beloved Willits woman by her husband, have recently brought attention to what is an ongoing issue, as well as statements from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office concerning a number of domestic violence and spousal abuse reports from around the county in the last several weeks. However, there have also been a number of violence attacks and killings in recent years.
This interview was conducted by Mendocino Voice publisher Kate Maxwell, and has been condensed somewhat and edited for clarity and length:
TMV: Tell us about what you’re seeing at Project Sanctuary during the shelter in place order and how does that fit into the bigger context of what you typically see with clients in the county?
LH: We’ve heard from law enforcement that something they’re seeing is an increase in the seriousness of domestic violence calls, especially recently — they are getting fewer calls over all, but the severity is increasing. There are two ways to look at that: people are less likely to call law enforcement right now for domestic violence unless it is very serious — even though this is a time where we know some people are living in a place where it’s not safe — it’s a time that’s likely to escalate those tensions.
It is also an important time to reach out: for many people, their safety net and resources are gone, financial situations can be difficult, their kids are there all day, and they need to stay safe, and trying to find a place to live right now is challenging. We know things are escalating inside homes where domestic violence was already happening, and it also can be especially difficult to be leaving.
At Project Sanctuary, we’ve seen an increase in calls over all, not always from people wanting to leave, but also from people who are figuring out how to make safety plan to stay safe within relationships. We’ve also seen an increase in restraining order calls, and we connect them to resources, but there seems to be less people following through all the way to court. I think a lot of that is there are additional barriers: once they get that order, that kicks the other person out, and they may be part of a shared household, they may be helping with rent.
We have also had a lot of calls from people about figuring out how to coparent, from people who are already out of that relationship, but may be trying to coparent with someone with a domestic violence background. We don’t see people only because they feel unsafe, but there are often a myriad of issues arising for people, in terms of how to navigate things after the relationship. It can be challenging overall, when there is a history of one person using power and violence in a relationship.
TMV: Can you give us an overview of what services are available from Project Sanctuary, and what changes you’ve made during the pandemic?
LH: One thing that is special about Project Sanctuary is that all our services are free. No documentation is needed, no insurance is required, it’s free to anyone that calls, you can get help with shelter, a restraining order — we have no requirements, we are open to anyone that identifies as a victim or a survivor. The main thing we always want people to understand about Project Sanctuary, is that we are accessible to all genders, we are free of charge, and everything we do is based on the pace and needs of our clients.
We never push anybody in any direction, not to leave, or to talk to CPS or to law enforcement. We are fully based on the empowerment model: we’re here to support, inform, educate, and provide options for people walking in the door, it’s never based on our agenda or belief about the particular situation. Along with that, they don’t have to know what they’re calling about, or what answer they want if they want us to help. You can call because you are concerned about a piece of a relationship — there’s no requirement on what someone is asking when they call. Our job is to ask people, even if they feel like their situation isn’t serious, or fearful of naming it that. We encourage any questions or needs, our role is to walk people through that.
We have our 24/7 help line, inland and the coast, and people can call simply to talk to someone, it doesn’t have to be just about domestic violence and sexual assault — it can be a horrible dream, it can be that they just had to leave the house and had nowhere to go — there’s no wrong call that can come in.
Normally, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, we have walk-ins with available counselors, talking face to face about options. That’s no longer happening, but the same thing is still happening over the phone through the main office lines, where you then are transferred to a counselor, and you can have a session. We have Spanish speakers for the crisis lines as well as Spanish speaking individual counselors for both offices. We also have access to a language line that all staff and volunteers are able to access for other languages.
We also help with restraining orders — it’s a huge piece of what we do, and we can still assist people. When someone calls, we can do assessment of the potential order, although we can only do domestic violence orders, not civil harassment. People can speak with legal advocates over the phone or by email, we can work with whatever limitations they have since we know plenty of people can’t access email. We can drop off paperwork, or if you don’t have other access, we have systems so we can still meet that need.
Our advocate types up the request and files it, then stays in communication with the courthouse, so we stay on top of it to track if it’s approved or denied, and we can go hand in hand with the sheriff’s office. If it is a person who is cohabiting, the sheriff will enforce them leaving. Once someone is granted or denied a domestic violence restraining order, it’s temporary, then you can go back for a second order. In addition, if law enforcement shows up at an unsafe scene, they can call a judge and get an emergency protective order, with the intention to give people time to file a fuller restraining order.
