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Former Police Officer, CEO of Shelter Talk Rising Domestic Violence in Central Florida and How to Get Help

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Photo: Sydney Sims

Domestic violence calls are down in Central Florida as the pandemic continues, but incidents are up, as victims are quarantined in their homes with abusers. 

90.7 WMFE spoke with Harbor House of Central Florida CEO Michelle Sperzel and Consultant Mark Wynn about how to get help. 

Read the full interview. 

Danielle: I was curious for law enforcement right now who are dealing with more and more domestic violence calls during the pandemic. What would you recommend to them in terms of responding to these calls and just this huge increase we’re seeing in domestic violence?

Mark: So, you know we’re stressing to police, to just be aware that you know, firearms and ammunition sales are up during this time.

Their investigations should continue normally as they would, but we need to make sure that their agencies are providing the PPE, that you know that they have constant sanitizer, they’re washing their hands. They’re trying their best to stay six feet away from people. And that’s not easy to do. Because investigating these crimes is very, very close quarter. You have to be very close to people when you investigate these kind of crimes. We also want them to know that offenders are using the virus to isolate the victims more.

Danielle: I have a follow-up question. Should they be looking for different things during the pandemic, because it is harder for some folks to just reach out period right now if they are quarantined with their abuser? Should officers and police departments you know be looking for different types of warning signs?

Mark: The hotlines are telling us that victims say abusers are using the virus as an abuse tactic. “You know, if you leave the house, you’ll get the virus. I’ll put you out of the house and you’ll get the virus.” Telling them they’re gonna expose them to the virus. Not letting them wash their hands or washing their hands too much.

The victims will tell you [abusers say they] can’t go to shelter because, “you’ll get the virus at the shelter.” So the reason I’m mentioning this is because I think it’s up to police. This is the way I feel. To educate the victim about the right and wrongs of this because if the victims are reluctant to go to shelter, the officers should say, “let me tell you about the environment that I will get you to. Here’s what they will do for you.”

Danielle: Michelle, I just want to follow up with something Mark said, which is tell me about how you are making shelter safe because I know you guys are at Harbor House? But tell me the safety measures that you’ve put in place during the pandemic.

Michelle: We have all different types of health and safety protocols that have been put in place.

One of the biggest ones was that we’ve reduced our shelter bed count to make sure that we have enough social distance within our emergency shelter, and keeping families separated as much as we can within the living quarters. And I think another really important piece that we brought to the table is that we’ve brought in child advocates that are helping work with the kids, because a lot of the kids are still going to school virtually. And so we have a virtual classroom that we’ve set up to make it easy for the kids to go to school. In addition to that having after-school programs set up for the kids so that they’re staying engaged and being able to learn and really be a kid.

Danielle: How would you recommend people get in contact with the police or get in contact with a shelter for help? What’s the way that they should do that now during this pandemic, when there’s all these extra hurdles?

Michelle: Our crisis hotline is still 24-7, but with COVID we added a text and advocate feature so that if the abuser is there and you do have access to your cell phone, you can send us a text message and we can start working with you in that way.

You can reach Harbor House 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at (407) 886-2856. 

If you’d like to listen to this interview, click on the clip at the top of the page.

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Danielle Prieur

About Danielle Prieur

Reporter & Fill-in Host

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter at WMFE. You can hear her reporting on a daily basis on the station. She also fills-in as a host during the morning and afternoon drive times. Her reporting has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and Vox. Danielle is originally from Rochester Hills, ... Read Full Bio »