When it's not 'home sweet home': 'Sheltering in place' hardest for those at risk of domestic abuse

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

LSSND programs available to help families before they hit that crisis point

After the historic Red River Valley flood of 1997 devastated the Grand Forks area, staff in LSSND’s Grand Forks office predicted a distressing after-effect beyond the evacuations, the burnt-out buildings and the thousands of water-ravaged homes.

An increase in child abuse.

There’s a well-known, historically proven link between parental stress and an uptick in child maltreatment and domestic violence. This makes experts across the globe nervous about the possible repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The stressors to parents and caregivers are numerous: a disruption to our sense of “normal,” a loss of routine, the closing of schools and workplaces, loss of or reduction in income, reduced personal space, child-care concerns, the challenges of home-schooling.

At the same time, the pandemic has created a level of isolation that can actually make it harder for at-risk family members to get help, especially vulnerable children as they have less contact with others outside their family.

People are being told to remain at home to stay safe yet some may feel like the greater danger lives with them under the same roof.

“Social distancing, in some ways, threatens to take away our protective factors,” says Janell Regimbal, vice president of Children’s Services at LSSND.

When work, school and child care settings are no longer available to us, it can be harder to contact a shelter or be helped by mandated reporters. Help hotlines and websites continue to operate, but many shelters across the country have closed for fear of spreading the virus even further.

To make matters worse, some areas in our region are also experiencing flooding, which just adds another dose of frustration to an already potent cocktail of stressors.

Healthy Families formed to prevent child abuse

In the case of the 1997 flood, LSSND first began conversations that would lead to a North Dakota affiliate of Healthy Families, a federally created home-visitation program for parents of young children, which began serving families in the northeast region of the state in April 2000. The two-generation, evidence-backed approach promotes child well-being and prevents child abuse through family-focused and empathic support provided in the home for the first three years of a child’s life.

Since 2000, Healthy Families home visitors in North Dakota have supported parents during a child's first 3 years.

What does that look like? It might range from trained home visitors teaching parents healthier coping strategies in stressful situations to educating parents on nutrition, financial management and healthy child development.

Thanks to some visionary planning, LSSND has expanded its Healthy Families framework, first in 2008 when Burleigh and Morton counties were added and again in 2019 – turning its pioneer Grand Forks site into a full-fledged Family-Strengthening Hub (FSH) that also serves Walsh and Pembina counties, as well as adding new Family-Strengthening Hubs in Watford City and Dickinson in western North Dakota.

Each FSH serves families of children from prenatal stage through young adulthood and is designed to assist parents and kids at any “pressure points” in their development.

Regimbal describes the hubs’ strength-building approach as focusing on resources and skills such as:

  • Parental resilience

  • Parental coaching

  • Social connections with other parents

  • Concrete supports in times of need

  • Social and emotional competence of children

“An overarching goal of this work is always to prevent families from reaching a crisis point,” Regimbal says. “We believe we are best able to prevent families from going into ‘crisis’ by identifying the transitions, or pressure points – those 'fork in the road' moments in a person’s life – and then intervening with life-stage-appropriate approaches.”

If you’d like to learn more about Healthy Families or one of our Family-Strengthening Hub services, including Family Coaching and DIVERT, please contact Janell Regimbal at janellr@lssnd.org.

Tips to help parents keep their cool

Every parent feels overwhelmed at one time or another. Especially these days. Regimbal offers ideas for small steps that caregivers can take to keep their cool through this stressful time.

  • Remember that social distancing does not have to equal social isolation. Identify your own circle of support and use it. This may mean connecting with friends or even reconnecting with good friends who you may have lost track of amid the busyness of life. Regimbal says one of the positive side-effects of our current situation is that old friends are reconnecting again. “That takes energy and effort, but we really need people right now,” she adds.

  • Take time to self-reflect. How well do we know ourselves? Most of the time, we know our tendencies and where we get into trouble. Now is the ideal time to examine those patterns and think of creative ways to counteract them. Do you tend to pull away when you are worried and anxious? Come up with a small way to do the opposite and to stay engaged.

  • Put yourself on a media diet. We need information to be smart, but we also need to realize when a nonstop diet of COVID-19 news turns toxic. It can be helpful to set parameters for what you’ll consume beforehand: “I’ll only read about coronavirus for 10 minutes today.” Or: “I’m only going to check the state Health Department one time today for the most critical and current updates.”

  • Combat cabin fever.  If everyone seems to be in your personal space and getting on your nerves, now is the time to take a walk. (Be sure to heed social distancing.) If you aren’t able to walk, open your windows and let in some fresh air and sunshine.

