Nelly Akebia is an advisor and program manager of SOS Children's Villages Georgia. After years of providing training and professional supervision in the family strengthening program, Ms. Akebia joined the organization as manager in January.
Ms. Akebia holds a master degree in social work from Columbia University, and has over a decade of experience in social work and social services development for various vulnerable groups in the area of domestic and gender-based violence. She speaks of the problems at-risk families in Georgia are facing, with focus on the risks of violence.
How has the pandemic crisis affected at-risk families? What changes do you notice?
There has been a deterioration in the situation in at-risk families. Families experience elevated stress levels. The parents and caregivers need to dedicate more time and resources to the children and the other family members they care for. Many parents lost their jobs – they either cannot get work in the informal sector or their jobs have been cut due to the pandemic. Further, we cannot provide our family strengthening services, like psycho-social support and economic strengthening activities, in the usual manner directly through one-on-one counseling or workshops.
What are the main difficulties that at-risk families face in the current pandemic?
The main difficulties are related to the lack of resources: financial, material or human resources. The families cannot access services and resources like before the pandemic. These difficulties concern all spheres, but especially relate to further impoverishment, problems with child care, positive parenting, supporting children’s education and development, relationships between family members, risks of child abuse, gender-based violence or violence from family members.
What are the biggest needs of at-risk families now?
We have identified the following needs:
- Food and medication
- Sanitary products including face masks and sanitizers
- Educational materials
- Materials needed to support children’s development
- Psycho-emotional support to decrease the elevated levels of stress in family relationships and in the interaction with children
- Psycho-emotional support to prevent domestic abuse, especially, gender-based and child abuse
- Parenting support, especially with planning of the daily routine, activities, etc.
- Support with distance and online learning, including needed technical resources
- Support with paying cost-of-living expenses
What impact does the current pandemic crisis have on the risk for violence in these families?
There is a higher risk that all types of domestic abuse will be unreported. Another problem that is coming forward is the lack of means to contact authorities or anyone else for help. There are concerns that abusers often take away phones and computers from their victims and do not let them go outside, even to pharmacies or supermarkets.
The increased levels of stress and the confinement in a small physical space can aggravate problems and increase the risk for child abuse. There is a high risk that child abuse can become a bigger problem during the pandemic.
Additional risks include lack of supervision over children. Some parents still have to work, but the child care support they used to have is no longer available.
What is SOS Children's Villages Georgia doing to help at-risk families now, especially families where you are concerned there is a threat of violence to children and women?
We identified families with possible risks of domestic violence. The response to the risk depends on the specific case. In some cases, we contacted the state authorities especially in case of a risk of child abuse. In other cases, we provide the families with information on the resources they can use in case they do not feel safe – we keep updated lists of the available community resources. We also provide psycho-emotional support remotely and when needed.
Our family strengthening programs have a special focus on preventing and addressing child abuse and gender-based violence. We consider that we have to work on the prevention of child or gender-based violence from the partner or other family member in almost all cases. This is what our field social workers and psychologists are doing. They provide psycho-emotional and social support through positive parenting, behavior management, planning of children’s routine, provision of activities and ideas for playing and studying with children, provision of consultations in cases of interpersonal problems in the families. We are also working on raising public awareness on the risks of domestic abuse, its prevention and available resources through programs on the local radio stations.
How are you reaching out to at-risk families at this time?
The people who work directly with the families are our field social workers and psychologists.
Today, face-to-face contact is extremely limited and allowed only in emergency situations. The necessity of each such intervention is discussed with the COVID-19 response teams at both national and program levels. Therefore, the main way of reaching the families is over the phone, through social media and other platforms such as Messenger or Skype.
Our social workers contacted all families when the pandemic started. Their first questions were about the situation of the families and their urgent needs. During those contacts, the social workers also gave vital information for prevention of coronavirus exposure and availability of local resources, like hotlines. Next, we asked questions about the families' psychological and emotional state, as well as any risks to their safety. The responses of the families have varied. Mostly families say they are in distress, especially if they have many children, elderly and/or family members with disabilities. The families who have lost their sources of income are at risk the most. Usually they seek day jobs that pay immediately, and now they practically have no money even for the most basic of needs. As for risks of violence, families mainly say that they are stressed out, have difficulty with using positive parenting methods and also have difficulties in their communication with family members.
What makes you hopeful?
What makes me most hopeful is the solidarity we see in the local communities in supporting the most vulnerable families. We see people sharing their own resources. We see people concerned about their neighbors and relatives. Also, what makes me hopeful is that our family strengthening programs have enough flexibility to direct resources to the most urgent needs and are flexible in the methods used to support families. One more reason for being hopeful is the interest the civil society organizations are showing in advocating for better responses and prevention mechanisms for domestic abuse and child abuse from the government.