Last August, a woman called a domestic violence hotline in Utah four times. She needed shelter so that she and her children could leave an abusive situation. But more than six months later, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), she is still living with that abuser, waiting to find a safe place to go.
Hers is not the outlier experience. For countless survivors, escaping an abuser takes time—both to work up the conviction and resources to flee and to secure at least some basic housing. But as the coronavirus spreads nationwide, victims are faced with an unprecedented complication. Public health officials and statewide leaders have communicated this in no uncertain terms: Don’t leave home.
Their guidance—urging Americans to stay inside their homes as much as possible—is meant to stem the disease’s spread. And it’s important counsel, keeping exposure to a minimum and therefore ensuring that more people remain uninfected. But for those experiencing domestic violence, recommendations meant to protect them could put them at risk of more abuse.
“Isolation that provides us safety from the virus is isolation that can make an abusive situation more dangerous.”
“The reality is home is not a safe place if you’re with an abusive partner,” says Kelly Starr, public affairs director with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Isolation that provides us safety from the virus is isolation that can make an abusive situation more dangerous.”
Domestic violence is about power and control. One way to exert both is to keep a partner away from the rest of the world. “Isolation is a huge factor in somebody being able to gain and maintain power and control over another person,” Starr says. Abusers often cut off partners from their family and friends while controlling where they can go and when. Many of these same conditions are now being imposed by the coronavirus crisis, which requires people to stay inside and away from others as much as possible. Now abusers have “complete access to what someone is doing 24/7—that’s really dangerous for survivors,” she says.
“An abuser can use any tool to exert control over their victim, including a national health concern such as Covid-19,” says Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of NNEDV. “We’re definitely worried that [abuse] incidents will increase and that situations will become more dangerous.”
Gaining some distance can also help cool an abusive situation. But now there are “[fewer] options for separation and a pause between partners,” Starr says. “That can really escalate a situation that’s abusive into a more dangerous situation.”
With adults and children stuck at home, victims will have fewer opportunities to seek help. Even something as small as making a call to a hotline could become impossible in close, shared quarters. And while some victims will be able to turn to online chats or text message services, finding the private time to even formulate a plan or look into local resources is going to prove difficult.
Advocates all agree that coronavirus won’t cause domestic violence. A pandemic doesn’t force someone to become violent or abusive. But for those in a fraught situation, the crisis could increase the number of incidents or make them even more dangerous. With more people at home either doing remote work or out of a job, abusers will have more time on their hands. That can also increase violence. “It can really escalate the situation,” Starr says.
“I worry about an uptick in abuse for those who are already subjected to it,” Vagins says. “I worry about lethality going up.”
Nationwide, the realities of social distancing are setting in. But for this group, isolation is pronounced, and home isn’t a haven from danger—it's ground zero for it.
“When you don’t have as much outside contact with other people, you can feel really alone, and it can be more dangerous for survivors.”
“Domestic violence is already a really isolating experience for people,” notes Beth Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, a domestic violence and sexual assault services provider in Sacramento, California. Now everyone across the country is more disconnected than they usually are. “When you don’t have as much outside contact with other people,” Starr says, “you can feel really alone, and it can be more dangerous for survivors.”
Moreover, strict quarantine robs victims of access to other people who can validate their experiences. Abusers will often tell their partners that the abuse is their fault or that they’re the only ones experiencing it. “That makes you feel more stuck,” Starr says. “When you’re not talking to other people as much it gives it so much more weight and so much more power, and you feel so alone.”
But that’s also where someone’s personal network can step in. We should “think about friends and family as really first responders in this situation,” Starr says. A quick check in over the phone or text can help a victim feel connected and supported, which could be vital to helping her think about getting to safety. A friend doesn’t have to “be a detective,” Starr notes. Just a question about how someone is doing—an obvious thing to ask right now, no matter the circumstances—can be enough. “Knowing someone is there and listening and not judging is a lifeline,” she says.
“It’s really important to remember that we actually can and need to stay socially connected, even though we’re physically distant,” Starr added.
But coronavirus doesn’t just put a survivor at greater risk or complicate how she might reach out for help. With the devastating strain it’s putting on families’ finances, it’s bound to make it harder for survivors to be able to afford to leave an abusive situation. Nearly one in five Americans already reported losing their jobs or losing hours at work due to coronavirus in mid-March.
“Access to money and finances and resources are really critical for people to have options to find safety,” Starr says. “As we’re seeing those things shrink. That leaves people stuck and without options.” In 2012, while the economy was still recovering from the recession, nearly three-quarters of victims said they stayed longer with their abusive partners for economic reasons. “People losing jobs or…feeling [they] might lose a job—that absolutely keeps people in place longer,” Hassett says.
And in an economic downturn, the conditions victims are living in could deteriorate further. The same 2012 survey found that the majority of shelters reported that the abuse survivors’ experienced was more violent in the aftermath of the recession than it had been before. Hassett anticipates a similar trend could play out now. “So many people aren’t working now. They’re working from home. The kids are there, and the kids are stir-crazy,” Hassett says. “It’s adding a whole lot of pressure to families that possibly can’t sustain that pressure in a safe and healthy way.”
