Utah saw an increased need for domestic violence services during COVID-19, and it hasn’t slowed down

Safe Harbor is building a new center, expanding its shelter to be able to help more Utahns.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kristen Floyd, executive director at Safe Harbor Crisis Center, at their Farmington location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Safe Harbor is building a new center in Layton and expanding its shelter in Kaysville to better serve the increased number of Utahns needing domestic violence help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The staff at Safe Harbor Crisis Center was already scrambling to keep up with all of the Davis County residents seeking help from domestic violence, even before 2020 — and then the pandemic hit.

As lockdowns were put in place last year and people stayed home to curb the spread of COVID-19, service providers and law enforcement in Utah and across the country reported a rise in domestic violence calls and the need for assistance.

The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition saw a 25% increase in callers to its 24-hour confidential statewide hotline from 2019 to 2020, said Claire Mosby, prevention coordinator. Meanwhile, the coalition also experienced a rise in volunteers to operate the LINK line since they could train and work virtually during the pandemic, she said.

Now, four months into 2021, the need for domestic violence services continues, according to Mosby and Kristen Floyd, Safe Harbor’s executive director.

“It hasn’t slowed down, not even a bit,” Floyd said.

And with more Utahns getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and people returning in-person to work and school, Floyd anticipates “that we’ll see another increase” as coronavirus restrictions become more relaxed.

Over the last year, perpetrators have become accustomed “to keeping their victims so isolated in their homes,” she said. And as victims are “able to get out of their houses more freely,” Floyd said she thinks “that’s going to cause a lot of domestic violence situations.”

There is help available for people, though, Floyd said, from advocates and shelters across the state. And in a time when providers are seeking more funding to meet the rising demand, Safe Harbor is expanding to be able to serve more Utahns, she said.

More space to help more people

After starting their outreach program three years ago, the staff left their small building in Layton for their temporary office tucked in a shopping area near Lagoon amusement park off Interstate 15 in Farmington. Almost as quickly as the Safe Harbor team moved into their new location, they outgrew it, Floyd said.

Their current space used to be a dentist’s office, so Floyd said they have tried to make the tight space as cozy and inviting as possible. Advocates set up their offices in the bays where the chairs for dental patients used to be. There’s a room decorated with monkeys and filled with toys for children and other spaces for the free therapy and housing assistance the nonprofit offers. Donated items usually spill out of the closet where they’re stored.

“My office used to be here,” Floyd said. “I’m now working remotely because I had to give my office up to be able to have an advocate take a position so that we can provide services.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Kinney, community children's advocate at Safe Harbor Crisis Center, at their Farmington location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

According to Floyd, before the pandemic, Safe Harbor saw a 40% uptick in people seeking help, simply from the organization doing more outreach to connect with people.

“And then COVID hit, and we saw another increase of almost 50%,” she said. “So, we have increased exponentially over the past year.”

On Thursday, Safe Harbor broke ground on its new Lifeline and Prevention Center in Layton, where the staff hopes to move by the end of the year, according to Floyd.

After that’s completed, Safe Harbor will expand its domestic shelter in Kaysville to double capacity from the 31 people it can currently house. Floyd said Safe Harbor would also build a second transitional housing apartment complex there.

With these new additions, Safe Harbor will still offer all of the same services, she said. But with more space, they can better meet the community’s needs, she said, in providing domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy and sexual assault nurse examinations to Davis County.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Taylor and Tatum Ramos at Safe Harbor Crisis Center, at their Farmington location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

As Utah looks to emerge from the pandemic in the coming months, Floyd is concerned about the possibility of more violent and lethal situations.

Of the more than 4,000 lethality assessment program screenings done last year in the Beehive State, primarily by law enforcement while responding to domestic violence calls, 82% were cases where the victim was considered in high danger, according to Mosby. That’s up from 75% in 2019, she said.

With interpersonal violence and domestic violence, there’s a “power and control dynamic,” Mosby said. As advocates try to predict what may happen as COVID-19 restrictions lift, “it’s kind of similar to when we talk about [how] after a breakup is a very dangerous time in a relationship,” she said.

The abuser “can’t control all of the things that they used to be able to control,” so they do what they can to get a victim back into their life, Mosby said.

“It could be the same thing with people just returning to work, returning to school, or returning to social habits outside of the home,” Mosby said. “And there can be potentially more dangerous situations arising” because of that shift, she said.

Investing in domestic violence prevention

In order to be able to build the new center and help more people, Safe Harbor has received donations from a private business and a group of local citizens, and the land they’re building on is from Intermountain Hospital. They also received funding from the state Legislature.

Safe Harbor and 13 other nonprofit domestic violence service providers and the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition asked state lawmakers for support to offset significant cuts in federal funding that they normally rely on.

With help from Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, they requested $3.4 million to offset an expected 25% to 30% cut, or $2 million, in federal funds coming to the Beehive State.

Abi Taylor, executive director of Seekhaven, which serves Grand and San Juan counties, said earlier this year advocates saw the situation as a “perfect storm,” with “a big budget cut in the midst of our services being demanded more than ever before” during the coronavirus pandemic. And that was on top of the increased demand that’s come with the rapidly growing population in Utah and law enforcement referring more people to providers in recent years because they have been trained to evaluate victims’ safety and needs through lethality assessment protocols.

According to Mosby, the Legislature ended up designating $1.7 million in one-time funding for domestic violence essential services and some money for prevention services.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inspirational artwork at Safe Harbor Crisis Center's Farmington location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

Prevention is a key part of Safe Harbor’s and other providers’ work, Floyd said, because “our goal isn’t to just keep responding to the fires that we need to put out, but getting in front of this and slowing down the violence in the community.”

Floyd said her team gives presentations at schools and meets with employers and law enforcement to educate Utahns about domestic violence.

“We are anywhere and everywhere that we can be,” Floyd said, “to talk about, what does it look like? What are the signs? How do you intervene? Where do you get services? ... What does a healthy relationship even look like?”

Safe Harbor will continue to respond to people who currently need help, she said, “but we also need to prevent any future victims from having this happen to them.”

To do that, “we need to get better as a state in funding domestic violence, on an ongoing basis, not having to go back every year and begging for money,” she said.

“We can’t just rely on the services providers themselves, finding funding and trying to tackle this,” Floyd said. “The state’s got to come together to do this.”

Editor’s note: Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100. For emergencies, call 911.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.