As millions across the U.S. stay home to help flatten the curve, domestic violence organizations and support systems are scrambling to adapt to the rapidly shifting landscape.
Early last week, as the novel coronavirus exploded from state to state, a woman called the National Domestic Violence Hotline in a crisis: Her partner had tried to strangle her and she needed medical help, but feared going to the hospital because of the virus.
Another woman was being forced to choose between work and home. “He threatened to throw me out if I didn’t work from home,” she said. “He said if I started coughing, he was throwing me out in the street and that I could die alone in a hospital room.”
In another call, a girl — aged between 13 and 15 (specific identifiers have been removed to protect the callers) — said that her mother’s partner had just abused her mother, then gone on to abuse the girl herself. But with schools shut, turning to a teacher or a counselor for help was not an option.
These instances, gleaned from the hotline’s first responders, highlight two important facets of things to come during the coronavirus crisis. First, as lawmakers across the country order lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus, the lives of people stuck in physically or emotionally abusive relationships have — and will — become harder, which has already been seen in the pandemic hotspots of China and Italy.
Second, the virus raises the stakes for domestic violence services across the country as they scramble to adapt to a patchwork of new government policies and restrictions that shift day by day and vary from state to state.
“We know that any time an abusive partner may be feeling a loss of power and control — and everybody’s feeling a loss of power and control right now — it could greatly impact how victims and survivors are being treated in their homes,” said Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the hotline.
She expects to see the intensity and frequency of abuse escalate, even if the number of individual cases doesn’t — a pattern that experts witnessed during the economic downturn of 2008 and immediately after 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.
In the U.S., more than one in three women has experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner (defined as current or former spouses or partners) in their lifetime, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in recent years, the number of domestic violence cases (which includes assault by intimate partners and family members) has spiked, making up more than half of all violent crimes in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Justice Bureau.
Spending days, weeks or even months in the presence of an abusive partner takes an immense emotional toll too, said Teresa Burns, who manages the Casa de Esperanza shelter in St. Paul, Minn. And that’s exactly the conditions that the coronavirus lockdown has set up.
Many of Burns’s clients are undocumented individuals whose immigration status can become a means of control by abusive partners. It’s not uncommon for abusers to claim that survivors will be deported if they seek help.
She fears these types of threats will escalate during the coronavirus crisis, and with information about the government’s response changing nearly by the hour, survivors may not know who or what to believe.
Those who may have felt safe once their partner left for work or their children were at school now live without any window of relief as businesses and schools shutter. “When the mind is constantly in fight, flight, freeze [mode] because of perpetual fear, that can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health,” Burns said.
Shelters across the country are adapting as best they can while trying to keep pace with constantly changing virus regulations, including implementing social distancing practices on site, taking temperatures of newcomers and regularly cleaning and disinfecting common spaces.
In New York, now considered the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., shelters are categorized as essential services and are encouraged to keep functioning as normally as possible, even though many are at or almost at capacity, said Kelli Owens, executive director of the state’s Prevention of Domestic Violence office.
But several organizations have started to cut back on certain services and may have to turn away newcomers soon to avoid overcrowding at shelters. Drop-in counseling centers are shut down and in-person support groups are suspended.
One survivor, Maggie, 25, who spoke to The Times via Twitter, and is working to heal from an abusive relationship she left five years ago, said that in recent weeks, her weekly therapy appointment moved online and her support group was canceled altogether, which has made it even more difficult for her to cope with her increased isolation. As a result, she’s fallen back into unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking and smoking, she said.
“I imagine many survivors, even if they are safe in their home, are experiencing long hours of sitting alone with traumatic thoughts and nightmares due to increased anxiety,” Maggie said.
Advocates, who are often the first responders in cases of domestic violence, are fielding questions remotely, preparing those who can’t flee for worst case situations, known as safety planning.
“We’re having really difficult conversations, running through horrific scenarios,” Ray-Jones said.
“What that could mean is, OK, if an argument breaks out, where is the safest place in your house? Keep arguments out of the kitchen, out of the bathroom, which can be really dangerous spaces. If you need to go sleep in your car, is that a possibility?”
Organizations most often take these kinds of questions over the phone, but being in such proximity with an abuser can turn the simple act of a phone call into such a dangerous gamble that many are preparing for fewer calls on their hotline and more questions via their text and online chat services that are available around the clock.
Meanwhile, with courts closing across the country and advocates, who would typically help survivors navigate the judicial system, working remotely, yet another avenue of support for people experiencing abuse is further complicated, said Susan Pearlstein, the co-supervisor of the Family Law Unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance.
Still, the public should know that obtaining a legal protection order is considered an essential service by most jurisdictions and “many courts are trying to have access open for domestic violence survivors and to allow order petitions of abuse or restraining orders to be filed,” either over the phone or electronically, Pearlstein said.
“This is a really heartbreaking time,” said Ray-Jones, speaking to the overall heightened anxiety during this uncertain period.
Resources for victims and survivors:
Anti-Violence Project offers a 24-hour English/Spanish hotline for L.G.B.T.Q.+ experiencing abuse or hate-based violence: call 212-714-1141
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available around the clock and in more than 200 languages: call 1-800-799-SAFE or chat with their advocates here or text LOVEIS to 22522.
New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline is available in multiple languages: call 1-800-942-6906 for English. For deaf or hard of hearing: 711
For immediate dangers, call 911.