Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center executive director Jessica Hays

Image: Barbara Banks

Unemployment and stress about finances don't cause domestic violence, says Jessica Hays, the executive director of Sarasota's Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center, but they do exacerbate tensions and make existing problems worse. That's why the center, commonly known as SPARCC, is anticipating a surge in calls to its emergency hotline because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive job losses that it has caused.

"We're definitely concerned," Hays says, "because people are really isolated right now."

SPARCC hasn't yet seen a significant rise in calls for assistance. The center handled 386 calls last month, compared to 360 calls in March 2019. And in just the last two weeks of March, when COVID-19 shutdowns began in earnest in Florida, the center received 204 calls, compared to 189 in the same time period in 2019. In other parts of the country, the number of domestic violence incidents has already begun to rise, and in Europe, some cities have seen increases. Some areas have also reported a decrease in calls for help, because victims who are confined with their abusers are unable to reach out.

In Sarasota, SPARCC has already been forced to adjust how it operates. Traditionally, employees and volunteers would be dispatched to local hospitals to assist victims of sexual assault, but hospitals have asked for that practice to be suspended. SPARCC advocates are now instead connecting with victims via video-conferencing.

SPARCC's shelter for victims of domestic violence can house up to 33 people at a time. It is still open, but the organization has taken steps to try to limit contact among people staying there. SPARCC has also begun connecting victims and attorneys through video software and limiting in-person meetings, and has been forced to suspend meetings of its support groups.

The pandemic has also interfered with what was intended to be a large fundraiser for SPARCC. The nonprofit was supposed to be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding with a large gala on Friday. Instead, it is live-streaming the event at 7:30 p.m. and holding an all-day online auction to raise money.

Hays emphasizes that those who need help should not hesitate to reach out to SPARCC because of the coronavirus. "We're still here," she says.

If you are a survivor of domestic or sexual violence, you can call the free, confidential SPARCC hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week: (941) 365-1976.

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