Erie’s Crime Victim Center faces technological challenges while providing community resources during pandemic

The Crime Victims Center of Erie (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — The Crime Victim Center of Erie, an essential business, is maintaining counseling and victim advocacy services using telecommunication, though a lack of internet connectivity in the region is proving problematic, its top official has told the Capital-Star. 

Should federal lawmakers be successful in their push for increased domestic violence prevention funding in the CARES Act, the center’s director, Paul Lukach hopes to make “our technology even better than it is.”

“Not all of our employees are in areas where they have a good internet connection, so I would work on local government agencies, county agencies, to make that happen … I would want to have dollars provided for that, especially for people who are victims of crime to get through and have the things that they need,” he said.

Through digital technology, social workers and counselors at the center are able to provide online counseling for victims of crime and have gone to some lengths to establish online classes. 

“We are able to virtually be with people. We are using things like telemed and telecommunications to have online counseling sessions to have secure telephone counseling sessions,” Lukach told the Capital-Star. “And we are actually still physically going to where people need us if there’s a sexual assault or rape, and they need an advocate of hospital, we’re still physically doing that work.”

Though its offices have closed, the center has seen no decrease in calls, Lukach told the Capital-Star. 

“For the month of March, CVC provided services to 179 new clients and 402 continuing clients,” Lukach said. 

Additionally, there were 65 hotline or intake calls. And staff at the Crime Victim Center provided 402 counseling sessions, 101 criminal advocacy accompaniments, 12 Protection From Abuse accompaniments and seven law enforcement accompaniments. 

Accompaniments are a service by the Crime Victim Center where an advocate accompanies a victim either to a hospital, courthouse, etc. to support and speak on their behalf as needed. 

Pa.’s child abuse hotline is now run out of employees’ homes, but receiving far fewer tips than normal

“Unfortunately, the child abuse, the sexual assault doesn’t go away. And in some cases,” Lukach said, “the isolation makes it even more prevalent.”

Lukach attributes the consistency in calls to the organization’s mobility. At the Crime Victim Center, all employees have a cell phone provided and monitored by the organization as well as a laptop.

Currently, the majority of calls to the Crime Victim Center are reports of child abuse, “which is an increased product of being in close proximity to family members, and not having outlets or even parks to play in, that becomes an issue,” Lukach said. 

“But more than anything, we are seeing people who haven’t dealt with these situations that maybe didn’t happen in the past couple of months, but happened beyond that. And now they are faced with this isolation. And so these things are bubbling up,” he noted. “They’re coming up to the top and where they kept themselves busy before and maybe didn’t have to think about it so much. Now they have this time on their hands and these things are coming up.”

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.,  has pushed for increased domestic violence resource funding of $300 million as CARES Act legislation progresses. 

The CARES Act, as described by the U.S. Treasury, “provides fast and direct economic assistance for American workers and families, small businesses, and preserves jobs for American industries.” The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law on Mar. 27. 

“There’s no question that we’re seeing it not only across the United States, but across the world that incidents of domestic violence and the likelihood that that will continue to increase as is already part of the public record,” Casey told the Capital-Star on April 15. “We’re asking for support for the main programs.”

Casey, joined by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and 33 other senators in both parties penned  a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

“We appreciate that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act included critical funding to begin to address the increased need for domestic violence-related services and supports,” it read, “However, additional funding is required in order to more fully address the needs of victims and survivors.”

Lukach hopes that more money would mean advancements in technology and better internet connectivity for Crime Victim Center employees and individuals it serves. 

The Crime Victim Center of Erie doesn’t specialize in domestic violence, but provides resources for victims and works to get them connected with SafeNet, the county’s domestic violence speciality center. 

“We help people get to the authorities if they haven’t already done that, if they don’t want to go to the authorities, we still have resources to serve them. But that’s always an option,” Lukach told the Capital-Star. “Beyond that we offer counseling to every single person who’s a victim of any type of crime, who needs it.”

“And like I said, our numbers have not decreased. We expect that they won’t. We also expect that when things get back to some semblance of normalcy, they’re going to really increase because people will be coming forward with things that happened to them while they were in isolation, which is a real issue with domestic violence,” Lukach said. “And like I said, we’re not the domestic violence Center here in Erie County, but we know that that’s going to be an issue that we’re going to have to be supportive of helping people get to safe places after they’re able to leave their whatever environment.”

Annually, the crime victim center serves 5,600-6,000 victims and their families. The organization is a sexual assault specialty center, but as a comprehensive center, the center provides resources for victims of all crimes — from mugging to cyber crime and homicide to child abuse. 

The organization has five satellite offices in Erie County; Corry, Edinboro, Union City, North East and Girard.

The center functions with funds provided by state and federal agencies as well as donations. These organizations have committed to providing funds through either June 30 or Sept. 30, Lukach said, depending on the duration of the pandemic.