Mercer County sets pandemic protocols

Cathy Decker, Correspondent
Sign outside the Mercer County Family Crisis Center

Response to Governor JB Pritzker’s pandemic mandate to “stay at home,” has affected nearly every individual, family and institution in Illinois. Now the shut down has been extended to the end of May. Law enforcement and social service agencies have been called on to both enforce and lead the way for everyone affected.

As of Mid-April, the Mercer County Family Crisis Center has not necessarily seen a rise in reports of abuse — whether it be domestic violence or child abuse — but they are ramping up for the possibility. Their 24-hour crisis line at 309 582 7233 is still in service, for anyone in need of talking to someone about their particular situation.

The crisis center’s Facebook page has recently posted a notice from executive director Marla Reynolds:

“I’m doing something today that I don’t normally do on our Facebook page — I’m going to talk directly to those in our county who are experiencing abuse during this pandemic. The staff of the Family Crisis Center is being directed to work from home as much as possible. So, for those of you who need or want to know — we haven’t gone away, we’re still here! We are here by appointment only to provide assistance with orders of protection and we’re still here to talk to you on the phone.

“The Mercer County Family Crisis Center’s Facebook page has some advice for individuals or families who may be in a crisis. You need to know that an abuser might do some of the following:

• Manipulate you into believing there are no resources available for you or that police or paramedics won’t respond to your calls.

• Try to tell you that they are infected, and they’ve infected you, and if you leave them, you’ll put others at risk.

• Forbid you from contacting friends or family because of the risk.

• Downplay the risk and force you to leave the house, or threaten to kick you out and expose you to the virus.

”Coming up with a plan will take away some of the anxiety about the unknown. If you’re afraid of being trapped in a home with an abusive partner, walk through the possible scenarios and decide ahead of time what your response will be.

“You might start by asking yourself these questions:

• Do I feel like my health and my children’s health will be put at risk if I’m quarantined with my partner?

• Is there anywhere else I can go where I will be safe for an extended period of time?

• Have I contacted a domestic violence advocate near me for options in my community?

• Is there a friend or family member I can stay with if shelters are full?

• If I’m afraid of leaving without my pets, can I find a safe place for them to go?

“Finally, even if you choose to stay with an abuser during a time of quarantine, self-care is vitally important. Stress can lower one’s immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses. Everyone should make sure they’re getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of water, eating healthy and finding a support system in some capacity.”

The staff at the Mercer County Family Crisis Center is currently working by appointment only. That means if you call (309) 582-7233, a trained staff worker will answer your call and do everything possible to help you. The crisis center also has therapists who will provide therapy through the use of modern technology. Annually the Family Crisis Center serves about 300 adults and children.

Executive director Reynolds isn’t sure if the recent pandemic announcement will cause their numbers to rise “We don’t really know because we’ve never gone through something like this,” she said.

Trends do point to increased reports of domestic violence and child abuse, Reynolds said, and there is an increased risk as well. “No one knows how long this pandemic will last, and that uncertainty can cause anxiety, tension and irritability for children and caregivers.”

Child welfare experts fear children may suffer a wave of abuse and neglect as COVID-19 disrupts households and stresses caregivers, she added. “Safe at Home” doesn’t always mean that children are truly safe being at home.

She suggest that establishing a routine may give children a sense of stability. “Structure helps organize us and allows us to feel emotionally safe.”

For adults spending days at home, sticking to standard bed times and wake-up times, dressing each day, exercising and eating healthy foods are good rules to follow. It is also important to maintain social connections while being physically distant -- phone calls, texting and connecting to loved ones, neighbors and coworkers are recommended, while maintaining a “social distance.”

“If your child is acting out, it may be their outlet for stress,” said Reynolds. It is important to get children to talk about what they’re feeling, what they’re scared about.

In the extreme, child abuse may happen when a caregiver is “pushed over the edge” by circumstances often outside their control.

She said that child welfare experts are concerned about routines being disrupted. With businesses, schools and daycares shuttered, parents and children are in each other’s constant company, sometimes in close quarters. “That may be welcome time spent together, but it can also be incredibly stressful when coupled with the demands of work, bills and other anxieties,” said Reynolds.

As of March 28 this year 6.6 million Americans filed first time jobless claims because jobs had evaporated. Before that, nearly a fifth of Americans said they’d lost wages or jobs due to COVID-19. That means more households are straining under the weight of debt and economic insecurity.

These days children are isolated from others who care -- teachers, bus drivers and fellow students -- were often were able to see that something is wrong in the home. “Amid social distancing, that oversight is gone,” said Reynolds.

These are all conditions that set up situations that could lead to child abuse and neglect.