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Safe Haven director sees surge in abuse cases during pandemic

Safe Haven director sees surge in abuse cases during pandemic

PHILIPSBURG–The pandemic really has shone a light on the under belly of domestic violence, believes Director of the Safe Haven Foundation Vanessa Fraser.

Fraser recently sat with The Daily Herald for an interview where she gave some insight on her role within the organisation and the impact the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has had on domestic violence cases.

Fraser started her tenure as director at the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her first day at work began during the lockdown period in April 2020. She said she literally hit the ground running with her new role. “It has definitely been a roller coaster,” she exclaimed.

One of her first tasks during this time was the development and implementation of a COVID-19 Guideline Policy for Safe Haven.

Safe Haven never closed its doors during the lockdown. Fraser noted that many shelters globally were forced, or left with no other option but to close their doors during the pandemic, as they could not accommodate the added risk of infection, or have the capacity to mitigate the risks that the health crisis presented. She noted solemnly that during this time there was also a surge in the number of domestic cases reported due to the lockdown. “Isolation is an aggressor’s dream come true” she stated.

Fraser said that, thankfully, having to close its doors was not the case for Safe Haven. “During the lockdown, and so far within this ongoing pandemic, Safe Haven has not found itself in a position where anyone had to be turned away at any time because they cannot accommodate them, and I am so grateful for that,” said Fraser.

In the event that additional space was needed, she explained that Safe Haven followed the example of larger countries and reached out to several hotels and made arrangements for “backup” accommodations in case the organisation was at maximum capacity. Luckily, this extra precaution was not needed as Safe Haven was able to accommodate the surge in persons seeking shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fraser explained.

However, the organisation experienced a drastic increase in the number of “outpatient” clients requesting information, referrals for counselling and social aid, participation in their self-esteem building workshop, coaching, etc. She said that many women sought out the support of Safe Haven, but did not want to relocate to the shelter as “that step is too big of a leap into the unknown,” she expressed.

She further explained that the needs have shifted for the women and children they serve. “Due to social and economic uncertainties, it has become more difficult for women that are suffering abuse to leave that toxic environment, being financially dependent on their partners,” she added.

A great help to Safe Haven during this time was through partnerships with other organisations. “Since I started working [at Safe Haven – Ed.], the support from other civil society organisations (CSOs), from the government and support entities has been enormous,” said Fraser. “We have a good network within the chain of domestic violence partners and the assistance is reliable, efficient and it allows Safe Haven to follow through with the services that we are providing to our community.”

She said the network has since strengthened and expanded. The communication lines are shorter. “It is very important for Safe Haven to have good communication with other law enforcement; having an appointed contact person within the St. Maarten Police Force KPSM who manages the domestic violence portfolio facilitates this process.

“The Ministry of Justice has domestic violence very high on their agenda. They are developing policies and taking a leading role in ensuring that the social support services and judicial system are aligning so there is a better support offered to victims of violence,” she added.

Fraser said another very important part of the organisation is having a great team, and praised the staff at Safe Haven. “When I came to Safe Haven, I met a very competent team,” she said. She expressed the importance of having committed team members, especially in such an organisation that works with vulnerable clients. “They are compassionate, reliable, driven and have heart for the cause,” she added.

When asked about what she loves most about her job, Fraser shared that originally, she did not expect or foresee that her career would head in this direction, but is none the less happy with her current role. “Outside of Safe Haven, I realised that I have always been that person to stand up for those with no voice,” she added.

She admitted that the job is tough. “It is a job that comes with a lot of weight. You [see] persons coming in broken, scared, lost, and battered, and we offer them a safe space, with protection and warmth in a period of time when they need it the most.

“I have been granted the blessing to be an active actor of change working at Safe Haven. I get to work towards making someone’s life better every day. Life for me does not become more purposeful than that,” she added.

Fraser said that due to the small scale of the organisation and the direct contact with clients, she often gets to witness the direct impact immediately. “You get to see someone’s self-esteem and courage grow, to see them flourish, start loving themselves, and thrive. That is the part I enjoy most about my job.”

Fraser pointed out that sadly, many individuals who come to Safe Haven have faced victim blaming. She said victims of domestic violence have to explain why it is that they are in that situation when the real question should be why someone is holding them hostage.

“When [persons] walk through the doors of Safe Haven, regardless of their ethnic background, age, religion or status, they will be received with dignity and respect, and they will be treated with compassion,” she added.

In closing, Fraser said that what she wanted the community to know when it comes to domestic violence is, “we cannot stop domestic violence on our own, not Safe Haven and not the government, we can only put systems in place that hold those who inflict violence accountable, but at the end of the day it is up to us as a community to be the voice for those who cannot speak up.

“I ask our community to be open and to receive without judgement so that we can all be contributors to a wholesome community.

“And to all women: stay beautiful, stay strong, embrace that phenomenal woman within and know that you’ve got everything you need to be the woman you aspire to be … Happy Woman’s Day,” Fraser concluded.