Open Heart Advocates sees significant increase in contacts
In 2020 Open Heart Advocates found itself dealing with more and more contacts, stretching the staff thin.
Open Heart Advocates and their certified and specialized advocates work with people at their most vulnerable to restore dignity after it has been challenged by sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, teen dating violence, human trafficking and other crimes or traumas.
Last year, Open Heart Advocates reported a 200% increase in sex trafficking cases, as well as a 269% increase in sexual assault contacts, and a 66% increase in domestic violence contacts, said Meghan Francone, OHA’s Executive Director.
The global pandemic had a lot to do with the significant increase in contacts from 2019 to 2020, but so too did the increase in education and awareness in the community, which is something OHA has really targeted in recent years.
In January this year, OHA reported 193 domestic violence contacts alone, up from 32 in January 2020.
Fortunately for OHA, the advocacy agency received partial funding for a three-year cycle, allowing them to not worry so much about where funding will come from. The challenge now is dealing with the high contact volume in a rural community still trying to work through the effects of the pandemic.
“The amount of work that our agency is being required to do is growing exponentially,” Francone said. “I think a lot of it is a double-edged sword; one side of it is we’ve done a lot of outreach, education and awareness in our community. The other side of that is the calls that we’re seeing — the victimization that we’re seeing — is largely intensified.
“We are seeing more people who have been on lockdown, quarantined with their perpetrator, their offenders, with people who abuse them, and so there’s that piece of it as well,” Francone added.
Though much of the increase in contacts can be attributed to the rising stress levels caused by the pandemic and its fallout, the increase in contacts is not something Francone thinks will slow down any time soon, especially as 2021 progresses.
Knowing that, OHA is ramping up outreach and education even further as restrictions loosen.
“We’re willing to come and speak to anyone who will let us,” Francone said. “Not talking about healthy relationships, not talking about sex trafficking, not talking about suicide, not talking about domestic violence is not healthy. It doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t support a healthy community; people are realizing that, organizations are realizing that.”
With the increase in contacts, Francone said OHA is seeing people from the community that they haven’t seen before, largely due to other resources in the community being exhausted in a trying year.
“We as a community have been under toxic stress for a long time,” Francone said. “So you’re going to see some of that fallout any time you exacerbate some of those risk factors to anything to do with mental health, domestic violence, sex assault, or crime in general; you’re going to see a general increase.”
Arguably the largest concern for Open Heart Advocates moving forward in 2021 is combating the rise in sex trafficking, which has flown under the radar publicly in Moffat County.
Commercial sex trafficking can occur physically or, through electronics, leading to an increase in youth and adolescents utilizing OHA services around sex assault and trafficking.
“We have certain groups of individuals that are targeting our youth,” Francone said. “Sex trafficking and human trafficking is more lucrative than drugs. This is another area where if we put blinders on and continue to not talk about them, then we will continue to be targeted, our youth will continue to be targeted.”
According to Francone, electronics are playing a large role in how youth in the community are being accessed and groomed for sex trafficking.
Along with sex trafficking, sex assault contacts have skyrocketed in Moffat County in the last year, leading to a significant increase in demand for OHA.
“If you look at Moffat County historically, we are usually a year or two behind trends,” Francone said. “I hope that we are resilient through all of this, but we’re seeing an increase and seeing trends that are kind of scary.”
In hopes of being resilient, Francone hopes for a normalization of conversations regarding domestic violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, suicide and more moving forward.
“Talk to each other, talk to your kids, talk to people you’re around about trafficking, about suicide, about domestic violence,” Francone said. “It’s here, it’s real. Not talking about this stuff isn’t helping. Normalizing that conversation and normalizing those resources have to go hand in hand and will help improve upon issues here.”
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