“Services are being stretched to the limit.”
That’s already proving true. In Washington, Starr has heard from providers in her area that they’re already experiencing an increase in calls from survivors needing assistance. Vagins has heard the same from the providers in her network. And as abuse escalates, providers who help victims leave dangerous situations now have to grapple with the coronavirus themselves. Before the crisis hit, providers were unable to respond to the over 11,000 requests for help they received in a given day last year. Now, meeting that need is going to be even harder.
“Services are being stretched to the limit,” Vagins says. Many staff members are now trying to work remotely, and they may have children at home to care for with schools closed. Their bandwidth is limited. “Programs are definitely feeling the strain,” Starr says. “They are trying to keep their own workers and their families safe and also they are experiencing a high volume in need.”
Some of the work they do is now being offered over the phone or by text. Hassett’s organization is doing all counseling over the phone, for example. But there’s no technological substitute for some of what survivors need. WEAVE has locked its main office and can’t take walk-ins. It is no longer sending advocates to accompany people for rape examinations, nor can it provide much-needed education in schools. Before the coronavirus even hit, a program in Missouri got a call from a survivor at a courthouse who was in tears after her abusive partner had threatened her and her children with a gun, according to NNEDV. She needed their help getting a protective order; those in-person services will no longer be feasible for most programs.
And as the disease spreads further, other resources that survivors could turn to for help will continue to shut down or become harder to access. In California, Hassett says the courts have postponed proceedings. Although someone can still get a temporary restraining order or emergency custody order, a regular custody or divorce process could come to a halt. “We’re seeing a lot of continuances in cases where the victim was hoping to get things wrapped up and be out of that relationship,” Hassett says. Abusers often try to drag out court proceedings to continue the abuse and keep trying to exert control over their partners.
Shelters, meanwhile, are in perhaps the most precarious position of all—trying to keep people both well and safe. “These organizations are also grappling with the unprecedented challenge of communally housing and providing services just as the public health crisis requires distance and separation,” Vagins says. Some are taking precautions such as keeping families separated from others in their facilities. WEAVE runs a housing program with 60 people in emergency or transitional shelter; Hassett can’t take any new clients into her safe house because she doesn’t want to risk exposing the people who are already there to the virus. Normally, her staff screens people for whether they need to enter the safe house and puts them on the list for when someone leaves, but no one is doing those screenings at the moment. One person is about to move out, and the organization would otherwise be preparing to have another person come in. Now the bed will stay empty.
“Our feeling is every time somebody moves out it’s an opportunity to spread people out a little more,” Hassett says. Other shelters are paying to put survivors in hotels either to isolate them from everyone else because they’re already full or don’t have enough space.
Things are difficult for the people in shelter, too. Hassett’s organization has told families to remain in their own rooms and not mingle with others. It’s had to cut down on programming, and the average client has two kids with her. “The kids are trying to stay six feet away from each other,” she says. But it’s “hard to keep a two-year-old from running around…. It’s nuts.”
Of course, advocates don’t want to discourage those who need help from reaching out. “We want survivors to know they’re not alone,” Vagins says, adding that those in abusive situations should continue to look up providers in their area. But Vagins is also realistic: organizations need resources to keep operating and responding to the growing need.
“It’s really funding,” Vagins says. “Funding is urgently needed.” Government money is needed to help pay for hotel stays for survivors who either have to quarantine themselves outside of shelters due to exposure or in the event that shelters themselves have to close. Programs need more funding for high-speed internet to be able to respond to victims and more cleaning and protective supplies to keep shelters safe. Victims need help affording childcare with schools closed, and in the meantime, costs add up—food, rent, diapers. “The needs are similar to what we see after a natural disaster, but much more challenging because Covid-19 is impacting the entire country at once,” Vagins says.
NNEDV is pressing Congress to include specific help for domestic violence providers and the people they serve in any subsequent coronavirus stimulus package. “We do need very specific policy changes for survivors of domestic violence in this crisis,” Vagins says. That includes an infusion of money into the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act, which goes to emergency shelters, hotlines, and counseling; the Violence Against Women Act, a huge and comprehensive source of domestic violence prevention, and in particular its housing and assault services programs and grants to courts so they can remotely process restraining orders and custody cases; and money for the national domestic violence hotline. Programs also need “flexible funding sources” to make sure they can keep operating and serving people in the long term, Vagins says.
Until then, victims are in a precarious situation. Hassett is particularly worried about homes where there are guns, especially as the virus has led to a huge increase in people buying them. “We’re concerned about a spike in either domestic violence homicides or murder-suicides,” she says. What victims need is to get out of a toxic situation—and fast, Hassett says. “This is just dragging it all out even longer.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for confidential support.
Originally Appeared on Glamour