Project: SAFE in Shawnee continues services for victims, survivors of abuse with COVID-19 precautions

Kelci McKendrick
Project: Safe in Shawnee helps victims of domestic violence.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Shawnee’s Project: SAFE is doing all it can to provide services to victims and survivors, especially since COVID-19 poses a safety risk for those experiencing abuse at home.

Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are more at risk during the pandemic because they are trapped with abusers during quarantine and stay-at-home orders.

In Shawnee, Project: SAFE, a non-profit agency that provides vital services to victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence in Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties, has seen an increase in numbers since the pandemic started.

“Stay-at-home orders allow an abuser to have more control over how frequently a victim is able to leave to run errands or seek help,” said Project: SAFE executive director Renée Clemmons. “Unfortunately, Project: SAFE is seeing an upward trend in the number of victims of violence needing help due to being homebound with perpetrators.”

National Domestic Violence Awareness Month came from the “Day of Unity” observed by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in October 1981, according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

In 1987, the first ever Domestic Violence Awareness Month was observed, and two years later, in 1989, Congress officially designated October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, according to NCDSV. This month raises awareness in communities on how common and serious domestic violence is, and millions of people are affected in the U.S. alone.

How Project: SAFE is operating during COVID-19

Project: SAFE offers a variety of services, including help for domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties, and it can help people who are wanting to file a protective order. The agency also operates an emergency shelter, and everything is free.

Clemmons said the agency has seen a 36 percent increase in the number of victims, both children and adults, of sexual assault. Currently, the Sexual Assault Nurse Exam count is at 116, about a 50 percent increase from the 77 exams from last year at this time.

Project: SAFE saw an 8 percent drop in the number of domestic violence clients in April, May and June compared to 2019, although the numbers for July through October are on the rise as more people get out of the house.

Clemmons expects Project: SAFE will serve close to 1,500 victims/survivors, about the same as 2019, but the pandemic is the unknown factor going forward.

Normally, Project: SAFE is able to house up to 18 individuals or family members in five rooms, Clemmons said, but the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the capacity as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

“As more victims of abuse are seeking emergency shelter, sadly we are having to turn them away because we are operating with reduced capacity as we must observe CDC recommendations for social distancing in placing one family or individual per room,” Clemmons said.

Those who seek shelter can initially stay up to 30 days, though extensions are available for residents making progress on goals and need more time, Clemmons said. Some come for just a few days until they make other safety plans.

Project: SAFE is asking for anyone who enters to wear a mask, and staff members are disinfecting common areas frequently. They are also screening those who come into the building, and Clemmons said they’re taking necessary COVID-19 precautions while protecting staff and clients.

COVID-19 has also negatively impacted funding for the agency, Clemmons said. As businesses and their employees are affected, so is their ability to donate, which Clemmons said has been the case for one of Project: SAFE’s long-standing partners.

“We are looking for temporary alternative funding to bridge the gap for our sexual assault response program and are remaining positive that we will be able to find and secure those needed funds soon,” Clemmons said in the email.

In partnership with Project: SAFE for National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, BancFirst in Shawnee, Tecumseh and McLoud is hosting a community drive throughout October.

The banks are collecting items including towels, washcloths, undergarments and socks for women, teens and children, and those who wish to help can drop them off at any BancFirst in Shawnee, Tecumseh or McLoud.

The Farmer’s Daughter Market in Tecumseh offered to help Project: SAFE with a small awareness fundraiser from 7-9 p.m. on Oct. 24. Clemmons is going to speak and give some information about domestic violence.

What does abuse look like?

Domestic violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, is a “pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” 

On average, about 20 people per minute face abuse at the hands of a partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and one-in-four women and one-in-nine men will experience some form of abuse.

According to Clemmons, there are eight types of abuse: emotional, psychological and verbal abuse, environmental abuse in home or vehicle, social abuse, financial abuse, ritual abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and religious abuse, and digital abuse is coming out as technology and forms of social media advances.

One local domestic violence survivor, who will be referred to as Amy to remain anonymous, suffered these types of abuse from her ex-husband, affecting her as well as her children, including two she had with him.

