Coronavirus lockdowns ‘open the door for abusers to come back in’

Domestic violence hotlines and shelters in the US struggle to safely cope with surge in cases amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

Domestic violence - US
A woman opens her apartment window during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York [File: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The turmoil caused by the coronavirus makes the situation ripe for perpetrators of domestic violence to strike again. That is according to Jaydee Graham, who was in an abusive relationship off and on for four years.

“One thing that really stands out with domestic violence survivors is that in times of chaos, turmoil and tragedy, in society and in our world, it opens the door for perpetrators and abusers to be able to come back in,” said Graham, 29, who now works as a social worker and family advocate for single-parent families who are also domestic violence survivors in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I think we always see this huge increase [in domestic violence cases] during this time because it is a very vulnerable and difficult time” due to the lack of food, housing, security and work and shortage of physical resources where survivors can go to for safety, Graham, who also runs Soul Grind, an online space that works to empower survivors of domestic violence, told Al Jazeera.

From the effects of lockdowns to the closure of shelters, the coronavirus pandemic has hit survivors and victims of domestic violence particularly hard.

“The whole dynamic has changed with COVID-19,” Graham said. “With all of those vulnerabilities, it opens the door to welcome someone in that you might have felt empowered and strong enough to be able to walk away from.”

Surge in cases

Katie Ray-Jones is the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which maintains a database of nearly 5,000 providers and resources across the country and works in 200 languages on a 24/7 basis to provide non-stop support to victims and their families.

Ray-Jones said that the Hotline’s chat and text volume remains on average 1,800-2,000 messages a day, but they are now seeing an increase in the number of those still in abusive relationships reaching out who are concerned about COVID-19 and how their partner is leveraging the virus to further isolate and increase fear in the relationship. Between March 16 and April 28, 4,630 survivors contacted the Hotline citing COVID-19 as a condition of their experience, according to Ray-Jones.

“I think what makes this so uniquely different is that it’s across the country. And we have not seen the level of sheltering in place to the magnitude that we’re seeing it right now and the impact that it’s having on survivors,” Ray-Jones told Al Jazeera.

Other abuse hotlines across the country serving local communities are also experiencing a surge in call volume, such as the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc in Wilmington, North Carolina, which saw a 124 percent increase in calls between March 16 and now compared with the same time period last year.

Other hotlines, such as Harmony House in Springfield, Missouri, however, have seen around the same number in calls since the end of February compared with the same timeframe in 2019 and 2018, though they have experienced a considerable drop in calls during certain weeks of the stay-at-home order. That is likely because survivors are living in isolation with their abuser and have restricted access to technology to reach out to domestic violence advocates, said Lisa Farmer, Harmony House’s executive director.

While domestic violence crisis hotlines are trying to keep up with an increase of potential cases, shelters are struggling to safely respond to the demand while complying with social distancing orders that limit the number of people gathered in social settings, which in turn reduces the available space for victims of domestic violence at shelters.

Shelters fill up

In Virginia Beach, Samaritan House’s 14 shelters across the city are at full capacity, but the number of women and children seeking help has surged since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam shut down schools and nonessential businesses and banned public gatherings of more than 10 people on March 23. Samaritan House is now resorting to hotels as emergency shelters for victims who are in imminent danger.

“We have not closed our doors yet and will not because we are essential services, and because domestic violence is on the rise, we want to remain available for those victims who get the opportunity to reach out,” said Robin Gauthier, Samaritan House’s executive director.

Gauthier’s yearly $30,000 budget for emergency hotels was used up in March and she has already seen a 92 percent increase in sheltering services, compared with the same time last year, and a 148 percent increase in sheltering by hotels. Samaritan House now relies on donations from the public and grants from banks to keep survivors safe at hotels, which can cost up to $4,000 a week.

“If we run out of money, we don’t want to put people on the street,” Gauthier said, adding that her organisation will not turn anyone away if they are in imminent danger. “The only remedy to getting away from your abuser is safe shelter.”

Domestic violence - US
A woman wearing a face covering to help prevent the spread of coronavirus walks past a home which has pasted the word ‘Pray’ in its window [File: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images] 

Gauthier is hoping that social distancing will end in June so she can put more families together in shelters. Samaritan House currently houses 43 adults and 42 children between 14 shelters and hotels. She has applied for hotel funds to assist with eight to 10 families through the end of June.

It is a similar scenario in the nation’s capital.

“Now, what we’re seeing is an increase in survivors needing housing,” said Natalia Otereo, executive director of DC Safe, the only 24/7 crisis intervention agency for domestic violence in Washington, DC. She added that the shelter is running out of space for survivors.

The thing that I fear the most really is the kind of this irreparable harm to people, to women, children.

by Natalia Otereo, executive director of DC Safe

Since DC Safe cannot meet the housing needs with their shelters, they are also putting up survivors in hotels on a temporary basis until they can figure out how they, other agencies in the area or the city’s homeless services can meet the needs of survivors not just in the immediate future, but also on a long-term basis.

“The thing that I fear the most really is the kind of this irreparable harm to people, to women, children especially, in these homes that are experiencing things that they otherwise would not have experienced that, coupled with the isolation and the fear that comes with the COVID crisis just on its own, can really be something that is going to take somebody a long time to get over, not just physically but also emotionally and mentally,” Otereo said. 

Domestic violence advocates like Otero believe that lessons could have been learned from previous crises and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

“I feel that as a society, we already know what happens in times of crisis, and that is the most vulnerable of our populations are the ones that suffer the greatest,” Otero said. “We know that abuse of women and children increases.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US can be reached at 1-800-799-7233 and through their private messaging service:

Source: Al Jazeera