Project Horizon handles increased domestic violence reports

The Rockbridge nonprofit did not close its doors during the worst of the pandemic


Project Horizon has adapted its services in order to continue providing during the pandemic as reported incidents of domestic violence skyrocket in Rockbridge County.

In 2020, Project Horizon recorded a 72% increase in the number of people the organization serves, Executive Director Judy Casteele said. That number includes a 79% increase in requests for shelter and a 58% increase in phone calls since 2019.

“People are having a harder time at home and are having fewer options for getting away [during the pandemic],” Casteele said.

Project Horizon’s shelter services and 24/7 hotline have remained functional since March, when many other community resources temporarily shuttered their doors or pared down services, Casteele said. But the pandemic has still affected how victims make contact with Project Horizon and how it provides in-person services.

Many clients who would formerly visit Project Horizon’s office in Lexington are instead using the hotline and over-the- phone counseling to report incidents and seek out services.

Unrelated families can no longer share shelter space at Project Horizon’s facilities, so the organization has begun renting hotel spaces to provide more shelter options for individuals and families fleeing domestic violence, Casteele said.

Project Horizon staff are also taking additional precautions to remain safe as they conduct in-person business, including wearing face masks, reducing the number of personnel in the office and increasing cleaning services.

Those safety measures, Casteele said, allowed Project Horizon to continue full-time operations even in the most dire stages of the pandemic last spring.

“We have never changed the work that we do. Our shelter stayed open,” Casteele said. “We didn’t think it was a good idea to shut down when we’re essentially first responders.”

Project Horizon provides victims a broad array of services. It offers more immediate forms of protection via its 24- hour crisis hotline and shelter. Long-term services for adults and children include counseling, creative arts therapy and spiritual guidance.

The organization also champions systemic action against domestic violence through advocacy in the criminal justice system and local education.

In ordinary times, Project Horizon vis- its local K-12 schools and colleges to promote its resources and provide les- sons on emotional health and conflict management. With most kids in Lexington City Schools and Rockbridge County Public Schools learning from home, Project Horizon staff have to offer that out- reach virtually, Assistant Director Ellen Wheeler said.

Instead, Project Horizon is broadcasting PSAs to local schools that inform kids about signs of domestic violence and how to get in contact with Project Horizon, Wheeler said.

“We want to keep our names, our resources, our numbers in front of children,” Wheeler said. “[We tell them] if you’ve been hurt or anybody’s hurt you, tell a teacher, tell a friend.”

Providing contact information to children who might otherwise not know how to access the hotline is especially critical, Casteele said, as the organization has witnessed a significant drop in reported child abuse incidents since the pandemic began and schools closed.

“Without children in school full time, kids don’t have access to folks that they might report a child abuse [case] to,” Casteele said. “I think once children are back out on their own again, those cases are going to skyrocket.”

Data from elsewhere in the country suggests that Rockbridge County’s jump in domestic violence cases amidst the pandemic is no anomaly. A study released in August from a major Boston-area hospital reported a two-fold increase compared to previous years in the number of patients arriving with domestic violence injuries between March and May.

Even as lockdown restrictions loosen and businesses reopen, Project Horizon hasn’t seen changes to its current elevated service levels, Casteele said.