One night, after dating her ex-husband for a couple of weeks, they went out for drinks, but Amy doesn’t remember much of that night. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant with his child, with no idea how it could have happened. After talking with her ex, he told her that she probably conceived on the night she doesn’t remember.

A similar night happened about four weeks after she had their son, but Amy woke up during the unwanted sexual advances and ran out of the home. Having been choked in the process, she called police, who told her they would both have to be taken in, but Amy couldn’t because she had her kids.

After that incident, her ex left but was still calling her 200 to 300 times a day, she said. She told the father of her two older children he would have to take care of them while she was getting out of the relationship to keep them safe.

Amy had two children with her ex, and one night, he took off with them and was able to keep them unless Amy got a court order, and she called him one night in tears saying she wanted to see her kids.

So her ex picked her up, then took her phone and was typing in her passcode wrong, but in his mind, she was hiding something, she said, adding that he reached over and hit her jaw and was spitting on her while her daughter watched and screamed. Amy showed him her passcode, but her ex told her it was still her fault and held a gun up to her, she said.

During her relationship, she wasn’t allowed to drive, and her ex kept her IDs with him. Money she was making went into his bank account, and her ex didn’t want her to go anywhere without him.

Amy said he always found ways around the law and was an “amazing liar.”

“This is one thing people don’t understand about abusers — they’re very smart, and they know the loopholes,” she said. “You can be wearing a pink shirt, and they can tell you it’s blue, and you’re going to start thinking it’s blue.”

She stayed with him for six years, but her breaking point was when she wanted to go out with a friend, but her ex threatened to take the kids if she did. Amy held her daughter in her lap for an hour, and her daughter had to go to the bathroom, but Amy told her to go right there because she couldn’t let her out of her arms.

“At that moment, it just snapped — my kids shouldn’t live like this,” she said.

Amy left in 2017 and went to Project: SAFE for help, which is where she learned about red flags in relationships — the ones she could now see in her relationship with her ex. 

She said she found out after she left that her ex had allegedly sexually abused their children, leaving her and her children with emotional scars that they’re still healing from. Amy said the courts declined any charges against him, and he hasn’t seen his kids in two years.

Amy got help from Project: SAFE, friends and family, and she got her and her kids out of the abusive relationship. She has since moved towns and is now in a healthy relationship with a caring man, she said, and she now has the freedom to do what she wants and be who she is.

“That’s complete recovery — whenever you can be the person you want without being scared,” Amy said. “Unless he went to jail, I don’t think I’ll ever have recovery as far as being able to go somewhere and not look around for him or make an exit plan, but as far as emotionally recovering, I’m celebrating my freedom.”

How to get help

Amy encouraged people who are facing domestic violence and other abuse that there is help out there. She said she wishes she had known about Project: SAFE sooner because of the services it offers to victims and survivors.

Project: SAFE has many phone numbers and resources available online. To get help from Project: SAFE, call 800-821-9953. Project: SAFE also has a 24-hour crisis hotline where victims of abuse can talk with a trained advocate any time of the day. Callers can receive assistance in safety planning, referrals to resources, help finding a safe shelter, request a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam and more.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, on average, it takes a victim seven times to leave before staying away for good, and that’s when it’s the most unsafe for victims.

“That’s the complicated thing about abuse — it’s not a cut and dried, rational problem. It’s irrational and emotional,” Clemmons said. “There’s a lot of trauma involved. There’s a lot of reasons why victims can’t truly break away, and when they do, they don’t have the confidence to do it.

“Maybe not the first or second time, but maybe they do the fifth time, and (Project: SAFE ) is here to help no matter how many times that is.”

Though at reduced capacity due to COVID-19, Project: SAFE has not ceased in providing services to victims and doesn’t plan to.

“We want to reassure our community, our partners, and especially victims and survivors of abuse that we will continue to be here to provide help and hope, even in this difficult and uncertain time,” Clemmons said in the email. “We have been providing services to victims of abuse that are free, confidential, and client-centered for over 35 years. Today is a good day to start again.”

Anyone needing help can find Project: SAFE’s services on its website and Facebook and Instagram pages or send an email to info@projectsafe.com. Their office phone number is 405-273-9953 and the hotline is 800-821-9953, and anyone in immediate danger should call 911 first. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-7233 and is available for victims of abuse 24/7.