MERCER COUNTY, NJ -- When the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic first began and shelter-in-place orders for New Jerseyans were put in place, calls to Mercer County's Womanspace center for domestic and sexual violence were flat or down. It was worrisome to Womanspace's executive director Patricia Hart and her colleagues locally and across the state. 

Speaking with TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville, Hart said that the coronavirus and stay-at-home directives had "a huge impact on us and our work." 

That's when the team at Womanspace quickly got to work to develop creative ways to connect with victims, particularly those who may be "stuck" at home with their abusers. 

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"When stress levels go up, it doesn't cause domestic violence, but it does escalate it," explained Hart.  "Victims are trapped in their houses and can't go anywhere. The controlling nature of an abuser won't let them go out where they could be able to make a call.

"We had to find a way for people to get to us since we can't get to them," said Hart.  

Womanspace, which operates both the county and statewide domestic violence hotline and the county sexual assault line, worked to find a way to continue providing counseling services now by phone and secure virtual platforms. That includes adding a "Chat Now" feature to their website (www.Womanspace.org), connecting through messenger on the Womanspace Facebook page. and texting. 

Hart said that for many "they're just surviving" these days. She noted that victims who are at-home with their abusers may not be able to privately place a phone call without being overheard. The online services can provide a safer way for victims to connect and a "platform to protect survivors." 

During the coronavirus pandemic, Womanspace also has kept their shelter open. It provides a safe haven for up to eight families. The shelter implemented additional health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and screened individuals before they came to it.  

Through a recent donation of iPads and other technology from Amazon, children who were staying at the shelter were able to keep up with the remote school work, just as other kids were doing at their homes.  A group of homeschool volunteers helped the students who were facing the particular difficult situation.  

Hart said they anticipate an uptick in calls to domestic violence groups in the coming months as things get back to "normal." 

"When things loosen up and people can go out, it will give them the space to say 'I need something different.  I need to get out of here.'  We're going to see more freedom for some," said Hart.

In the meantime, Womanspace will continue their services to help victims despite the pandemic.

The Mercer County 24-Hour Bilingual Hotline for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault crisis assistance and information can be reached at (609) 394-9000 or 1-800-572-SAFE (7233).  Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals can text Womanspace 24/7: (609) 619-1888.   The Barbara and Herb Goodfriend Counseling Center, which is conducting screening, counseling and support remotely can be reached at (609) 394-2532. 

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