CVIndependent

Sun09272020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Even in the best of times, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. That adds up to more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.

But these aren’t the best of times. As the nation and the world try to limit the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told to stay home as much as possible—and that means that under these stressful circumstances, a lot of domestic-abuse and sexual-assault victims are being forced to constantly stay under the same roof as their abusers.

Angelina Coe is the executive director of Shelter From the Storm, the Palm Desert-based shelter and service provider for victims of domestic violence. She said the organization has needed to make a lot of changes during these unprecedented circumstances.

“Clients who are not currently in shelter but are receiving services from us are impacted, because everything is being done by teletherapy and telephonically,” she said. “There are no in-person meetings, for their safety and the safety of our staff as well, in order to maintain social distancing and make sure were not adding to the spread of the coronavirus. We don’t know what interactions (our clients) have had, and they don’t know what interactions (our staff members) have had.

“To not be able to come here for solace, safety, counseling and guidance (makes) a huge impact,” Coe said. “They (in the past) came in to receive in-kind donations and food distribution, things like that. Now they don’t have that readily available to them.”

Over at Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS), program director Winette Brenner and her team help victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. She said it’s important for people to know that there is still help available.

“We have had calls, but I feel that we are getting fewer calls, and I do think that it has to with the pandemic,” Brenner said. “People are afraid. People do not know what to do, or who to call, because everyone is in panic mode. Now, do I think that’s going to continue? No, I don’t. I think the more that the media get out there and let people know what services are available and where, that’s going to help. That’s our No. 1 focus—to let people know that, yes, we are in a pandemic, but we are still here to help you in the best ways we know how, and to the best of our abilities.

“We still have our 24-hour crisis hotline up, and anybody can still call that number and get a live person, not an automated recording,” Brenner said. (That number: 800-656-4673.) “We work closely with the law-enforcement agencies and SAFE services at Eisenhower Medical Center. We all work as a team for the sexual-assault victims, (and) we had to come up with a plan for the best way to continue to give services. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic going on, at this time, we’re not able to respond physically to be at the hospital or the police department, but the hospital’s SAFE services (personnel are) still able to do the exams, and then they are referring the client to us, and we do the follow-up work. The same is true with law enforcement: Each particular law-enforcement agency has established their own protocols as to how they (participate), but we’re all still continuing to provide services for the victims and their family members.

“Because of the pandemic and because of the world we live in, sexual assault and human trafficking does not stop. Sad as that is, it doesn’t. So we’re really trying to come up with new ways to use the platforms that we have available, like Zoom (the video conferencing platform) and telephone conference calls.”

Back at Shelter From the Storm, Coe said that she, too, wants people to know that some help is still available.

“We are seeing a decrease in calls,” Coe said. “But we’re not sure exactly what the dynamic is. Is it because everybody’s home? Is it because of the uncertainty about where they’re going to go? Is it because there’s an additional fear about what happens next, and, ‘Am I going to be even more exposed (to the coronavirus) at a shelter than I would be staying home?’ There are a lot of factors there. But our hotline is still available. Our staff is still present and available in both English and Spanish.

“Our main focus now is safety planning—not safety planning around the client leaving (an abusive environment), necessarily, but safety planning if they have to stay.”

Coe ran down a list of challenges her team is trying to address.

“We are in the process of working on teletherapy via video conferencing, but that takes some time to set up—to make sure (victims) have a confidential location where they can take that video conferencing,” Coe said. “Our service is all about anonymity and confidentiality, so they can’t open up and disclose what’s really going on, or what the issues are that they really would like to discuss, if their children are in the room, or if their partner is still in the household, or if they’re living with other people for their safety. You really can’t get into that one-on-one dynamic. … A lot of (victims) do not want to participate in the telephonic counseling, because they don’t feel it’s effective, or they don’t have a phone available. Not everybody has a cell phone that they’re not sharing with someone else, or (they don’t have) the minutes to do that, especially if they (have no) income right now, because they’re not working due to the businesses being closed. Or they don’t have child care, because the schools are closed, which is a huge impact to our community clients.

Coe said Shelter From the Storm has needed to stop accepting donations of physical items during the pandemic.

