The RISE club, in collaboration with the Psychology and Rehabilitation and Human Services (RHS) clubs, recently hosted a discussion panel to draw attention to domestic violence, sex trafficking and the exasperation brought on by the pandemic.
Since the release of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, incidences of domestic violence increased by an average of 25% worldwide with refugee website visits up 125%. Online alcohol sales for certain outlets in New York City jumped nearly 1,500% within the first two days and mental health suicides have increased more than 100%. While these statistics are readily available online, the RISE club wanted to raise awareness of these issues in our local community by facilitating this discussion.
Held via Zoom, the March 30 event focused on overall abuse issues, signs and strategies for intervention and featured the following experts:
-Robert Schopf: Lehigh County senior deputy - responsible for convictions of traffickers within the Lehigh Valley
-Charles Roca: assistant chief of Allentown Police Department - active supporter of anti-domestic violence organizations
-Lisa Wilson: outreach representative from Turning Point of the Lehigh Valley
-Tashina Khabbaz: education specialist from Valley Against Sex Trafficking
PSU-LV student and president of the RISE club, Thomas Barsoum Mikhail, organized the event and served as one of the moderators. Other student moderators were Daniel Henrick Rodrigues do Nascimento, vice-president of RISE, and Christopher Fiegel, vice-president of the Psychology Club. The first question asked set the stage for the discussion and drew on the unique experience each panelist had to offer.
Each panelist was asked to describe how they/their organization has been fighting against domestic violence and trafficking and if anything in particular stood out since the pandemic. Wilson noted that communication with victims via the 24/7 helpline has changed at Turning Point. She explained how operators could no longer ask open-ended questions because many survivors were under stay-at-home orders with their abuser and could not go into details. For VAST, Khabbaz described how unstable housing conditions throughout the pandemic have become an issue, making it difficult for victims to get basic needs.
Next, Schopf noted how the sex trafficking criminal underworld is unlike any other criminal underworld. He explained how reporting of domestic violence does not always accurately capture all that is happening. He gave the example that a typical domestic violence situation may actually be possible sex trafficking but can be hard to recognize.
The panelists described the difficulty and fear some survivors face when detailing traumatic events. Wilson explained how Turning Point provides safe spaces, resources and the time for survivors to heal and share their story. She emphasized that Turning Point will not stop providing resources just because a survivor is experiencing a traumatic response. And, even when survivors share their story, it does not always mean an easy conviction. Schopf discussed how sex trafficking and domestic violence cases are the most difficult cases he has experienced because the victims are dynamic as are the abusers - meaning the victims are vulnerable individuals who are manipulated by abusers who will even try to manipulate the survivors from prison.
"I think the most fascinating part of this event is that trauma is so subjective to the beholder. What that means is that no matter what happens to a person, whether domestic violence or sex trafficking, it is our own interpretations that have the lasting effects on who we are, and on what makes us human,” Mikhail said of the presentation.
According to Roca, employees of the Allentown Police Department (APD) must complete continuing education credits which help them recognize varying acts of violence. This includes extensive training in domestic violence protocol and a crisis intervention training program, which emphasizes de-escalation.
The panel concluded by highlighting the various ways in which people can assist or volunteer their time and how to report acts of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Per Roca, domestic violence can be reported anonymously by calling the APD communication center. Wilson offered, “We are always welcoming volunteers and if someone needs access to information on domestic violence and sex trafficking, they can visit Turning Point’s Facebook page for free resources.” Khabbaz concluded by reminding attendees to take time to listen and learn from survivors before taking action and always being willing to assist those in need.
For more information about the RISE or RHS clubs at PSU-LV or for resources regarding domestic violence, contact Teri Kistler at [email protected].