By Alia E. Dastagir
March 18, 2020
As the U.S. fights to contain the spread of the coronavirus, vast numbers of Americans are being told to stay home. But what happens when home isn’t safe?
While social distancing benefits those most at risk of becoming seriously ill, experts say it will inevitably make others more vulnerable, including victims of domestic violence.
“Because we are self-isolating, and particularly if the abusive person is self-isolating and has immediate proximity to the victim or survivor, there are various ways in which the risk element may go up,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “There are more means by which the abuser can abuse.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. have been victims of violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, which it defines as rape, physical violence or stalking. Nearly 9 out of 10 incidents of family violence happens in the home of the victim or the home of a friend, relative or neighbor, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The majority of spouse violence occurs in the victim’s home.
Deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus have reached 115. In 2017, more than 2,237 people died in homicides at the hands of intimate partners.
Domestic violence, experts say, is about power and control. In a pandemic, many people feel as though they’re losing control and search for healthy ways to cope. But when an abuser feels powerless, it puts their victim at risk.
Glenn says some abusers may use the COVID-19 outbreak to exert further control. They may discourage victims from leaving the house altogether. They may say it’s not safe to go out with the kids, now home from school and more likely to witness abuse. Critical information sharing about the spread of the virus may be limited.
“We’re hearing concerns from people who are being isolated with their abusive partner because a lot of strategies that they use on a daily basis to survive the abusive relationship – their social network and support systems – they’re going away,” said Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“Their partners are telling them they can’t see their friends or family because of potential exposure. Other partners are threatening to kick victims out and expose them to COVID-19.”
Ray-Jones said a woman who called the hotline said her abusive partner doesn’t believe in medical treatment, so he’s forcing her to wash her hands each day until they’re raw. A teen girl called because she’s terrified to become quarantined with her mother and her mother’s abuser. She typically gets support from her school counselor, but now school is closed.
Many victims of domestic violence already experience social isolation. Abusers often forbid victims from communicating with their families and friends. Certain populations are especially vulnerable, experts say, including rural victims, communities of color and people who identify as LGBTQ, who research shows experience domestic violence at equal or even higher rates compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
Low-income survivors are especially vulnerable during the outbreak, experts say. As restrictions tighten, many low-wage workers are seeing their jobs disappear. Many don’t have access to paid sick leave. Survivors who may have secretly been storing money for an apartment to escape to will be impacted by the loss of income.
“It’s great that everyone is supporting health care workers and emergency services workers, but it’s not always on the top of people’s minds that domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, youth foster care programs, that these types of services also must continue to run,” said Janice Miller, director of programs and clinical services at House of Ruth Maryland, a full-service intimate partner violence organization. “That’s where very vulnerable individuals are living, and we know trauma has an impact on immunity.”
Miller said House of Ruth made the decision early on not to close its emergency shelter or its 24/7 hotline.
“We don’t want to see anyone having to make a choice between their safety and their health,” she said.
Domestic violence experts say governments and communities can help protect victims during the pandemic by continuing to ensure access to emergency services and the courts. In the absence of funding and support, many smaller shelters with limited staffing are facing difficult decisions about whether they can remain open. LGBTQ survivors may be hit particularly hard if services dwindle.
“LGBTQ folks … face bias and discrimination when attempting to access shelter, particularly domestic violence shelter, which is typically geared towards cisgender straight women fleeing violence from their cisgender straight male partners,” said Eliel Cruz, communications director at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an organization dedicated to ending violence against LGBTQ people. “At this time, shelter is even harder to access for everyone, which makes it more challenging for LGBTQ folks.”
Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the crime victim assistance program at Safe Horizon said it’s essential all survivors be able to safely access the help they need.
“Services need the resources and ability to stay open,” Kavern said.
Kavern said it’s also essential workers have access to paid sick leave, especially for hourly workers and those in the service industry, and assurance that public benefits will continue on time.
Ray-Jones said some victims are leaving shelters and returning to their abusers because of fears of infection, but experts stress open shelters have protocols in place for crises and are disinfecting and spacing to keep people as safe as possible. Many of the other services domestic violence organizations provide – such as mental health counseling and job programs – are shifting online to mitigate risk.
Ray-Jones says she’s concerned that even if services are offered remotely, strict isolation measures may mean that many victims won’t access them. Victims typically seek help when their abusers aren’t around. But the restrictions around COVID-19 mean many victims are constantly with their abusers.
She says victims should start to plan ahead before restrictions tighten further.
“Time is of the essence and we need people to be thinking through these strategies before they are locked down and sheltering in place and can’t access help safely,” Ray-Jones said. “Now is a good time to reach out to the hotline and talk to an advocate who can tailor a safety plan to your unique situation.”
Glenn says victims should do what’s safe for them. Organizations are working hard to ensure help is there if and when a victim needs it.
“If you are planning to reach out, please don’t let COVID-19 prevent you from doing that,” Glenn said. “Domestic violence shelters and programs are creatively and safely doing their best to make sure that they are there for survivors.”
Domestic Violence Resources: How you can get help
If you are a victim of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety for themselves and their children.
Safe Horizon’s hotline offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters 1(800) 621-HOPE (4673). It also has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially.
Survivors can also call the New York City Anti-Violence Project’s 24/7 English/Spanish hotline at 212-714-1141 and get support. If calling is not safe but email is possible, make a report at avp.org/get-help and leave safe contact information, and someone will reach out.
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
For people who identify as LGBTQ, if you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can also contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386.