“That creates a huge impact, because a lot of (clients) rely on those items of clothing and food and hygiene (products), backpacks and other every-day regular things that you’d (normally) just run to the Dollar Tree for,” she said. “… Without an income, they need those items even more, and we’re unable to provide them. So, it’s just huge for our community clients.”

The pandemic is causing challenges for the nonprofit’s in-shelter clients, too.

“The biggest impact for them is the uncertainty about what happens to them when their time (in shelter) is up,” Coe said. “Maybe other programs aren’t accepting new clients, or everything is on hold, because a landlord doesn’t want to take in a new tenant right now, since they don’t know what (that tenant) could expose them to. So that’s a huge fear factor, in addition to (the realities that) the client has already left their family; they’re here by themselves; and there’s no outlet, since we’ve restricted their movement in and out, because they’re sheltering in place. California has said everyone should stay at home, and that’s their home. They’re interacting only with the staff at the shelter, and they are missing out on many support services that would have been available to them during a normal stay. That’s causing additional anxiety, and our counseling has changed its focus to anxiety and coping skills, along with understanding the factors of: (What happens) if you are exposed? What are we doing to keep you safe? Why are we keeping you on ‘lockdown?’”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is currently unable to accept new in-shelter clients because of concerns over COVID-19.

“We’re not taking in any new families, because we have no way to isolate them and to ensure that they’re safe, (while) not exposing our current clients to additional factors that we can’t afford to expose them to—and the same thing with our staff,” she said. “So what happens to them?”

Then there’s the financial picture: The nonprofits rely on government support, as well as community support via donations—and the pandemic and shelter-in-place reality has financially devastated both government budgets and members of the community. However, both Brenner and Coe said their organizations will do what it takes to keep offering the much-needed services they provide.

“All of our services are free of charge, and we work hard to keep it that way,” Brenner said, reassuringly. “I think right now that the best thing I’m doing for my staff is telling them not to panic, and that we will continue to offer the services that we have and that we can. As far as our financial security, right now, it’s a day-to-day issue. I think it’s too early to say what the future holds. But as long as we’re still working, I think we’re going to be OK. I haven’t heard anything different from the state. We’re still being supported (by the state), and our doors are still open, and we still have some (staff) in here for the victims.”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is planning for the worst, but she remains optimistic.

“We are working on contingency plans in case we do have to reduce staffing numbers, or if we need to shut the shelter down (due to) whatever mandate might come down the line,” Coe said. “But we don’t think that will happen, simply because of the kind of shelter that we are, and what we’re doing to support the individuals who do reach us. But if that happens, how would we be moving forward? What would that look like? How would our staff survive? We don’t have anyone working here just because they enjoy the job. They all need an income—so we have to make sure that they’re sustainable as well.”

Despite all the darkness, Coe—whose shelter for victims of abuse is the only such refuge in the Coachella Valley—managed to find some proverbial silver linings.

“It’s been an intense time,” Coe said. “The Coachella Valley has been really good. Supervisor (V. Manuel) Perez’s office and the county have been really good about having weekly call-in meetings with providers and sending out updates. The (California) Partnership to End Domestic Violence has been a wonderful support network as well, (providing) scheduled weekly and bimonthly meetings to check in with other shelters, other leadership and get the most updated information.

“Again, we’re always pushing everyone to wash their hands, to keep social distancing, and to clean hard services as much as possible. We’re just doing our best to keep going.”

If you are dealing with domestic violence, call Shelter From the Storm at 760-328-7233. For more information on Shelter From the Storm, call 760-674-0400, or visit www.shelterfromthestorm.com. If you are a victim of sexual assault, get help by calling the 24-hour crisis line at 800-656-4673.

Published in Local Issues

On Dec. 7, the folks with Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services will transform the Pacific Hangar of the Palm Springs Air Museum into a “winter wonderland.” The goals: Raise money for the organization’s vital services—and have one heck of a good time while doing so.

CVSAS’ Inaugural Winter Wonderland Gala will feature hosted drinks from Tito’s Vodka—drinks with other spirits will be available for purchase—and food from the chef at the Arrive Hotel. Entertainment will include music by Lisa and the Gents.

