Life as we know it in America has changed as families deal with stay-at-home recommendations, schools being closed and job losses during the COVID-19 crisis. That puts strain on families in a variety of ways and can lead to some people lashing out mentally and physically.
Thankfully, there are resources available to those in need, even during tough times.
That’s the central message expressed this week by Leslie Hoffman, director of the Big Horn County Crisis and Referral Emergency Services, commonly known by the acronym CARES.
Hoffman and Lovell Chief of Police Dan Laffin said the community has been relatively quiet when it comes to domestic violence in recent weeks as people hunker down and stay at home. But as family pressures build, CARES and law enforcement could find themselves busy in the weeks ahead, they said.
“We’ve been getting all kinds of notices from federal agencies to be ready for an onslaught (of cases),” Hoffman said. “It’s still slow, I think, because, with everyone home, victims don’t have a chance to call.
“Often people call us to see what their options are, and if they’re thinking of leaving (an abusive spouse or partner), they can’t do that with the person in the house.”
Hoffman said CARES is usually the first point of contact for someone reaching out, and the police typically get the first call only if there is imminent danger.
CARES handles an average of around five calls a week to answer questions about a protection order or other options, Hoffman said, “but it’s really quiet right now. It’s ‘lull before the storm’ quiet.”
Hoffman emphasized that, even with a variety of temporary government and business closures in the area, CARES is operating as usual.
“We are in the office,” she said.
The office at the county annex building in Lovell is open, and CARES is working out of the courthouse in Basin, as well, even though the courthouse is closed to walk-in traffic.
CARES can be reached by a variety of means, Hoffman said, through private messaging on the CARES Facebook page, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone or text at 307-272-0433.
“They can do any of these (methods) anonymously,” she emphasized.
Hoffman also urged extended family members to reach out to CARES if they know someone to be in need of assistance.
When CARES is contacted by an adult victim, it’s up to her (or him) to decide how to proceed, whether to report an incident or incidents or not, but if the victim is a child, CARES has no choice but to respond immediately.
Whatever the case, CARES is available for guidance, assistance and support, proving information on everything from the criminal justice system to agencies that can assist a victim.
The CARES Inc. mission statement is: “CARES, Inc. is dedicated to the empowerment of victims of all crimes. The board, staff and volunteers are committed to the elimination of violence, through advocacy, education and victim support by providing the highest quality of coordinated services to prevent re-victimization by the system. CARES, Inc. promotes a just, safe, and peaceful society in Big Horn County.”
Chief Laffin said the police department works closely with CARES, and if the victim is a child in a suspected case of neglect or abuse, the Dept. of Family Services gets involved and can take immediate custody of a child. Each case would involve a level of investigation, whether it comes from the home, a school or directly from a victim. A credible report would then be passed on to DFS.
“If there is a reasonable conclusion of mistreatment, neglect or abuse, we can have DFS remove the child from the home for protection reasons pending a formal investigation and possible prosecution,” Laffin said.
“In most cases we like to remove the assailant, not the victim, if there would be one parent providing adequate care. We don’t want to further victimize the child.”
As for the current communitywide shutdown, when it comes to police work, “things have been going OK, knock on wood,” the chief said, adding, “We’ve seen a steady, average workload. Our glide path is normal.”
Asked how a victim should report abuse, Laffin said the LPD has the same avenues as CARES. A person can call the dispatch center at 548-2215 or check out the department’s Facebook page or website – www.lovellpolice.com. The chief noted that all of his officers’ email addresses are posted on the website. A victim can even quickly call 911 and “drop the phone,” he said, and an officer will respond.
Laffin pointed out that it is illegal for someone to interfere with a person making an emergency call. If they do, they can face additional charges, he said.
Both Laffin and Hoffman noted that a child welfare call can come from someone concerned about a child’s well-being like a daycare, teacher, school nurse or after school program, but many of those avenues are closed down right now, which may be one reason calls are quiet.
The main point remains, that “we’re still here,” Hoffman said. The CARES office at the Lovell annex is open, and the office at the courthouse in Basin is staffed, even though the courthouse is closed to walk-in traffic. People should never hesitate to call, she said.
Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn said CARES is governed by the Wyoming Victims Services Act, and the sheriff’s office wholeheartedly supports CARES by providing victims information on CARES while on a domestic violence call – everything from victim’s support to negotiating the legal system.
“CARES is there to walk the victim through that maze,” Black said. “They are there to walk them through that process.”
Victims are welcome to access CARES at the time of a call or call back later, Blackburn said, noting that dispatchers are aware of the process and how to refer people.
“Our dispatch center is well prepared and well trained to respond – and start passing out information as appropriate,” the sheriff said.
As for the high number of people sheltering in place, Blackburn agreed that domestic violence calls have been light, but he said many families are still in the “honeymoon phase” with “everyone getting along right now.” But as time wears on and the home situation starts to get more irritating and people get frustrated, people will start to act out and commit everything from verbal to violent acts.
“We’re starting to see a spike,” Blackburn said. “We had a couple of domestic calls this weekend that, fortunately, were worked out without serious consequences. As time moves on we expect to see more calls that require an elevated level of response.
Like CARES and the LPD, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Dept. is ready to respond, Blackburn said, noting that people can call 1-800-500-2324, 307-568-2324 or 911. He said officers often pass out cards to citizens, as well, and the sheriff’s office can be accessed through the Big Horn County website at www.bighorncountywy.gov.
A citizen can email the sheriff’s office at email@example.com.
By David Peck