Across the country, as people shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, quarantining measures present increased dangers for those without a safe home environment. In an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, Crystal Justice, chief marketing and development officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, reported that in the past month they have received more than 3,100 contacts from survivors citing COVID-19 as a factor of their experience and that abusers are using the pandemic to further control and isolate victims. Locally, according to the Charlottesville Police Department, there has been a slight increase in 911 calls for domestic violence in Charlottesville over the past few weeks.
“Domestic violence is happening all the time. I think we all know that. And one of the issues specific to domestic violence is it tends to happen behind closed doors,” said Sarah Ellis, the fundraising and development coordinator for the Shelter for Help in Emergency, a Charlottesville support agency for survivors of domestic violence. “Currently, we have everybody being told to go home, stay home … it’s the safe place. … That’s entirely the opposite for domestic violence victims. They might be safer from the virus at home, but home isn’t necessarily a safe place for them.”
While SHE has not yet seen an increase in demand for their services and programs, Ellis believes this is most likely due to increased obstacles victims face in reaching out.
“If you think about it, if you’re home with your abuser, the likelihood is that you can’t pick up the phone the way you might have done before and call our hotline. You might be waiting for a moment when that person’s out of the house, or perhaps you can go to the grocery store and call from there, but it’s definitely cutting down on what were already narrow opportunities for domestic violence victims to reach out,” she said.
Ellis noted that her colleagues at domestic violence shelters across the country have been experiencing the same thing, and they expect to see more people reaching out about abuse during this time once the stay-at-home order is lifted.
Child abuse cases may likewise increase due to COVID-19 without an increase in reporting of cases until current social distancing measures end.
“In 2008, when there was a recession, that brought an uptick in child abuse cases, and we expect the same or worse increases occurring right now,” said Cynthia Hurst, executive director of Foothills Child Advocacy Center, “but, of course, we don’t know for sure exactly how that is because children aren’t seeing the daycare providers, the guidance counselors, the teachers and the other people in whom they might confide or who may simply notice. These things aren’t happening right now because the children are in the home with their abuser and they have nowhere to go.”
“We usually see an uptick in the fall, as well, after kids have been home from school in the summertime,” Hurst added, “So with this prolonged period, and the additional stress, that’s a big problem.”
Kathryn Laughon, forensic nurse examiner and associate professor of nursing at the University of Virginia, stressed how domestic abuse, like so many other things, will disproportionately impact different groups according to structural inequalities.
“A reason that women may stay or return to a violent relationship is they literally have nowhere else to go,” Laughon said. “Given the structural racism in America, … If you’re poor and white, you might live in a neighborhood that’s mixed income, but if you’re poor and Black, you probably live in a neighborhood where everyone around you is just about as poor, which means that no one has an extra bedroom. Nobody has extra bus money. It’s just harder.”
She also noted that it’s much harder for undocumented people suffering from domestic abuse to reach out to support systems. During this time, with families under economic pressure and concerned about COVID-19 spreading into their homes, it might be even harder than normal to find this kind of support from friends, family, or neighbors.
Additionally, being quarantined at home can pose an increased threat to LGBTQ+ youth who aren’t out or have unaccepting families. LGBTQ+ youth already suffer from disproportionately high rates of attempted suicide, and Amy-Sarah Marshall, president of Charlottesville Pride Community Network, worries that this situation might increase mental health risks for youth quarantined with families who don’t accept their identities.
Side by Side, a Virginia LGBTQ+ support network, has shifted their weekly youth support groups online. Rowan Johnson, Side by Side’s Charlottesville youth programs coordinator, hopes this will enable youth who might have lived too far away in the past to attend; however, he worries about the youth he knows who might not be out at home or have actively unsupportive families, for whom things like school and support group were important escapes.
“We’re not seeing them in group,” Johnson said. “A lot of them we haven’t seen since this started, and those are the ones we’re most worried about. … If you’re in a house where you’re being misgendered, or if you’re not out, you obviously might not feel comfortable calling in.”
Side by Side currently is attempting to schedule one-on-one check-ins with youth who don’t feel safe participating in a Zoom support group from home — taking careful precautions not to put them in danger — but lacking individual contact information for everyone, it can be difficult to get in touch with those who may need support. Johnson emphasized his desire to get the word out that Side-by-Side is still working to support new and returning youth. This is true of other organizations, too.
During this time, resources, like 24/7 hotlines, are still operating. Locally, SHE remains open, taking extra precautions to keep the shelter COVID-free. Foothills Child Advocacy Center remains open, as well, conducting forensic interviews and medical exams and helping families with advocacy. Foothills Child Advocacy Center, SHE, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency and ReadyKids have moved therapy, counseling, and other support services online and are still accepting new clients during this time.
The government, too, has kept open crucial avenues for aid for those experiencing domestic abuse. Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order specifically allows for people to leave their homes to seek social services, to seek medical attention or due to fear for health or safety. The courts are still open on a limited basis, protective orders are still available at clerk’s offices and victim witness advocates are still available by phone.
Laughon emphasized the importance of encouraging victims to get information on websites and via hotlines.
“Leaving the abuser isn’t the only strategy, and I think sometimes folks worry if they ask for help, they’re going to be told they have to leave,” Laughon said. “No one’s ever going to say that. Leaving is actually pretty dangerous, right? So what I would want is for people to think about what all of their options are and, if they decide to leave, how they can leave safely.”
Laughon recommended the app myPlan, a secure, evidence-based safety-planning app designed to help people in unsafe domestic situations find resources, weigh risks, and make informed decisions. Additionally, if you know someone who may be unsafe, you can use the app as a friend seeking information for someone else.
In general, Laughon stressed the importance of reaching out to family members and friends you might be worried about. “You don’t even have to reach out specifically and say, ‘I’m worried that you’re being hurt,’ but anything that keeps lines of communication open and helps reduce isolation is going to have a positive effect,” she said.
Jacki Bryant, executive director of ReadyKids, echoed this idea. “It’s not an individual response; it’s a community response,” Bryant said. “What we need is for community members to be looking out for kids and families.”
“Rather than exaggerating, most people experiencing this are minimizing what’s happening,” Laughon said. “To the extent you can just like, be available. You could be a lifeline.”
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-422-4253
Child Protective Services Hotline: 800-552-7096 (in state) or 804-786-8536 (out of state)
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 TTY
ReadyKids Teen Counseling Hotline: 434-972-7233
Sexual Assault Resource Agency Hotline: 434-977-7273 or 866-663-6482 TTY
Shelter for Help in Emergency Hotline: 434-293-8509 V/TTY
Side by Side Youth Support Line: 888-644-4390