“Our goal is to keep all our services free of charge,” said Winette Brenner, the program director at CVSAS. “We usually do mini-fundraisers and stuff. … We do free events; we just had our Anti Human-Trafficking Conference, and we’ve made that free, because we want to educate the public. But at some point, we had to do something to have a bigger fundraiser, so we can continue to do those free services.”

The event is being held on Dec. 7—which is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941—and the event is being held in the Air Museum’s Pacific Hangar, which includes exhibits and items from the war in the Pacific during World War II. Therefore, CVSAS is honoring all veterans during the event, and offering them free admission, as well as $50 guest tickets.

“We reached out to the Riverside County Education Academy, and their students are going to come and do a salute in honor of Pearl Harbor Day. We’re very excited about that,” Brenner said.

While the event is happening in December, it’s also happening in Palm Springs, where we really don’t have “winter.” So I had to ask: How will the Air Museum be transformed into a “winter wonderland” of sorts?

“One of our sponsors is Enchanted Memories, and they are going to be giving us a winter-wonderland feeling with decorations and with balloon displays and snow effects,” Brenner said. “We’ll have a picture booth, and we’re going to have a wonderful dessert table. The hangar is going to be open, and it’ll be in the evening—so hopefully, we can have kind of a winter feeling.”

The larger-scale fundraiser is just the latest move by CVSAS to have more of a public presence. The organization operates the local portion of a national 24-hour hotline (800-656-4673) for victims of sexual assault and human trafficking, and offers counseling, advocacy, referrals and other help to both victims and their families. CVSAS is working hard to spread the word about its services, and raise awareness.

“We are talking to anyone who will listen. It’s just so important,” Brenner said. “We’re trying to really educate our community and spread the word about what’s going on in our backyards and in our surroundings. We want to educate parents. It’s important that parents are educated and know what’s going on, so they can protect their children and look for red-flag warning signs as well.

“That also goes with school educators. …  This affects all ages. Unfortunately, sexual assault, human trafficking and domestic violence—at this point, it has no color. It has no age. It can affect all of us.”

The Inaugural Winter Wonderland Gala, a fundraiser for Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services, will take place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Palm Springs Air Museum, 745 N. Gene Autry Trail, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $100; veterans are admitted for free, with $50 guest tickets. For tickets or more information, call 760-568-9071, or visit www.eventbrite.com/e/inaugural-winter-wonderland-gala-tickets-76283055673.

Published in Local Fun

It was a rude awakening to examine the murky underworld of human trafficking while working on this story about the Second Annual Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS). The event will take place Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage.

According to a July piece at BusinessInsider.com: “The United States, along with Mexico and the Philippines, was ranked one of the world's worst places for human trafficking in 2018. In the U.S., there is no official number of human-trafficking victims, but estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands. … The most human-trafficking cases have been reported in California, Texas and Florida, but every state in the U.S. has reports of human trafficking. … More than 300,000 young people in the U.S. are considered ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation.”

A large percentage of individuals who are trafficked wind up as sexual slaves—because selling sex so lucrative. A July article in USA Today noted: “Annual profits per victim were highest in developed countries, because traffickers can charge more for sex acts. The International Labour Organization estimates annual rates of around $80,000 per victim in developed countries. … In 2018, one in seven reported runways was likely (to become) a victim of child sex trafficking. … The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report found the Department of Justice opened significantly fewer human-trafficking investigations in 2018 compared to 2017, dropping from 783 to 657. It also reported significantly fewer prosecutions: 230, down from 282. Victims are still arrested for crimes they were forced to commit by traffickers.”

Against this disturbing backdrop, the Independent spoke recently with Winette Brenner, the program director at CVSAS.

“Our goal is to provide supportive services regardless of your race or socioeconomic stance. All of our services are free of charge,” Brenner said. “We have a 24/7 hotline, and we provide individual counseling, advocacy accompaniment, community resources and referral services. It’s any help that you (the victim) need as far as we can provide within our scope of (involvement in responding to) sexual assault, domestic violence or human trafficking. That’s what we’re here for—and we’re here for the victim and the significant other and the family members, because when a crime is committed, it doesn’t only happen to the victim; it affects the whole family as a unit.”

