Victims of domestic violence can now text with counselors


“I can’t speak for long. My husband is in the shower. Do you have room in your shelter? “

“I can’t speak for long. My husband went to take out the trash. He threatened to kill me all day.”

These are among the calls that arrived at New municipal center for security and change hotline in recent weeks, said Tracie McLee, director of development at the center: Women with no time to talk, confined to cramped conditions with their attackers by the coronavirus.

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“Domestic violence is about power and control,” McLee said. “These victims are being held hostage, using COVID as a tool to control them even more. A victim called us hysterically, saying her intimate partner was threatening to kill her if she coughed in the house.”

Tracie McLee, director of development at the Center for Safety & Change in New City, said the COVID-19 crisis has seen demand for the crisis agency's services and programs increase 70% year over year last.

Until recently, the only way for victims of domestic violence in Rockland County to reach the center for help was to get to the building (at 9 Johnsons Lane, New City)or on the 24-hour hotline: 845-634-3344.

But calling this hotline in the age of coronavirus means finding a window of opportunity to be heard by advisers but not heard by an attacker.

That changed in May, when the center introduced chat and text options to its hotline. Victims can now reach a lawyer without speaking, through a chat portal at or by SMS to 845-286-4997.

Laura Serao, head of the centre’s Special Victims Program and Comprehensive Crime Services, said texting and chat options – giving victims a voice without having to use their voice in an abusive home – were included on the 40-year-old centre’s wishlist for almost two years.

The new tools were due to be launched in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the pandemic was a game-changer.

“We have seen that so many victims are contacting us and some are contacting us for the first time, experience abuse and violence, and we were able to remedy the situation within two weeks,” McLee said.

The texting and chat options were made possible by a grant from the New York State Office of Victims Services, one of the centre’s largest funders.

“We received $ 1.5 million, which covers this new initiative, as well as staff, outreach services, victim transportation, staff development and training, as well as the program and office supplies. McLee said.

Due to the emotionally charged homes they call from, those texting the hotline are advised to manually delete the text messages from their phones, lest they be discovered by their attackers. Likewise, in the chat portal, there is a “quick escape” button to quickly close the chat window, preventing its discovery.

The New Town Center for Safety and Change has rolled out two new tools for victims of domestic violence who may not be able to speak with a counselor during the COVID-19 outbreak, when they are nearby of their attackers.  They can now use the live chat and text functions on the website,

A crisis agency, in the midst of a crisis

The center has been busier than usual amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has intensified family pressures with job losses and tensions fueled by the boiling point lockdown without a relief valve.

Center for Safety & Change provides free, confidential programs and services to victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes.

“As a crisis response agency, the work of the Center for Safety & Change has not slowed down due to the coronavirus health crisis, in fact the needs have increased as a result,” said Elizabeth Santiago, CEO of the center, in a press release.

Victims of domestic violence do not have the capacity to put space between themselves and their abusers.

“It’s stressful and dangerous for the victims,” McLee said. “Add the health crisis of a pandemic and it could be fatal.”

The stakes could not be higher, McLee said, pointing to a double homicide at Valley Cottage on May 25 which she called “domestic violence murder.”

Wanda Castor, 63, and her daughter, Kathleen Castor, 27, were found dead in a small cottage at 104 Lake Road. An infant, the daughter of Kathleen Castor, was found unharmed and placed in the care of child protection services.

Robert C. Williams III, the man accused in the murders, was Kathleen Castor’s former domestic partner. There was a protective order against him, police said.

McLee said on Wednesday demand for the services had skyrocketed.

“Since the pandemic hit, demand for our programs and services has increased by 70%,” she said. “At this point in 2020, we have already helped the same number of people as we did in 2019.”

And there are more than four months left until 2021.

“There is a wait list for our child and youth program, for adult therapy and counseling, the shelter was at full capacity all the time,” McLee said. “And legal services and our special victim unit were all seeing new cases across the board.”

135 days of impact

Center for Safety & Change counted its impact from January to April, 135 days. At that time, the center said it had helped:

  • 29 victims in need of emergency residential shelter;
  • 218 victims requiring comprehensive services for victims of crime;
  • 352 people looking for programs for children and young people;
  • 398 victims requiring non-residential domestic violence services;
  • 210 victims requiring sexual trauma services;
  • 322 people seeking legal services;
  • 48 people using the anti-trafficking program;
  • 137 people in need of immigrant services.

During this period, the center also:

  • Processing of 1,108 telephone calls;
  • Completed 12 forensic sexual assault examinations;
  • Has had 30 protection orders issued.

Peter D. Kramer has been a staff member of The Journal News for 32 years. He can be contacted at or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. This coverage is only possible with the support of our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.

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