SALT LAKE CITY — One woman telephoned in a panic from the grocery store. Another called for help from the doctor’s office.
They dialed the same crisis line in rare moments away from their abusers. And they were among a surge in calls to CAPSA, a Logan-based nonprofit that offers free shelter, counseling and legal help for those fleeing violence in their homes.
The pandemic has forced Utahns vulnerable to abuse to stay home with their aggressors, driving the need for services even as the new coronavirus has cut down shelter capacity and hampered fundraising. To help meet the need, a state lawmaker has led a push to funnel about $2 million to a network of organizations helping families and others escape abuse.
“They literally save people’s lives by the work they do,” said Rep. Dan Johnson, a first-term Republican from Logan. “They can help them get steadied, get their feet firmly placed back on the ground, try to figure a way forward when something — some trauma — has happened, and the floor’s fallen out from under them, and they have no place to go. And that’s a fact.”
A retired educator of 50 years, Johnson sometimes spotted students with bruises and other signs of abuse or neglect that the law requires teachers to report to the state. But as students remained home amid the pandemic, Johnson said he feared abuse was going undetected and fewer youngsters were connecting with help.
He wondered if some of the millions Utah obtained in federal relief money could support nonprofits serving children and adults reeling from abuse, then got in touch with the organizations after legislative analysts confirmed his hunch that it could. His colleagues at the state Capitol approved the move during a special legislative session last month, setting aside $190,000 for the organizations that typically rely on private donations and grants.
In Logan, CAPSA has fielded nearly 3,500 crisis calls from March through June, up more than double from a year earlier.
An infusion of $80,000 will help the nonprofit cover up to $13,000 a month in hotel bills for client rooms after its normally 32-bed shelter dropped to half capacity in an effort to curb any virus spread, said Executive Director Jill Anderson. Other expenses are piling up, including for computer upgrades to support virtual sessions with clients.
Advocates expected an uptick in domestic violence and sexual assault as COVID-19 upended lives across the Beehive State. But Anderson and her staff did not anticipate the need would be so great or the cases so severe.
“They’re a lot more violent, a lot more complex cases than what we had been seeing,” Anderson said. “We’re seeing a lot more guns.”
The assistance comes as Cache County mourns Heidi Lynn Bentley, 38, of Providence. Police said her estranged husband, Matthew David Bentley, shot and killed her Friday before taking his own life.
Perpetrators often control victims by keeping them away from family or friends and limiting their access to food or supplies, and the pandemic provides an extra tool in exercising those sorts of power, Anderson said. Amid elevated levels of tension and uncertainty, more aggressors are turning to guns or other weapons that they may not normally threaten to use.
Another 13 agencies like Anderson’s are awaiting similar grants that together total $1 million after the Utah Legislature approved the infusion. A different statewide network of centers to prevent and address child abuse also are set to receive $900,000 in federal relief money.
Victim advocates across the state have reported that instances of child abuse are up more than twofold since the novel coronavirus outbreak hit the state, according to the Utah Association of Family Support Centers.
“They’re seeing a lot more stress in the relationships between parents and children,” said Margie Woodruff, the association’s executive director, adding that the virus is exacerbating existing trauma for many children.
Although abuse and neglect reports to state child welfare managers are down — at about 2,500 in May, compared to roughly 3,600 a year earlier — “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Woodruff said.
Referral calls from law enforcers and family members have ticked up slightly, but the share from schools is down by half, show data provided by the Division of Child and Family Services.
The new grants will help provide employees with laptops with cameras for remote sessions and loaner tablets for certain clients. Many families have cancelled their phone appointments in the last few months because they pay per minute and wanted to keep time available in case of an emergency, Woodruff said.
The extra cash will also provide employees counseling, hazard pay and some paid time off after months of long hours. Woodruff said she’s hopeful those resources will help address long-term effects of secondary trauma on her staff.
The state is expected to begin parceling out the money in coming weeks.