Right now, during the pandemic, those restraining orders are being issued for a longer period, to give people more time to file a longer restraining order. Although law enforcement is not responding to all of the typical calls, they have specifically said that domestic violence calls are ones that they will always respond to.
In general, the restraining order is simply a piece of paper, it’s not enough if the work is not done to keep that person safe — they still have to have a safety plan. One value in having it, however, is if law enforcement shows up, they know exactly what they’re supposed to do in that situation — if there’s a restraining order, that’s very clear, and it ensures a very solid law enforcement response. We know that there are parts of the county where it’s just difficult to get a response quickly, and Project Sanctuary works with clients to understand the limitations of the restraining order — that is a huge piece of the safety plan.
One after effect of the restraining order, is that if there are weapons in the household, there is a mandate to have any registered guns turned in. We work with clients to make sure that we follow up with the courthouse, to make sure if there are any weapons, they are turned in. We know that can be a fear for a lot of clients, that if people are separated from their weapons, that may make them more angry, and so it is an important piece of the order to have people turn in the weapons.
Statistics tell us that someone is in danger for a year after they leave, that that can be the highest risk period. A person is not guaranteed safety once they leave — and they are often most in fear of what it will mean if they leave. Both in inland Mendocino and the coast, we have emergency shelters, and we are currently accepting people at the domestic violence shelter.
In the very beginning of the pandemic, we shut down for a week, until we could navigate the proper safety precautions, and we are now taking people in on a case by case basis, with COVID-19 screening tools. If people can’t come in because they aren’t physically healthy, we have access to make sure they are staying somewhere else, in a safe, confidential space, and we can work with them to get to a safe space.
We also work closely with the medical community, and sometimes that can be a good place, where everyone has to go. If people need an established mechanism as part of a safety plan, if there’s one place a victim could go safely by themselves, they can exit that situation.
TMV: How can Project Sanctuary help situations with parents and families, or ones that involve children?
LH: We are primarily always serving the parents in the situation. We can work hand in hand with other agencies that are working to support children, and we support the parent trying to make the decision to leave, and help them figure out how to get the paperwork they need to take care of their children, or whatever else — helping with children is a big part of the safety plan.
Everything we do at our agency is with a lack of judgement for whatever decision people need to make themselves to keep themselves safe. We are also here to provide education, letting parents know potential risk factors and options, but we don’t want to blame people further for being in a situation they feel powerless in, although we know that many ways kids are impacted, even just as witnesses of domestic violence.
Laws were passed at federal level, so that every domestic violence counselor who is not a licensed therapist, and who is not supervising children, is not allowed to report to Child Protective Services. If we have a mandated reporting counselor present, the client is told immediately, but the majority of staff is legally bound to not report. We are one place in the community where people can go and be honest and vulnerable.
TMV: Can you give some advice about how friends and community members can help if there’s someone they are concerned about, especially during the pandemic?
LH: Project Sanctuary is a resource for all community members. We provide services to family members and friends, people that care about, or are concerned about, someone in an abusive relationship, we are also available as a resource to counsel and support them. We understand people can feel fear and powerlessness about wanting to help.
One thing people can do is just talk with them, in a way that’s not blaming or judgmental, and doesn’t re-victimize them. If you’re concerned about the behavior of a loved one or to a loved one, focus on the behavior and not the person. Otherwise, you can isolate them further from their support system, and there’s a chance that they might not reach out again. So focus on the behavior, and on listening, and focus on talking about what they deserve in a relationship. You can also consider becoming a part of someone’s safety plan, if that feels safe enough to you, consider offering to be a place to go or person to talk to, and telling them that you want to be included in their plan.
You can also always encourage them to reach out to Project Sanctuary, especially right now, if you can’t offer someone a place to stay. Sharing information and resources is one thing everyone can do, even if they are simply in their house, start by just reaching out to someone.
Unintentionally, if we feel uncomfortable, we sometimes tend to not reach out to people, because we feel uncomfortable and don’t know the solution. So just letting them know that you’re thinking about them, that you are part of their support system, that you are concerned about them and care about them — everyone can do this during this time. It can make a huge difference, because you are telling them that their abuser is wrong, that it’s not true that ‘no one cares about you,’ so even if it’s just saying, “how are you doing, I care about you,” something that simple can make a big difference.
