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Center for Prevention of Abuse's Carol Merna discusses the goals and impact of Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Carol Merna, CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse
Joe Deacon
Carol Merna, CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Studies indicate more than 10 million people in the U.S. are abused by their partner each year.

Carol Merna is the CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria. Merna tells Joe Deacon why it's important to shed light on domestic violence as a way to aid victims and work toward reducing the abuse.

Joe Deacon: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Why does this month become so important to make people aware of the issues that are going on?

Carol Merna: Domestic violence for the longest time was not considered a national concern. It was something that was very private; children were sent home from the hospital without resources, and people were asked to resolve their issues at home. And it is something that's a societal issue.

So Domestic Violence Awareness Month, that actually started as a day of unity 40 years ago this year, is an effort to celebrate survivors of domestic violence, and it's also an effort to shore up and celebrate the people that care for survivors of domestic violence. So we spend the entire month of October – really, we spend all year doing it but we focus on the month of October – making sure that people know that we're here for them, that we're here even when it's hard to talk, and we believe you, and we want to take care of you. So we just work extra hard to take that message to the public.

What kind of issues are we seeing with domestic violence, especially with COVID over the past year and now that COVID is starting to subside? Have things changed a bit?

Merna: Things have changed a bit. We weren't sure what to expect when the pandemic began. No one handed us a rulebook that told us what was going to happen. But we were prepared, and we knew that during times of disaster, gender-based violence increased. In regular times, for lack of a better way to say it, we know that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experienced domestic violence. So if you're in a coffee shop with 40 people, you know a quarter of them are either experiencing abuse or have experienced abuse.

But during the pandemic, we saw a consistent 30% increase to our crisis hotline. We had over 10,000 calls during the last calendar year, and in our two emergency shelters we've provided over 10,000 shelter nights, which is more than we've ever provided. Quite frankly, even though we were very supportive of people staying home when it was ordered and when it was necessary, people were quarantined with their abuser and had a very difficult time finding the space they needed to seek help. Sometimes it was the middle of the night; sometimes it was a phone call and a hang up. But sometimes someone showed up at our front door, and we most certainly welcomed them in for care.

How much have you seen things start to subside or change a little bit with the pandemic, or have you at all?

Merna: We haven't, and I think we're going to see the effects of the pandemic in the world of violence and abuse for quite a long time. Some people are just realizing that perhaps they were victimized by abuse and it's something that they didn't think about before. But we made sure that our message was doubled during the pandemic, and we wanted to reach all the people that perhaps – being quarantined with your abuser was very difficult, but they could start recognizing some of the signs of what being an abuse victim was like.

When you leave a domestic violence situation, it's proven that the two weeks after you leave are the most volatile time in that relationship. There was a study done over a three year period, and 40% of all of the mass shootings where at least four people were shot – 40% of those shootings in the country – were because the target was an intimate partner. So domestic violence breeds other violence, and it is imperative that organizations like the Center for Prevention of Abuse continue to operate and do the good work that we do.

Talk about some of the other types of domestic violence. I know you’ve mentioned elder abuse, and obviously child abuse. How much are you seeing in those areas as well?

Merna: There's been a consistent increase, perhaps not as large as our domestic violence department. But we have been essential workers since Day 1 of the pandemic. We've never closed our doors; we never let loose any staff. In fact, we've continued to hire new staff to make sure that we can care for everyone that is coming to us to find a pathway to peace.

We're going to continue to see the effects of this pandemic for years. And our therapy department, where we have 10 masters-level therapists, receives people who were victims of violence and abuse, whether it was 30 years ago or three days ago; it makes no difference when the abuse happened. We want to make sure that they are able to receive care. And everything that we do at the Center for Prevention of Abuse for survivors is free and confidential. So we welcome everyone that sees a need for help.

As we mentioned, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it's not a single month effort, obviously. What about leading into the holiday season? Do we see increased incidences then as well?

Merna: You know, it depends; each year it's different. Holidays can be stressful, but it's also a time when people just want to stay home. So it doesn't mean that the abuse doesn't exist, it (just) happens behind closed doors. But it might be: “We have kids; I want to stay here to make sure that they have a holiday with both parents and I can withstand this a little bit longer.” That's not the best answer, but we are client-centered; it's up to each individual person to decide what's best for them. So people can come to us, sometimes they do for a day for respite or sometimes they come for six weeks because they're looking for some independence and the ability to have freedom. So we look for what the client wants and needs, and we help facilitate that.

You have a violence education program in the schools. How important is it to get these messages to kids to try and curb domestic violence?

Merna: We reach between 30,000-36,000 students a year in over 100 educational settings, and it is imperative that we reach – we say, “the itty bitties” – kids in preschool, and we go all the way through college. Because there are some young people that do not have healthy relationships modeled at home or in their immediate community, and to understand that there is a possibility of peaceful conflict resolution, and that bullying is not the answer. And, what is it like to help people who are bullied? What does teen dating violence look like? We have a curriculum for human trafficking, to help young people who are vulnerable stay out of that kind of life.

It is crucial that we continue on with the work that we do and continue to grow it. If our prevention education efforts did not exist, I think our violence and abuse numbers in Central Illinois would be unbelievable. We need to continue to work with partners in the community, other high-impact nonprofit organizations, to make sure that we're doing the best work possible to keep our kids safe.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.