Pandemic interrupts services, fundraising for Upstate victims advocacy groups
The coronavirus pandemic that continues to claim lives and disrupt daily life across the world is taking its toll on Upstate groups dedicated to supporting victims of sexual violence, abuse and neglect.
The Julie Valentine Center and the Pickens County Advocacy Center have both suspended virtually all in-person services to comply with social distancing guidelines and postponed major fundraising events.
Julie Valentine Executive Director Shauna Galloway-Williams said while nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, her organization has found ways to support victims from afar, including teletherapy and boosting a recently launched online chat room for sexual assault survivors.
"The fact that we have to social distance totally changes the way we operate," she said.
Shannon Lambert, who heads the PCAC, said the pandemic is also preventing advocates from meeting victims in the hospital seeking care after an assault. The center has provided the hospitals it services with extra resource pamphlets to distribute to survivors and has been working with clients over the phone, Lambert said, but building trust remotely can be difficult.
"We're doing the best we can to make sure they have our information and talking with them if they want to speak with us," Lambert said. "But right now, we're being very understanding if they don't want to be on the phone with someone who's basically a random stranger to them."
Galloway-Williams said Julie Valentine is facing the same challenges. But despite the struggles, advocates have had success in supporting victims over the phone or through a computer screen, she said.
"Victims are incredibly resilient," she said. "They adapt and they are overcoming extreme obstacles even just to get to the ER. This is just one more thing making us have to adapt and cope. But it is more challenging if you can't be in the room with someone."
Fundraising drop ahead of federal grant cuts
The continued spread of the respiratory illness has also impacted fundraising efforts for both organizations, which were already under financial pressure ahead of significant anticipated cuts to federal grant funding.
Julie Valentine and the PCAC were tightening their belts months before the coronavirus brought daily life to a standstill in anticipation of an 18% cut to the federal Victims of Crime Act grants to recipient organizations across the state.
Lambert said her organization's payroll is funded almost entirely by VOCA, and an 18% drop would account for roughly $63,000, the equivalent of about two therapists' salaries.
In early March, she said she wasn't taking anything off the table ahead of the cuts, including possibly laying off some of the already understaffed center's employees and shuttering its newly opened Clemson office, which she said has been an asset to the nonprofit since opening its doors.
Lambert said she was hoping to offset the loss by bolstering the nonprofit's fundraising efforts, and Galloway-Williams said she optimistic Julie Valentine would be able to avoid layoffs through increased community support.
But the coronavirus has disrupted those plans, and it remains unclear when they'll be able to resume.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and both nonprofits had fundraising events scheduled that had to be postponed.
Galloway-Williams said that between pushing back Julie Valentine's annual Rare Beer Auction and other fundraising efforts, as well as the drop in revenue the nonprofit collects from law enforcement to conduct forensic interviews, the organization will be down about $75,000 this month.
In Pickens County, Lambert said her agency is in a similar situation. The PCAC had a color run planned for April. It had already brought in about $8,000 in sponsorships and registration fees but was expected to raise a total of about $15,000 before the pandemic forced the center to postpone it. And donations from the small businesses the center relies on for support have dried up as the pandemic shutters storefronts and disrupts the local and national economy.
"We didn't want to continue requesting sponsorships with a lot of these businesses not being able to operate and bring in their own income," she said.
Galloway-Williams said her organization's biggest fundraising event of the year, its annual luncheon, was in February, which has softened the blow, but the nonprofit is still feeling the strain.
"We did make the decision to stop providing out parent education program," she said. "There was no revenue to support it and we have other partners in the community who provide that service... But we are looking very closely at any ways we can reduce our spending."
Spike in sexual assault, abuse reports likely after coronavirus subsides
And as both organizations work to weather the pandemic, Lambert and Galloway-Williams said, both are trying to prepare for an increased demand for their services when the storm passes.
Reports of abuse and sexual assault have dropped precipitously in the Upstate since the onset of the pandemic, but Galloway-Williams said that she suspects that doesn't indicate a drop in actual instances of abuse or sexual assault.
There has been a 39% decline in reports of child abuse across the state since schools closed their doors, she said, because teachers and other school employees are often the ones who notice signs of maltreatment and report it. Julie Valentine typically sees roughly the same drop coinciding with summer vacation.
And in recent weeks, Galloway-Williams said Julie Valentine has received about one quarter of the hospital calls it typically gets. While victims services remain active at South Carolina hospitals, including private rooms for survivors, many are likely forgoing a trip to the ER out of fear of the pandemic.
The drop in reports comes amid widespread economic uncertainty and general anxiety about the disease as families are forced into close and constant contact within their home; conditions likely to increase instances of abuse, Galloway-Williams said.
When a sense of normalcy is restored, she said the victims who were likely silenced by COVID-19 will begin disclosing what happened to them. And despite the challenges their now facing, she said, victims advocates need to be ready when they do.
"We can't afford to lose any of our staff, we need to be at full capacity," she said. "People are trapped in their homes, and we know that the vast majority of abuse takes place at home."
Conor Hughes is a public safety reporter with The Greenville News. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ConorJHughes.