Tuesday, May 12, 2020

By Maria Elena Hernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Safety concerns stemming from COVID-19 have moved UTRGV classes and many university jobs online, so work can be done from home.

But for some, being at home does not mean being safe.

"Our students and faculty and staff who are in abusive situations at home – their only outlet is to come to work or to school, so staying home can be even more confining, even more stressful. And abuse can be heightened," said Dr. Cynthia Jones, director of the UTRGV Office for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention.

During this pandemic-related quarantine, abuse victims increasingly lack not only the opportunity to leave the home, but also access to normal support systems.

"We think that it's perfectly acceptable to have in-depth conversations via Zoom," Jones said. "But if you're in a situation where you're in close containment with someone who was abusive, you have no space to have a conversation with a counselor or an advocate or anyone."

The director said monetary stress because of job loss also can exacerbate an abusive environment.

"The university has kept everyone employed, of course, but many of our students work externally. Many people do. If they didn't, then maybe a partner or a parent or someone in their household did, so it only makes sense that we'd see a spike in domestic abuse," Jones said.

The UTRGV Office for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention offers free confidential advocacy and counseling services to UTRGV students, faculty and staff who are victims of violence. That includes domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking. Services also are available for bystanders or witnesses to violence.

"Anyone who identifies as a victim of violence, actually," Jones said. "We can help them through any sort of legal or university process. Understanding how the university works has been probably the most helpful thing we've done for our clients.”

The office can help people in working with departments, like academic advising and faculty.

"We try our best to minimize that sort of revictimization by having people have to tell their story over and over," she said.

Since the shelter-in-place orders expired, there have been a few more calls and emails to the OVAVP.

"Many are from bystanders, who are now starting to see some of the people that they hadn't seen in a while," Jones said.

The advocacy office is available almost around the clock.

The phone number is (956) 665-8287, and the staff also is available via email at ovavp@utrgv.edu.

If the office is unable to answer immediately and someone is in crisis, they can call the Vaquero Crisis Line at (956) 665-5555, a confidential helpline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The Vaquero Crisis Line is a good place to call, and they have our contact information. So, if the call falls into our category, they can get you to us," Jones said. "We also do crisis intervention.

“We're available to help. I want people to know that the university actually has a lot of resources."

You can learn more about the services available at the UTRGV Office for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention at utrgv.edu/ovavp/index.htm.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.