Social service agencies see demand, challenges rise during pandemic

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
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It’s a cruel Catch-22: With the COVID-19 pandemic dragging on for nearly a year, more people are experiencing trauma related to domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction and other societal ills.

Yet the support groups and social service providers people rely on for healing, connection and help have had to reduce or halt in-person gatherings to prevent spreading the deadly virus.

The quandary has forced Metro Detroit agencies to find alternative ways to keep the lines of communication open and help clients cope during a time of added stress. 

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, a once full meeting room for a support group can now be done as a zoom conference on a computer with Alexandra Wyatt, Common Ground Victim Assistance Program Supervisor at their offices in Bloomfield Hills on Jan. 29, 2021.

For Common Ground, a nonprofit crisis support agency, the solution was to move its support groups online.

The Bloomfield Hills-based agency recently began offering separate weekly virtual sessions for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse survivors and people who have lost loved ones to homicide.

Alexandra Wyatt, a supervisor of Common Ground's Victims Assistance Program, said the agency is responding to high demand from people experiencing trauma.

“There was a large number of persons asking if we couldn’t set something up where they could meet and talk with a counselor and other victims like themselves,” Wyatt said. “It may not be the same as face-to-face interaction and hugging others, but the struggles people are experiencing have grown over the past year and this helps meet a need.”

Wyatt said the support groups average about 10 participants. Identities and the sessions themselves are confidential, and participants sign agreements not to disclose what occurs in sessions, which run two hours once a week for 10 weeks.

Common Ground provides services for about 88,000 people a year. With the help of a 24-hour crisis line, it served 892 people referred to programs between April and September — up from 850 in the same six-month period in 2019.

But Wyatt believes the need is even greater. There were 16,291 calls into Common Ground's Resource and Crisis Helpline from April 1 to Sept. 30. That's up from 13,800 calls during the same time frame in 2019.

Callers ranged from those seeking advice on how to fill out a police report, find a food bank, get transportation to a hospital, or survivors struggling with the loss of a loved one to violence.

"These calls come from people who are in crisis and need our assistance," Wyatt said. "... These calls were not all victim-related. I definitely believe that an increase was because of the pandemic and the current climate. It has created a space where people feel trapped and isolated."

MiVida Burrus, director of development at HAVEN, a nonprofit organization in Oakland County that provides shelter for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, said support group sessions have been held both virtually and physically during the pandemic.

“In March, we shut it all down temporarily because we all were trying to find out what we were dealing with,” Burrus said. “We had individual and group telehealth virtual meetings like Zoom sessions.”

She said when COVID-19 numbers improved in May, HAVEN opened up to one-on-one sessions and group meetings of 10 or less, though the agency still offers online meetings for clients who aren't comfortable gathering in-person.

Participants who attend sessions in person have to go through a safety protocol, including mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature checks and signing waivers before meeting with a professional.

"In terms of the effectiveness of the hybrid service offerings, it gives our clients access in a way that makes them feel connected and comfortable," she said. "Again, those who like in-person meetings take advantage of this opportunity while those who have time and personal constraints like the option of meeting with counselors and community resources via telehealth. They are welcome to take advantage of either opportunity."

In neighboring Macomb County, health professionals have had to "make adjustments" according to Cyndia Robinson, a spokeswoman for Macomb County Community Mental Health.

“Because of COVID concerns, we set up virtual meetings as part of a ‘Wellness Week’ in January and provided resources, including support group contacts, which continue to meet virtually today,” she said.

Health professionals and residents met remotely to discuss topics that included "Coping With Covid," "Resources for the LGBTQIAP Community," "Fighting Depression and Anxiety" and "Preparing for a Crisis & Preventing Suicide."

“The support groups created and which have evolved out of this are not as intimate as traditional, smaller in-person gatherings,” Robinson said. “But it has given us an opportunity to reach out to a larger group of people in these stressful times.”

While based in Oakland County, Common Ground is networked with seven counties in southeast Michigan. A half-dozen full-time advocates, along with volunteers, field calls and direct people to self-care and immediate victim services, including food and shelter.

“The highest number of victimization services established over the past couple years are for domestic or family violence and adult sex abuse,” Wyatt said. “It’s possible during the pandemic victim and abuser have been in close quarters night and day and they are unable to call for help.”

Wyatt said the pandemic has presented other problems. Abusers arrested by police are often spared jail or released early, returning to their homes, Wyatt said. If they are given court dates, the hearings are often postponed or delayed by court closures.

From April through September, there were at least 369 domestic violence victims from crisis calls referred to Common Ground programs compared with 343 during the same time frame in 2019. Adult sex abuse numbers increased from 105 to 118, according to agency statistics.

Deanna Kelley, a former Oakland County assistant prosecutor now in private practice in Milford, believes virtual counseling is crucial during an era of a pandemic.

“Especially when people are quarantined, it's especially nice that an organization is trying to meet their needs,” said Kelley, who handled many sex assault cases as an assistant prosecutor. “No one envisioned this shutdown or how long it might last. We still don’t know. And many problems people are having could be related to not having access to traditional services.''

Karen McDonald, the newly elected Oakland County prosecutor, said agencies like Common Ground supply vital services, especially amid the pandemic.

“I fully support these virtual programs for victims of crime," she said. "It’s not ideal but nothing is ideal these days.

“After a crime, victims need to deal with a number of things, including their mental health,” she said. “These virtual meetings are just another tool to handle them.”

McDonald said she has concerns about abuses, particularly regarding children, going unreported and that virtual meetings might help in reaching the most vulnerable who otherwise are “isolated” in their homes.

She said she sees a silver lining in the disruption caused by COVID-19 to social service providers and clients.

“After the pandemic is over, it might be we all have discovered we need to be more flexible in doing our jobs,” McDonald said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

Common Ground

For more information on its support groups, people can call the 24-hour resource and crisis line at (800) 231-1127 or visit Common Ground’s website at www.CommonGroundHelps.org.

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