a purple ribbon and a sign reading Stop Violence

A Safe Place

Alumni Art Rice provides safety and hope for domestic abuse survivors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By: Marissa Carney

Doctors. Nurses. Janitors. Clerks, cooks, delivery personnel—these are the people holding our country together, who are keeping it running as we navigate through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But there are other essential employees, too, working quietly in the background, heroes to those suffering domestic violence. Art Rice is one of those people.

A 2019 psychology graduate of Penn State Altoona, Rice works as a crisis advocate with SafeNest, a domestic violence agency in Las Vegas. SafeNest partners with Metro Police for the program “PS417,” the police code for a family disturbance. Through the program, advocates meet and work with officers on scenes.

Amid nationwide lockdown orders, in place to protect against coronavirus, domestic abuse can increase or become more extreme. Studies show that violence can escalate during times of crisis because of isolation, stress, money problems, alcohol, and lack of resources. Some agencies report abusers are using COVID-19 to further isolate victims from their friends and family.

Rice must quickly create a safe, trusting rapport with the people he encounters. “I'm a natural chatterbox, and I'm good in uncomfortable situations. Some of these people are the nicest you'll ever meet. They've been through a trauma, and they just want somebody to listen to them and help them.”

Rice shares resources available through the city, helps with emergency protection orders, and assists with getting people into shelter or housing programs. He is patient. He is kind. He listens and offers hope.

“I validate their pain and what they’ve been through. But I also assure them that they can have a safe, healthy future that is so much better than where they're at. It makes me proud that I’m doing all I can to save and change lives.”

The pandemic has changed many of the ways Rice must interact with survivors. He finds the first few seconds most challenging when he wants to put them immediately at ease. “The first thing I do is smile because it's what people need to see but having to wear a face mask covers it. I have to hope they can get the idea that I'm smiling because my eyes get smaller, and my cheeks kind of puff up.”

It's also difficult for Rice to do his job outside of a home when he’d normally be able to go in and sit comfortably with a person until he or she is ready to talk. Now he must speak with them outside of their home, trying to make sure their privacy is protected and that no one is eavesdropping while standing six feet apart, words and facial expressions muffled by his mask.

“It's made a lot of things harder for crisis advocates, but I’m also learning some new skills. I feel like I've become a lot better at interpersonal communication and being able to connect to somebody at a distance, to still make them feel safe.”

Rice is also able to draw upon what he learned in his classes at Penn State Altoona, especially his clinical psychology and positive psychology courses. Both taught him about active listening and communicating with those he serves not just as clients but as people. Human Development and Family Studies courses helped Rice understand the complexities of those suffering from domestic abuse from their loss of identity to their potential inability to connect with him. “Being able to tie all of those teachings together has made me a far better advocate,” he states.

Rice was accepted to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for the clinical mental health counseling master of science program. His goal is to one day have his own practice, but for now, he is deeply committed to SafeNest and people in need.

Leaders of domestic abuse programs around the country are bracing for a major increase in calls as restrictions continue to ease. Rice fully expects SafeNest to experience that, as well, as the city moves through phases of reopening and people start attempting to leave their abusers. He wants them to know help through SafeNest will always be available.

“When someone has no place to go, they have us. We're that light for them, something of a beacon in the darkness,” he says. “They need to know that they should never suffer by somebody else's hands. They should be treated with love and respect, and that if they're not getting that in the home, SafeNest will do everything it can to get them out of the situation.”

Even with the extra difficulties coronavirus presents, Rice is grateful—grateful that survivors are bravely seeking help and grateful he can provide it.

“I might not be able to give them hugs right now when they want one the most. I can’t even shake hands, I can just sort of wave my elbow at them and hope they get the idea. But I love the job that I do because I get to connect with these people and help them through their trauma. I’m part of a network that helps get these ladies and gentlemen on their own path, on the way to a better life.”