Aspirant President Mike McClaine, Office of Mayor Assistant Chief of Staff Lindsay Powell, WC&S Interim CEO and Chief Program Officer Nicole Molinaro Karaczun, and Aspirant Client Engagement Manager Kristen Gabrielli. Image courtesy of Aspirant.

When someone you care about is trapped in an abusive relationship, it’s tempting to urge them to leave. But fleeing a violent partner can be dangerous and complicated. Statistics show that abuse often escalates within the first two years after separation — in fact, up to 75 percent of women murdered by their abusers are killed during that time.

This is why it’s vital that victims of domestic violence — 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men — create a safety plan. To help with that process, Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh (WC&S) teamed up with local technology consulting firm Aspirant to enhance its RUSafe mobile app.

RUSafe 2.0, launched on June 27, includes a journaling tool with photo, text and audio capabilities. It also has advanced search functions, links to support services and a directory of 1,500 shelters nationwide with 24-hour hotlines. All content is available in three languages: English, Spanish and Nepali.

According to Kathy Marecic, the shelter’s RUSafe coordinator, content in English and Spanish allows RUSafe to serve more than 92 percent of the U.S. population. Pittsburgh’s growing Nepali refugee community was also a consideration, she says, “due to a significant demographic of victims from Nepal who’ve received services at WC&S.”

Using an algorithm built on the Maryland Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), Aspirant developed RUSafe in 2014 to help users identify warning signs of intimate partner violence. To update the app, WC&S staff sought input from domestic violence survivors.

One tool in high demand: A secure journal to record incidents of physical or mental abuse and property damage through text entry, audio recording or photograph. Once an entry is saved, it is only accessible to the victim through a protected e-mail address. (For added security, victims are encouraged to download the app to a friend’s phone or delete entries after saving to the cloud.)

Those entries are date-stamped, says Marecic, and “can successfully be submitted as evidence in court proceedings against the abuser.”

But unlike the first iteration of the app, RUSafe 2.0 isn’t only for victims.

“The most important feature,” says Aspirant President Mike McClaine, “is the app is now positioned for friends and family, not just the individual in the relationship.”

The support network of family and friends can use the app to access educational materials and learn how to help victims escape their abusers while maintaining their safety and confidentiality. This fills an important gap: “Often people see the abuse,” Marecic says, “but do not know how to help.”

Since its initial collaboration with WC&S, Aspirant has expanded its work with the domestic violence community. The group built the Bright Sky app for U.K.-based nonprofit Hestia, which supports victims of abuse and human trafficking. Here in Pittsburgh, they developed a lethality assessment app to guide police on domestic violence calls.

Last fall, the company launched the Connection of Hope campaign to engage leaders from Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and others to raise awareness about intimate partner violence and to provide charitable and technical support to organizations like WC&S.

Mayor Bill Peduto proclaimed June 27, 2018 “Connection of Hope Day” in the city, in conjunction with the RUSafe 2.0 launch. Since then, the app has been downloaded more than 200 times (more than 10 times the download rate of the previous version) and opened more than 400 times.

Marecic hopes the surge in popularity — combined with the app’s ease of use — will mean that it helps save more lives.

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....