In times of calamity and uncertainty, we are often told to look for the helpers. But what happens when no one is looking out for them?

Domestic violence and sexual assault has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and, with it, the demands on those who provide services and support to survivors. But while the demands are up for domestic violence and sexual assault workforce, the resources and support for these essential workers has not increased.

In a new paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, a team of University of Texas Medical Branch researchers explains how there is a critical need for additional training, infrastructure, and support for this workforce.

Taking that research a step further, the Center for Violence Prevention at UTMB is partnering with the Texas Council on Family Violence to start a pilot program that will provide free virtual counseling for members of the domestic and sexual assault workforces.

“The people who provide support and services to those who suffer intimate partner violence and sexual assault are essential workers,” said Dr. Leila Wood, lead author of the study and assistant professor and Director of Evaluation at the Center for Violence Prevention at UTMB. “They provide crisis intervention services, emergency shelter, hotline, counseling, advocacy, and medical accompaniment for people with significant safety concerns- but do not typically get classified as first responders.”

It’s that lack of first responder classification and the support, and resources that comes with it, and the increase in domestic violence and sexual assault during the pandemic that has led to the stress, burnout and drop in quality in services that Wood and her colleagues document in their paper.

The team surveyed 324 intimate partner violence and sexual assault staff in 24 states from April to June about their experiences. According to the survey, workers faced a range of obstacles and stresses including economic or resource difficulties themselves during the pandemic due to lack of funds or supplies, or a family member being laid off. The researchers also documented a 51 percent increase in video technology for work, which caused increased stress due to lack of tech access for survivors, lack of training for workers, and shifting in-person practices to video so quickly.

As many as 73 percent of those surveyed reported decreases in domestic  violence and sexual assault survivor safety because of the pandemic, Wood said. 

“A source of stress and diminished survivor safety was the lack of resources available to clients,” Wood said. “With layoffs, reduced shelter capacity because of COVID-19, and economic struggles, domestic violence and sexual assault staff are helping clients with increased levels of dangers with fewer resources than they had before. Lack of resources also contributed to increased stress.”

To help combat that stress for those doing essential work, the new pilot program from TCFV and CVP will provide domestic violence and sexual assault workers up to 6 sessions of counseling provided by licensed counselors with experience addressing occupational stress.

“To continue providing for victims of domestic violence, we must prioritize protecting our valuable and essential staff on the front lines,” said Gloria Terry, the CEO of TCFV. “I’m thrilled to be partnering with CVP in providing these services.”

The program will begin in January and, while spots for the project are currently limited, it will expand with additional funding.

“This workforce, in addition to dealing with low pay, harsh work conditions, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress, now have to navigate the challenges of serving clients safely during the pandemic,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, one of the paper’s authors and director of the Center for Violence Prevention at UTMB. “These workers serve principal roles in the health and safety of vulnerable families and it is important to provide them with the support they need.”