Right now, with people being aware that there’s an increase in domestic violence, it may make community members be even more judgmental of people that are remaining in domestic violence situations. At Project Sanctuary, we honor that survivors and domestic violence victims are the experts on how to keep themselves safe. This is a time where, unfortunately, sometimes people remain safest by placating that person, and being safe inside their home. We encourage people to seek out resources, but we understand that each person is living inside their own home, and that they are the expert on how to keep themselves safe. It’s really important not to judge that, if people feel they are unsafe outside the home, or unable to leave right now.
TMV: How does domestic violence in Mendocino County compare with other parts of the state, and what are some of the specific issues facing rural communities? How can we address this as a community?
LH: We know that domestic violence and sexual assault are some of the most significantly under-reported crimes. We also know that Mendocino County has the highest rate of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in our state, and that we have the first or second highest rate of child abuse in state. These are easier statistics to know than if the domestic abuse or sexual assault rates are higher, but it likely that Mendocino has a higher rate of domestic violence than other areas. One challenge of smaller communities is that people might know the names in the arrest logs, and so it can feel bigger than it is sometimes, but from everything we can assess, it does seem to be happening at a higher rate than in other areas.
It is true that nationally, internationally, and locally, these are always under-reported crimes, and there are a whole host of reasons why, which can be amplified in a small community. Especially when the abuser is in a position of power, or is known to law enforcement, or people don’t want their address to be in the booking log — all of those things are amplified, including the fear of calling Project Sanctuary.
People will say, “I didn’t want to come in, or I put it off, because I know somebody there, and I didn’t want them to see me come in the door.” Every time someone walks in, everything is 100% confidential — we are not able to tell literally anybody that that person comes to our office unless they sign a release. If there’s a preexisting relationship with someone in the office, we talk with the client to make sure to see if they’d be more comfortable with someone else.
Another challenge in rural communities around reporting, is that a lot of times people just want that thing to go away. They think, ‘if I just don’t report it, I won’t have to deal with the pain of that anymore.” We know that that’s not true, but a belief for people is that “if I talk about it, it will get bigger.” We encourage people, even if they don’t want to call law enforcement, to still reach out for support, because if we don’t get support, it can have lifelong effects for that victim.
Each year we gather the statistics in our county, and they are drastically different from the statistics that we see from people coming in our door. We track the people we see and what issues they are encountering, only in the aggregate, and we see about 2,000 people each year. Not every person we see, but a high percentage of people, are actively in domestic violence or abusive situations, and we know those statistics don’t reflect the actual number of people in our county experiencing that.
We know it takes victims an average seven times before they are able to leave. People do go through the reporting process and then go back — but that can be an additional fear: “I chose to go back, then I can’t call law enforcement or Project Sanctuary.” People can feel shame or embarrassment that they won’t be taken seriously. We’re a good resource because we’re thoroughly aware of the fact people have to find their own path through this, we are never here to judge if people stay or choose to leave. We try to advocate with the criminal justice system, and advocate to make sure those victims are understood, but we understand why someone might go back and then choose to leave a second time — it’s not because they’re a bad person.
One way we could start talking about things differently is that it’s not about losing control, it’s about obsessive control about someone’s life. We used terms like snapped, but with domestic violence, it’s really a pattern of domestic control that escalates.
TMV: Have you seen any changes over the years? People are often concerned about calling law enforcement for a number of reasons, have you seen any changes in that with changes in the state cannabis regulations?
LH: Something that I’ve noticed over the past year, is that there has been an increase in people coming to office about sexual assault, although not an increase in assaults happening, since the Me Too movement happened. Rape crisis hotlines everywhere saw increases in calls, and we’ve seen a huge increase in sexual assault survivors coming in compared to in the past. Although the numbers of incidents are not rising, but the number of people reporting, and talking about it, because they know they are not alone, is increasing, and the people seeking resources for sexual assault have increased. That is specifically for sexual assault, there still seems to be a fair amount of shame around domestic violence, while sexual assault seems to be talked about more now.
I have not seen a big shift in terms of people’s fear of law enforcement and the cannabis industry. It seems as though there are a fair amount of people still working outside of the system, and it still remains as an intense fear for people in interacting with law enforcement, as well as the documentation issue. Many people are fearful because they’re not documented, they are fearful for themselves, or the other person, who might be forced to leave and may be a primary caretaker or financial provider. I’ve seen a fear of law enforcement around documentation increase, and no decrease in fear around the marijuana industry.