Sexual-assault victims who contact CVSAS either at the La Quinta office or via the around-the-clock hotline (800-656-4673) are provided with an advocate to accompany them to Eisenhower Medical Center to meet with members of a Sexual Assault Response Team, including a forensic nurse (who would perform an exam and gather evidence of the assault) and a member of local law enforcement.

Brenner said that in July, 18 victims sought CVSAS support; in August, 14 victims did. Those numbers are higher than average—but far from unusual.

“The number of victims each month can vary from a low of around seven to a high of around 16 to 18,” Brenner said. “The fall and winter months tend to be less active, but from March through September, the numbers go higher.”

CVSAS also offers one-on-one and group counseling, and visits schools with presentations on prevention, intervention, how to recognize healthy/unhealthy relationships, and red-flag warning signs of abusive behaviors.

“The presentations are for all school ages, and can include parents, because it’s important for parents to know the signs of their child being in trouble,” Brenner said.

The Anti-Human-Trafficking Conference is important, Brenner said, because human trafficking is not only a global problem—it takes place locally, too.

“Our goal is to bring awareness and knowledge about what’s going on in our own backyard,” Brenner said. “We want people to be able to recognize what human trafficking is, and recognize the number of layers that human trafficking represents. Our theme this year is ‘Educate to Eradicate.’ It’s so important that we educate to end it. … It’s going to take all of us.

“We work extremely hard to stage fundraisers to raise the money to keep this conference free of charge for the public. It’s really important to us to get as many people as possible to come and get this information.”

One of those fundraising events is slated for this Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Mary Pickford is D’Place theater in Cathedral City. It’s a special screening of the film Trafficked starring Ashley Judd, Sean Patrick Flanery, Anne Archer and Patrick Duffy, among others.

“It’s a red-carpet event, and one of the film’s producers, Conroy Kanter, of KK Ranch Productions, is going to be there to conduct a Q&A after the showing,” Brenner said.

Tickets are $12, and the screening starts at 6 p.m.

Brenner said the conference will feature powerful presentations.

“One of our speakers represents an agency called Destiny Rescue that works with human trafficking in Cambodia and in the Los Angeles area,” she said. “They will be speaking about how human trafficking evolves and how people get trapped in it. Another speaker will talk about the social impact and advancement of human trafficking, as well as how active bystanders can make a difference.

“We’ll have a session about social media and dating apps, talking about how people get involved (through those means) so easily in human trafficking. … Another of our speakers will be a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Anti-Human-Trafficking Task Force, who will give a talk on ‘Human Trafficking 101’ and give us tips we need to know.

“Our keynote speaker this year is the executive director of an agency named Saving Innocence. He’s a very powerful speaker about human trafficking, the different layers of it and what it looks like, and what to do when you see it. We’ll also have Tika Thornton, who is a survivor of human trafficking at a very young age in the L.A. area. Currently, she works for a sex-trafficking task force out of Long Beach. Lastly, a presenter from Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Palm Desert will show some self-defense (tactics) so that if you’re in a (threatening) situation, you could use these tips to get yourself out of that situation.”

I asked Brenner for an example of how a local resident might unwittingly come in contact with a human-trafficking victim.

“When you see a child in front of a bank selling candy, as innocent as that seems,” she said. “If you speak to that child, you may find out that, even though they are in the La Quinta area, they are from Rancho Cucamonga or San Bernardino. If you ask questions like, ‘Where are your parents? Why are you out here by yourself?’ they totally scramble to come up with answers, because they’ve also been groomed. You can be guaranteed that somewhere in the parking lot, there’s someone watching that child, and if you talk for too long, that’s a red flag, and they’re going to run.”

Brenner said human trafficking is an issue that affects the entire community.

“We have the border right here,” she said. “Straight down Interstate 10, you have all of these truck stops and places where kids can be taken. So we just want parents to be aware and gain more knowledge—and it’s not going to cost you anything except a little bit of time.”

The Second Annual Anti-Human Trafficking Conference, sponsored by Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services, takes place at 8 a.m., Friday, Oct. 18, at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa, 71333 Dinah Shore Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Admission is free. To reserve a spot, call 760-568-9071, or visit www.eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-anti-human-trafficking-conference-tickets-71752641081. Seating is limited, but if space is available on the day of the conference, walk-up guests will be accommodated.

Published in Local Issues