The Scoop: Domestic violence is an unfortunate reality for many women in the United States. That’s why WomenRising, a nonprofit in Jersey City, New Jersey, aims to provide hope and support to victims in the region. The organization helps people escape violence at home by getting victims away from their abusers and finding housing for them. WomenRising also meets community needs by adding programs and services that safely provide assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every year, millions of women and men are victims of domestic violence in the United States. Domestic violence is a catchall term for a variety of controlling and manipulative behaviors, according to WomenRising, a nonprofit that helps victims leave their situations and improve their lives.

“There are many forms of abuse used to gain and maintain power and control over another person such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, and financial abuse,” reads a post on the WomenRising website.

Domestic violence victims don’t fit a pattern, and their ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status vary widely. Men may also be victims of domestic abuse, as are individuals of all sexual orientations.

“Domestic violence knows no color, creed, or socioeconomic background,” said Joaneileen Coughlan, WomenRising Domestic Violence Services Director.

The WomenRising logo

WomenRising helps domestic violence victims find a way out of unhealthy relationships and marriages.

Victims often find reasons to stay in relationships with their abusers. They may believe they can change the other person, or that their partner will only harm them in certain situations. Others are financially unstable or have nowhere else to go.

But Joaneileen suggests that questioning why victims might stay with their abusers isn’t the right approach.

“Each person has different issues and problems when aiming to keep themselves safe. Sometimes, it’s not as easy as just leaving,” Joaneileen said.

Helping people leave domestic violence situations is only the first step for WomenRising. The nonprofit also considers the holistic needs of its clients, primarily women, when they are deciding to leave their partners.

The organization has five programs that help women not only leave their relationships but also support themselves. Those programs include Domestic Violence Services, Youth and Family Services, Permanent Supportive Housing, Community Economic Development, and Healthy Women, Healthy Families.

WomenRising offers a lifeline to New Jersey victims of domestic abuse who feel they have no other options.

Catering to Communities in Jersey City

WomenRising has served the people of Jersey City for 115 years. At first, the nonprofit was part of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA,) but it branched out from the national organization in the 1980s.

It chose that path to respond to the community’s needs, which include offering services like domestic violence interventions and affordable housing options.

“Now, our domestic violence program is over 40 years old,” Joaneileen said.

The second-largest city in New Jersey has a diverse population that speaks more than 42 different dialects. WomenRising’s shelter houses mostly women, although it does offer space for battered men.

“Many of our clients are black or Hispanic. We have staff members who speak seven different languages, as well as a language line so we can communicate with everybody,” said Joaneileen.

WomenRising aims to make its team as diverse as the women who use its services. Employees contribute plenty of input and receive regular training opportunities the organization offers. The team also emphasizes flexibility because many members have family obligations of their own.

“We strive to have a welcoming culture and an easy workplace. We all know there are more important things in life than working, even though our clients need us very much,” Joaneileen said.

The mission to meet client needs drives the nonprofit to develop new programs, including its latest addition, the Healthy Women, Healthy Families initiative. The organization found that black women across the United States are less likely to receive quality prenatal care than women of other ethnicities.

The Healthy Women, Healthy Families program connects women with the New Jersey Maternal Child Health organization to ensure they receive quality care and reduce the infant mortality rate in that population.

Overcoming the Challenges Presented by COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders posed challenges to WomenRising’s ability to serve its clients in 2020.

“Social services is all about face-to-face interactions. In the first couple of weeks, our phones weren’t ringing. There was no privacy because of shelter-in-place order, so people couldn’t call for help,” Joaneileen told us.

From WomenRising’s point of view, domestic violence got worse when abusers and victims were sheltering together in the same place for an extended period.

“The intensity of the violence increased. People were calling from the bathroom but had to hang up. Their injuries were horrific, and it was very intense,” said Joaneileen.

Victimizers in relationships were also making up lies to control their victims. For instance, one person’s partner said police stations were closed unless someone had a COVID-19 emergency. Joaneileen told us about one woman who found the courage to ask a police officer for help in the grocery store, despite her partner’s lie that police wouldn’t help with domestic abuse concerns.

Batterers also threaten to lock their victims out of the house if they didn’t comply with what they wanted.

“They would say, ‘I’m going to lock you out. You’re going to get COVID-19, and you’re going to die,’” Joaneileen said.

WomenRising had to shift to meet these challenges as quickly as possible. The organization started connecting with clients via Zoom, email, or texting, instead of in-person services. The organization also ran social media ad campaigns to let people know about its services.

Still, WomenRising did have to make some tough calls to keep staff and clients safe.

“We had to cut the number of people we could help in half so we could ensure social distancing. That was hard. We didn’t turn anyone away, but it was a scary time for everybody,” Joaneileen said.

WomenRising Gives Women the Tools They Need to Reclaim Their Independence

Leaving an abusive relationship can be a difficult time in a person’s life. Because domestic violence is about control, the abuser wants to keep the power over the abused person at all costs. At that stage, WomenRising is instrumental in helping victims escape dangerous situations at home.

But even after they are out of immediate danger, domestic violence victims may still face challenges, including where to live and how to gain financial independence.

WomenRising offers Permanent Supportive Housing for 22 families who have experienced chronic homelessness through its Village of Families Program. The organization also helps women get back into the workforce through its Community Economic Development program, which teaches life skills, financial skills, and computer skills.

Photo of WomenRising development workshop

WomenRising offers a Community Economic Development program to help women get back into the workforce.

WomenRising’s Welfare to Work and Hotel Management programs partner with a local college to train participants in housekeeping and hotel front desk duties.

Though WomenRising has always been responsive to community needs, it has learned new lessons during the pandemic. For instance, the team recognized the importance of having permanent telehealth options for women in relationships who can’t travel to a physical location. Now, the organization is in the process of upgrading its telephone and computer systems.

“A lot of our clients want personal, face-to-face contact, but we’re going to start giving people an option to do telehealth counseling,” Joaneileen said.

WomenRising is also asking supporters to donate items from the organization’s Amazon Wish List or purchase gift cards for mothers and fathers so they can use them to buy toys for their children.

The gift card drive exemplifies everything that WomenRising works so hard for.

“It’s about empowering our clients, which is why our tagline is ‘From crisis to self-sufficiency,’” said Joaneileen.