Annie Van Avery has long worked for social justice organizations, which made her transition to the Domestic Abuse Project (DAP) a seamless fit nearly two years ago. Minneapolis-based DAP has worked to end intergenerational violence for more than 40 years, with bold and inventive strategies that bring everyone to the table for success. Executive Director Van Avery said her goal is to tap into that “incredibly rich and significant history” and build upon it. “Every community should have a DAP,” she said. Van Avery shares her hopes for DAP, how the organization is addressing the additional challenges brought on by COVID-19, and ways we all can help keep our families, friends and neighbors safe.
Q: What drew you to DAP?
A: DAP (domesticabuseproject.com) offers services that families cannot access anywhere else. It’s a holistic place for healing, from crisis to stabilization, for every member of the family. It has been such an honor to learn from DAP’s past leadership about the origins of the movement, including [longtime executive director] Carol Arthur, and to partner with the next generation of advocates, social workers and therapists led by Amirthini Keefe working on innovative and community-based solutions to healing from trauma.
Q: COVID-19 has changed life for everyone. But how has the pandemic affected people in abusive situations?
A: There has been increased isolation, which means a lack of safety to reach out for services, children being used as an abuse tactic or being abused, and a lack of support for de-escalation, leading to higher instances of abuse. Safety planning for each member of the family created before COVID-19 is often not applicable when you cannot leave the home to go to group, when children are not at school during the day, when you do not have child care, when courts or county offices are closed.
Q: How are you responding?
A: Both our team and our partners pivoted within a matter of weeks to keep shelters open, to offer services through telehealth and to innovate ways to reach an advocate for support. We are offering a text option, phone line and video connection, for example, to meet the client’s need and find a safe way to connect. It’s been incredible and I think that in the Twin Cities, our nonprofit organizations have stepped up and into expanding services for the significant need without more resources or support.
Q: Are protective orders largely impossible to attain right now?
A: While there are some challenges with courts operating primarily remotely, which creates some backlog, we are completing and processing orders for protection and we have advocates who have open appointments to help with this. We saw a decrease in requests for such orders as COVID-19 started and shelter-in-place orders were implemented. We have not seen that pick up significantly since, but we have the capacity to help.
Q: With children home, what are your greatest concerns for them?
A: We are seeing a rise in children being used in harmful ways, both when there is abuse happening in their home and when there are custody issues or the child is in kinship or foster care. Examples might include disregarding parenting plans or safety precautions with COVID-19. At DAP, one of our pillar programs is our youth program, which includes our early childhood program (ages 0-3), caregiver support, which includes parent-child psychotherapy, and youth groups for people ages 7 to 19. What I have heard from our youth therapists is that resilience is incredible. Still, access to telehealth is a very difficult concept for young children. In addition, caregivers are extremely triggered at this time both due to COVID-19 and experiences with systems oppression, police violence and racism, and all of this is impacting children.
A: You are eight years into your program, Change Step, for military veterans. What results are you seeing?
Q: We started the program because we were seeing the high occurrence of PTSD and the high rates of domestic violence in military families, and there were not veteran services to support the need. We know from our long-standing programs for people who use abusive behaviors that our program worked, with low rates of recidivism due largely to accountability from peers who understood their experiences. Yet, military culture, lingo, chains-of-command, values and experiences are unique. With Change Step, therapists and facilitators are military connected or service members, and cohorts are created to mirror platoons. We’re building a camaraderie that supports honest feedback and accountability. That makes a significant difference to our participants.
Q: With everyone spending more time at home, what can we do to watch out for neighbors, friends and family members to make sure they are safe and free from violence?
A: If you suspect someone is in an abusive situation, we encourage you to safely and confidentially reach out if you feel you can be a safe person for them. Keep in mind that often if someone is experiencing abuse in the home or their intimate relationship, the person using abuse could be monitoring texts, e-mails and social media. The safest way to reach out would be in person if you know they are alone, or by calling and being clear that if it is not a safe time for them to talk, that you are here when they are safe to talk.