LACONIA – In 10 years of the crisis hotline of New Beginnings, the local women’s shelter, its managing director Shauna Foster has received calls that are full of emotions, pent-up anger, grief and guilt – as well as requests for a place to retreat from the path of damage.
It’s an exhilarating role, but also a calling for those who have experienced abuse and others who care deeply and are ready to be trained to help.
Now there is a call for more volunteers on the crisis line.
“The stress is much higher than it was before COVID,” Foster said, and the needs of callers are more complex. These needs can include housing, financial assistance, legal advice, and psychological counseling. “Anything that stresses us will burden a survivor and make their situation much more difficult.”
Since its inception 30 years ago, New Beginnings – Without Violence and Abuse has been the premier provider of crisis services, resources, and mediation to individuals and families in the Lake District who are experiencing violence and abuse – situations that often go unnoticed but persistent challenges give rise to a lifetime long, especially untreated. The aftershocks can include depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse. Shelters and Crisis Line volunteers act as first responders for people whose needs have exploded during COVID isolation and home accommodation with abusers.
According to data collected by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, calls to crisis centers have increased 15% in the past two years, while the need for volunteers to assist crisis phones and the need for survivors have increased in the past two years five years ago. Between January and September 2021, the crisis centers had fewer volunteers than in 2020. Now the volume of calls remains high, the supply of volunteers is tighter, and more help is needed.
As of July, the New Beginnings helpline has had around 50 after-hours calls, when the office is closed, from sexual assault or domestic violence survivors who need advice or just need to discharge.
“The survivors need to talk,” said Foster. “We hope to offer peer support that comes from lived experience. But there is no requirement to get involved. We are looking for people with a passion for our work. “
Currently, around seven volunteers are doing shift work outside of business hours, providing assistance over the phone or in person in the emergency room, offering compassion and specific tips on what to do next. It’s mostly remote work that requires being available overnight, privacy to talk, and a sensitive heart. The training is carried out by New Beginnings.
“Troubled area volunteers are a lifeline across New Hampshire,” said Lyn Schollett, managing director of NHCADSV. Their worth cannot be overestimated.
“Usually everyone knows someone who has experienced domestic violence,” said Foster. “We are often the first person someone speaks to about their situation. If they receive support, encouragement, and resources, the outcome can be very different. “
The statistics on domestic and sexual abuse are sobering. According to data from NHCADSV, one in four men nationwide claims to have been attacked by an intimate partner. In New Hampshire, 33.4% of women have experienced intimate partner violence. Abuse can take the form of physical or sexual violence, psychological, emotional or verbal abuse, isolation or financial abuse or control.
“A common thread among survivors is feeling that it is their fault” – and if they change treatment is stopped, which is usually a false hope. “The perpetrator will say, ‘It’s your fault. I’m only doing this because you made me do it, ‘”said Foster.
During her tenure in office, Foster has taken calls from middle-aged women who have stifled their experiences for years and still affected by trauma.
“Something on the news brought it back and this is her first time,” said Foster. Something, however fleeting, can provoke paralysis, pain, or fear, as if the abuse had just happened, as well as a torrent of haunting memories.
Some callers experience persistent or immediate abuse, culminating in a visit to a hospital emergency room.
“Our job is to listen to what they have to say,” said Foster. “This violence makes someone feel less in control. We don’t want to exacerbate this loss of control. If they say I just want to talk, I just let them talk. You will often have questions about your rights and what to do next. “
Calls come from people of all ages. “Some people ask, ‘Am I crazy or is this offensive?'” It often starts with emotional abuse and can escalate to physical violence over time, Foster said.
Living at home during COVID exacerbated the risk for intimate partners and children who have been sequestered by abusive family members. Parents have overcome challenges with distance and hybrid learning and childcare. The family’s financial needs intensified as costs such as food and fuel rose. Those are reasons someone stays in a destructive relationship or has trouble leaving, Foster said.
During the peak of the pandemic, between March and September 2020, when the stay at home mandate was in effect, the state’s Crisis Center hotlines received 66,685 calls – a 63% increase from 2019. During that time, 15% of all those who Services received in connection with domestic or sexual abuse were under 18 years of age, according to NHCADSV.
Between July 1 and September 30, 2019, New Beginnings served 201 people. That number fell to 155 during the pandemic shutdowns in 2020 and rose to 250 between July and September 2021, according to the center.
Now that families and individuals remain in toxic or volatile situations, the stakes remain high and there is greater potential for deadly violence, Schollett said.
The trend is reflected in the demand for accommodation. Over the past three years, the average number of days a guest spends in a crisis shelter in New Hampshire has risen steadily, according to NHCADSV. Last year the average stay was 76 days.
In the decade since Foster started at New Beginnings, she said the biggest change she’s noticed is accommodations for guests with fewer options, especially for follow-up units. “They stay longer and have a harder time moving forward,” she said.
A recent assessment by the NH Justice Department found that the main unmet needs of victims remain housing, psychiatric care and legal advice. When these resources are not available, crisis centers become overloaded to fill in the gaps.
Law enforcements have been delayed during COVID, Schollett said, sometimes by 18 months after the last hearing. The tedious process is tough on the victims. “The longer a trial or negotiation is put off, the longer the victim will experience the trauma of a crime,” said Schollett.
The good news is that during the pandemic, providers evolved ways to remotely deliver critical services. Crisis centers began to use text messaging and secure online chat platforms to communicate privately with victims. These options are now available.
The New Hampshire courts introduced remote injunctions, making the process more accessible and less time-consuming. Victims can work with protection attorneys without hiring an attorney, Schollett said.
For information about services or how to become a Crisis Line Volunteer, call New Beginnings at 603-528-6511 or visit newbeginningsnh.org. The crisis telephone number is 866-841-6427.