Texas legal organization deals with rise in calls to help abuse survivors since COVID-19 pandemic began

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Texas Advocacy Project logo (KXAN photo/Will DuPree)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Health experts urged people to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic as an effective way to fight the highly-communicable virus, but doing so kept some in danger by confining them with their abuser. The effects of that are becoming more apparent to a group based in Austin that’s now seeking more financial assistance to help the growing number of survivors.

The Texas Advocacy Project, an organization that provides abuse survivors with free legal services, reported a steady increase of calls from people trying to escape violence they experienced through the pandemic.

“I think that as people start to feel safer reaching out for help, all of the abuses that occurred over the past 18 months and all of the fears that people had about going out into the community will dissipate somewhat, and then they’ll reach out for more help,” Heather Bellino, the Texas Advocacy Project’s CEO, said. “I think the crisis that we’ve seen — the mental health crisis, the abuse, all of that — is going to increase for quite a bit of time to come, so we as a community have to be there to support those who need it the most.”

The Texas Advocacy Project will hold its Black & White Ball Friday night, its first in-person event since the pandemic began. KXAN is among the sponsors for the gala, which aims to raise money for the organization’s operations. The fundraiser comes at a time when the number of deaths related to domestic violence hit a record last year in Texas. The Texas Council on Family Violence reported that 228 men and women were killed by their partners in 2020, which is 23% higher than the number recorded in 2019.

“The lethality increased a great deal on a lot of these domestic violence cases,” Bellino said. “The reason that we have to always make sure that people know our doors open and we’re here to help you get safe is because things like protective orders really do give you long-term safety.”

Candace Lambert said she would often think of the victims who had to stay home during the initial pandemic lockdowns because she had once been in their positions.

“It was real hard knowing that all of these women were left in the houses of their abusers and then also knowing that just the stress everybody was put under being home, I just knew a lot of the women and children were suffering at the hands of their abuser under what he was having to go through,” Lambert said. “Maybe it was a loss of job or just being together 24/7. It was actually very hard on me knowing that that was going on.”

Lambert became connected with the Texas Advocacy Project 16 years ago after receiving a protective order from her husband at the time. She said the organization offered help in navigating a process she never experienced before. She credits the group for helping her separate from her ex-husband and win sole custody of her three children.

“The thing that is different that really stands out with Texas Advocacy Project is that they help you get the legal assistance. A woman will leave multiple times, leave her abuser. She has nowhere to go. She’s lost. They’re threatening her. She ends up going back. With me and my situation, he was keeping my kids from me,” Lambert said. “With Texas Advocacy Project, they help you break that separation. They help you get that divorce. They help you get that protective order. They help you get on your own so that way you can live your life free from your abuser and the abuse.”

Bellino said the Texas Advocacy Project provided services and support to almost 11,000 Texans last year, and that number is only expected to climb since the pandemic connected the organization with many more high-risk clients and cases.

“I’ll tell you that our advocacy and outreach team is working practically around the clock trying to help survivors with safety planning and accessing other resources in the community,” Bellino explained. “Mental health has become a very strong issue. We have actually brought on a social worker for the first time in our legal aid sphere because that’s what we do is we provide these free civil legal remedies, but we know in a time of crisis it would really help a survivor to have access to that social work component. We definitely noticed the need for it has definitely increased, and we’re stepping up to the plate and getting that done.”

People who’d like to seek help from the Texas Advocacy Project can call 800-374-HOPE.

Texas Health and Human Services also provides a resource page for those suffering from family violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 to call at 800-799-SAFE (7233).

If someone is in an emergency situation, experts urge people to call 911 immediately.

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