  • Say what you need. Frustrated? Feeling caged in? Need peace and quiet? It really is OK to state what you need in the interest of self-care. Tell your family: “I’m having a rough day, so I just need to go into my room and read my book right now.” This is a good time to remind ourselves not to expect people to read our minds and to clearly communicate our needs to others.

  • Strengthen that resilience muscle. Now is the time to call on our inner strength. We can remember that we’ve been through tough times before and have always come out on the other side. Resilience is like a muscle; it needs to be exercised to get stronger and to help us bounce back from adversity.

  • Find a mantra that works for you. During the ’97 flood, one friend said something to Regimbal that felt like a cooling balm to her soul: “This too shall pass.” It wasn’t the first time Regimbal had heard the phrase, but it was exactly what she needed to hear during a difficult time. “It has a sense of soothing to me,” she says. “And it’s such a simple thing. It’s a reminder that yes, this is rough, but I’ve been through other rough things, and I have trust I can get through this too. I still say that to myself so often.”

  • Be gentle with yourself. Reward your body for all it has gotten you through in this lifetime. Try to eat nutrient-rich foods that will give your body maximum energy strength. Remember that any sort of exercise relieves stress, whether you’re hopping on an exercise bike, following a yoga class on YouTube or simply cranking up the music and dancing around the house. Watch for a tendency to turn to choices that may lead to further concerns, such as online gambling or alcohol use.

  • Practice 'long-distance' bonding. If you long to socialize with someone outside of your immediate family, check in with neighbors from a safe distance. You can still enjoy a nice visit with someone from across the patio or from one yard to another.

  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation impacts everything from our mental acuity to our emotional regulation. Try to shoot for eight hours of sleep per night and make a “no caffeine” after 5 p.m. rule. Melatonin is the brain chemical that helps us sleep, but it is suppressed by the blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, TVs, computers and other electronic devices. So make a “no screen” rule at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Remember your 'in-person' people too. Now more than ever, we are connecting via screens for school, work and socialization. Don’t let all this screen time interfere with the “here and now” relationships with those in your home. ”Hopefully, one of the silver linings of these tough times is that we have come to value the power of being fully present with those we are face-to-face with, ” Regimbal says.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember there are many formal agencies who are anxiously waiting to serve you through telephone lines and computer screens. 

“Don’t feel you are weak because you need someone to help you,” Regimbal says. “These are difficult times. We have natural circles of support, but there are formal helpers out there, and they want to help more than ever. They have special skills and tactics and ideas they can share. But you have to ask.”

If you are concerned about your behavior toward family members, please reach out to the coordinator of our Violence Free program, which provides an opportunity for participants to change their belief systems related to safety and respect in their significant partner relationships: Dennisl@lssnd.org

Yes, we are accepting new clients!

LSSND is here to help. We are accepting new clients for telehealth counseling appointments as well as FREE family support offerings like Family Coaching, Healthy Families and DIVERT (a program intended to prevent youth from entering the criminal justice system).

Learn more:

  • Looking for individual or family counseling? https://www.lssnd.org/aboundcounseling

  • Are you pregnant or just had a baby? The Healthy Families program supports families of children from age 0-3 and is available in McKenzie, Dunn, Billings, Stark, Hettinger, Morton, Burleigh, Grand Forks, Pembina, Walsh and Nelson counties. Contact janellr@lssnd.org or go to: https://www.lssnd.org/healthyfamilies

  • Is your family going through a rough patch? Our Family Coaches support families in Ramsey, Walsh, Nelson, Grand Forks, McKenzie, Dunn, Billings, Stark and Hettinger counties with children from birth through young adulthood during high-pressure points in their lives. Contact cassies@lssnd.org or go to: https://www.lssnd.org/familycoaching

  • Is your child getting in trouble with the law? DIVERT counsels families in Ramsey, Walsh, Nelson, Grand Forks, McKenzie, Dunn, Billings, Stark and Hettinger counties with at-risk youth (ages 6-17) to prevent court involvement and keep families together while helping the youth develop skills and healthy activities. Go to https://www.lssnd.org/therapy-services and refer to the "DIVERT" box.

For victims of violence:

  • If  you have avoided calling hotlines or searching for domestic violence sites online for fear of being discovered, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a chat line: https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-live-chat/ This is not a public chat room and you don’t need to download anything to use it. Just go to www.thehotline.org and click the purple chat button, which is staffed 24/7/365. If you are unable to speak safely, you also can text LOVEIS to 22522.

– Tammy Swift

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