The Covid-19 pandemic spread to Croatia in February 2020. According to many sources, by the end of March 2020 Croatia was among the countries with the strictest restrictions and measures to reduce the infection with the new coronavirus, which is why mortality was not as high as in some other countries.
Apart from self-protection measures (hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation in cases when it was prescribed), the Government of Croatia introduced a number of other measures to protect the health of citizens. Many of these measures directly affected the work of „Duga-Zagreb“, Home for children and adults, victims of domestic violence. Additionally, Zagreb had the bad luck to be struck by a strong earthquake during the pandemic, with many devastating consequences.
In the light of all these natural disasters and with the looming increase in domestic violence in society, working at „Duga-Zagreb“ has become a real challenge.
„Duga – Zagreb“ consists of the shelter for children and adult victims of family violence, the treatment center for perpetrators of domestic violence and the advisory center, which was damaged in the earthquake. The biggest challenges we faced were in the operation of the shelter...
Ensuring safety at the shelter
At the beginning of the epidemic, we had to find the best way to provide accommodation and psychosocial support, while at the same time protecting beneficiaries and employees from infection. At first, there were no instructions from the government or epidemiological services regarding safe houses, so we followed the news day by day, exchanged experiences and tried to find the best way to work.
One of the first instructions of epidemiologists is to place new beneficiaries in self-isolation for 14 days. Our institution has space for that, but most safe houses in Croatia do not. Due to this, we had situations in which the victims themselves gave up accommodation. However, it´s especially risky to put a victim of domestic violence in isolation because most victims are in a state of crisis or trauma, which puts them at increased risk of making irrational decisions such as returning to the perpetrator or committing suicide. In that situation, it was necessary to devise a way to obtain timely psychosocial support, with as little physical contact between the victim and the professional worker as possible. During the pandemic, and in these conditions, we accomodated two new families. We tried to solve this in several ways: the work in the institution was organized in such a way that two members of the professional team work for two weeks, while the other two work from home, and the next two weeks vice versa. Personal contact with the new beneficiaries was made with the use of protective equipment, but above all at a safe distance. Also, we were in telephone contact with the survivor of domestic violence and in the first days we provided her with all the necessary information, but also telephone support; we prepared short written materials with information about the work of the institution, the work of professionals, about domestic violence and its consequences.
As we did not receive specific instructions from the competent institutions, we devised our own protocol on the procedure for admission to the shelter.
Also, there was no protocol for testing and transportation of potentially infected beneficiaries, so we developed our own and provided fast testing and transportation for the testing. We had several risky situations which required testing, but all the results were negative. This issue is still not resolved.
Also, our main goal was to protect our existing beneficiaries, both from the infection and from various new challenges and situations they encountered. Due to the mentioned instructions, there was a ban on leaving the shelter, except in justified circumstances, which can lead to psychological crises among the beneficiaries. It was necessary to provide them with enhanced psychological support, but also a sense of security in a very chaotic atmosphere. Unfortunately, the courts and social welfare centers operated in limited conditions, so all legal proceedings slowed down.
The children were provided with various activities to make their stay inside the shelter as easy as possible. Also, all school children were enabled to follow online classes and regularly fulfill their school obligations thanks to the sufficient number of computers and televisions that were needed for the same. Since the preschool children were not allowed in kindergarten, their care was organized in various ways so that mothers could continue to work.
Another problem is that we have beneficiaries of different ages and health history. Many of them are working and it is very hard to enable those who need to work to go and do their daily tasks, while at the same time protecting older women whose health is compromised.
Also, as public transport did not run, for each individualy, a solution was sought on how to get to work. We can proudly say that none of our women lost their job during the pandemic.
Fortunately, each of our families has their own room with a bathroom, so it was possible to organize social distancing within the shelter. All beneficiaries as well as employees were required to wear masks and keep their distance, and that there were no more than five of them in the common areas. We had to abolish all external entries such as our female babysitters, the trainer who ran our trainings for women and others.
So far, no conclusive evidence on violence increase
However, during the Covid-1 pandemic, we didn´t notice a difference in numbers or dynamics in domestic violence and didn´t have more demands for accommodation than usual. Also, the official statistics (from ministry of police or social welfare) relating to the period from the outbreak of the epidemic to the present day don´t show an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence. Information from other shelters and counseling centers for victims of domestic violence in Croatia has not been systematically processed, so, although some have reported an increased number of violence, we cannot claim that this is the case in whole country. We assume that, at a time of social distancing and isolation, it was more difficult for victims to report violence, therefore we expect an increased number of reports now that the measures have eased and it is easier for victims to leave their own home and the perpetrator.
Adjusting perpetrator work
In mid-March, a decision was made to change the organization of our perpetrator programme. In that period we had four groups of 24 perpetrators, 4 individual treatments and 30 perpetrators who were in the initial part of the treatment. With the perpetrators involved in the group part of the treatment, we had multiple telephone and e-mail contacts to inquire their needs and assess the risks of recurrence of acts of violence. According to the expressed needs, we provided educational materials in order to maintain good self-control. Treatment center experts were also available via cell phone every weekday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for all perpetrators involved in any phase of the program, as well as for the general public. Returning to the "normal" organization of work, the number of perpetrators involved in the group part of treatment was reduced for various reasons - absence from group meetings, health status/at-risk individuals, change of residence, economic reasons, while some of perpetrators will continue treatment from September this year, because of some other specific reasons.
According to the recommendations regarding the epidemiological situation, we adjusted the group part of the treatment by forming small groups led by one expert, in compliance with the recommended protection measures (measuring temperature, wearing masks, gloves, disinfecting hands and maintaining distance). With all precautions, we were able to bring to an end three groups of perpetrators, who completed treatment.
Experience related to the coronavirus epidemic has led to thinking about the possibility of conducting online treatment with perpetrators, which has been questioned by the Ministry of Justice. Namely, since most of our clients come by court order, the Ministry of Justice must give approval for online treatment as valid for the execution of their court measure.
We have gained a unique experience from this situation that we hope we will not need in the future, but if the situation changes, we now feel much more ready.