By JAMES BELL
VICTORIA — During the June meeting of the Victoria City Council, Options Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services Executive Director Jennifer Hecker and Operations Specialist Anna Townes shared an annual update with the council.
While Hecker had positive updates on the organization's work to assist those in need, she said the need for their services grew substantially.
“We are seeing a tragic increase in the incidence of domestic violence in the last few years,” Hecker said. “That trend is continuing to move upward.”
In the last year, she said 167 domestic violence incidents were reported to law enforcement in Ellis County, resulting in 127 arrests.
“That is an excellent arrest ratio, particularly in a state that has a shall-arrest mandate,” Hecker said. “You can see that's almost twice as high as the state average of arrests versus reports.”
In total, she said the group provided around 3,200 domestic violence services to Ellis County residents.
Hecker then shared work the group completed to enhance its ability to assist domestic violence victims.
“Last year, we were talking about a brand new service, our global advocacy services, that we were just rolling out,” Hecker said. “Options became the first domestic and sexual violence program in the state of Kansas to offer a free texting helpline.”
The service provides different ways to reach out for help, she said, by using a mobile phone app, standard text messaging, and messaging to their website.
“Last year, when we came, we had just launched that service,” Hecker said. “We've had about 46 people reaching out. This year that grew about 3,000 percent. We had over 1,200 people utilizing our texting feature. And so we know that it's going to grow.”
This year, she said there was more demand for safety planning than ever before.
Demand for shelter is also higher than ever.
While the need is up, she said the shelter is running at only 50 percent capacity due to COVID concerns.
“And so because we have a policy to never turn anyone away, if it is within our power to do so, we will overflow folks into a hotel,” Hecker said. “And so when our shelter is full, those expenses have been growing pretty exponentially in the last several years.”
Last year, $25,000 was spent on shelter services, up from $16,000 the year before, she said.
“That's just the full cost of when we're putting people in hotels that cost us three or four times as much … [than] to care for them in a shelter itself,” Hecker said. “And so when budgets are tight, and you're not able to utilize the capacity that you have, and things are costing four times as much, it gets pretty challenging to make sure that we're still able to provide those services.”
While she shared appreciation for the support area governments provided, the increased demand and changes to federal-level policies mean local funding is more critical than ever.
“Your support really does help make sure that we can continue to give everyone the services that they need, we don't have to turn anyone away from service that and there's shelter available for everyone whenever they need it,” Hecker said.
Hecker also shared with the council recent efforts to create a Student Advisory Board that will expand to Victoria High School.
“I know that our outreach advocate has been working with talking with some of the counselors at the school about how to get those students involved in understanding healthy relationships,” Hecker said. “So far, our teen advisory board is working on a teen safety plan — for teens, by teens, around how to be safe in a dating relationship, if things are not going well, and how to safety plan if you're experiencing domestic violence in your home.
“They've also done Human Trafficking Awareness law,” she continued. “Several other things too. So they're very, very engaged. And we're excited to expand that into Victoria High School. So stay tuned. I think we've done almost 500 hours of volunteering this year alone. Great future leaders for our community, for sure.”
At the conclusion of the report, council member Ryan Lichter said he would support an increase in support for the group.
“I feel the need to maybe offer a little bit more than what we have in the past due to the fact that everything we're going through is more,” he said. “I mean, if you're already meeting your budget, the way it is right now, a little bit more assistance would be beneficial.”
“We definitely put it to very good use, for sure,” Hecker said.
Lichter proposed doubling support funding to a total of $2,000. Council member Harland Rupp made a motion on the issue, and Lichter made a second.
The increase was passed by the council unanimously.