AWARE’s Pirie Talks COVID’s Repercussions

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – AWARE has been working to help victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence in the greater Hardwick area since 1984, said Executive Director Anna Pirie. COVID, however, has proved a multi-front war for the organization.

As AWARE’s own clients have faced myriad challenges and stressors bought on by the pandemic, the organization has itself found that much of the societal and legal fabric it depends on to help those people has been frayed by the shockwaves of COVID. 

One previously tenuous thread that COVID has effectively snapped is housing. While AWARE does not operate a shelter, it partners with organizations that do. AWARE’s clients have also found themselves with no way out of being stuck in a bad situation since there’s no place for them to go. In those cases, said Pirie, “there’s no doubt it’s just making it harder. Housing used to be difficult. Now, it’s nonexistent. There’s nowhere to go. If there’s an apartment, it’s double the cost. You can’t buy a house. It’s just become really hard.”

Pirie said that her anecdotal observation was that programs with shelters “are a little more busy, because that’s at least a place for [someone[ to escape and go to.” But in cases where a person has a housing voucher and that was intended to be the solution, the same problem exists.

“They’re not finding apartments.”

In some cases, grown children are living with their parents more than before, Pirie said.

“They’re twenty-something, and they were living in another state, away at college, or something, and they came back to Vermont. So they’re living with their parents, and we’re getting calls because they’re not getting along, and things are escalating into violence, or possible violence. But are you really going to put your grown kids out on the street during a pandemic? It’s just made it worse.”

AWARE also works with children in schools, and in some cases such as at Hazen Union, had in-school presence. When schools were shuttered, that outreach was impossible. AWARE works to provide education to children in hopes of stopping the cycle of domestic and sexual violence. In any of its cases, and if the nonoffending parent wants, AWARE will try and work with both them and their children, Pirie said. The organization also provides an overflow valve for overloaded guidance counselors. 

“[Kids are] dealing with family situations every day. And we support the adults, as well. We’re not counselors, and there is a waiting list for counseling. So, we’ll just go out and hike with them, take them for a walk, an ice cream, kind of be a mentor to the kids. Just a lot of emotional support.”

The lack of being able to safely communicate with clients in-person due to COVID has also impacted operations, and the shift to internet-based communications has impacted both clients and AWARE. 

Without the personal, face-to-face connection, isolation became a big problem, Pirie said. 

“It’s a pretty tough and emotional time for people,” she said. “That connection has been difficult, building that trust, and frankly, I think people in this area don’t seem to be reaching out as much. Our [client] numbers are down.

“That definitely concerns me, because we know that this [abuse] hasn’t stopped. It’s still going on, but it’s just become more hidden.”

For now, AWARE is back to meeting with clients in-person “a lot more than we were,” Pirie said.

“But now I’m worried, with the Delta variant coming, we’re going to have to go backwards again.”

The technological side of the equation has been problematic for many clients, as well. Pirie said that the organization works with people of all ages, including having a youth advocate. Pirie said the younger people usually have little trouble using technology, but in some cases, “it’s pretty tough for the older people. 

“They might have an old flip phone. They might not have internet, or they can’t afford internet. So, we make it work. I can ask them the [intake] questions and I can fill out the boxes and print things for them to sign.”

One way that AWARE helps clients is navigating the courts and understanding how the system works. 

“A lot of people want to know what protection they have, really, from protection from abuse orders, sexual assault orders, stalking orders. We can help them find an attorney if they need an attorney, or at least get legal advice for them about specific questions. Some of them are going through evictions or things or that nature, or even [shortages of] resources as far as food and clothing. We can steer them in the right direction.” 

But COVID also upended the legal system. Orleans County Court still remains partially closed because of outdated ventilation and tight spaces. “The courts have changed all the ways they used to do business, and they were closed pretty much, though they’re open now. They have a new [online] system called Odyssey, where lawyers have elevated access to things. It’s a lot of technology. It’s difficult. Everything’s changed.”

AWARE is hiring a new youth advocate. Pirie said that the job entails working with both children and parents, and is a twenty- to twenty-four-hour-a-week commitment. The organization is also looking for volunteers, which does require training, as well as additional board members. For people wanting to help in other ways, AWARE is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so contributions are tax deductible. For information, go to awarevt.org or email aware@vtlink.net.

For those people who are in a bad situation, Pirie said, “I would like people to know that we have an open door. You can come back as much as you want. There’s no shame. We’re here to help with whatever we can. The only requirement is that you’re a survivor or a victim of domestic or sexual violence, and that we’re here. We’re not going to judge you. We’re here to help, not with what we want to help them with, but what they’re seeking.”

AWARE’s 24-hour hotline is (802) 472.6463.