LOS ANGELES — The coronavirus has impacted everyone, some more than others.
One issue is clear: advocates for survivors of domestic violence remain concerned about isolating victims with their abusers and further compromising their safety.
“Staying home may not be the safest option,” according to officials at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In May, the organization released a special report tracking the impact of COVID-19 on victims and survivors.
One hotline contact said, “The abuser was using the virus as a scare tactic to keep the survivor away from their kids.”
Another said, “They were experiencing an escalation of abuse. They had tested positive for COVID-19, and the abuser was using isolation to keep them from contacting family. The abuser threatened the survivor, who is currently in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, with deportation.”
Most of the survivors and victims contacting the hotline were emotionally, verbally and physically abused. A substantial number experienced economic and sexual abuse.
Initially, hotline staff saw the agency’s volume of contacts in March fall “6% compared to the same period last year, but as shelter-in-place began to lift, the contact volume increased by 15% in April (as compared to April 2019).
“We knew that survivors would feel less safe reaching out for support because of being in such close proximity to the abusive partner.”
Hotline officials and other service providers and organizations involved in addressing intimate partner violence “expect to see an unprecedented number of survivors reporting abuse and seeking support in the coming months.
“Even when the major threat of this pandemic is over, there will be long-term effects on the health and safety of survivors”
University of Minnesota professor Oliver Williams, founder, and former director of the Institute for Domestic Violence in the African American Community cautioned that, “Proximity during challenging times … does not cause domestic violence.
“The biggest cause is the capacity of the abuser to handle conflict and challenges in the relationship,” Williams said. “When there is more economic distress, the incidence of domestic violence is higher. That distress is associated with the violence, but not the cause.
“Anxiety over possible illness and death; loss of jobs, income and health insurance; and fear of eviction and homelessness can worsen the danger victims face living in close quarters with their abusers,” Williams added.
“Researchers have found that rates of domestic violence are higher for low-income families. There tends to be more incidents … because they have less latitude.
“As for interventions, there are poor people and people of color who call the police. … Upper- and middle-class families may not call the police. They may have resources to go someplace else.”
Living in Minnesota, Williams could not resist talking about George Floyd, the unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I know the community has had a problem with both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments where the police have killed people … and got off … they got off for harming black men,” Williams said.
“But one of the challenges in the African-American community is we must be able to talk about police brutality and about violence against black women, too.”
Bernita Walker, executive director of Project: PeaceMakers in South Los Angeles, says her clients, most of whom are African-American women and Latinas, are experiencing “higher rates [of intimate partner violence] right now.
“We have received over 50 additional calls per week since the start of the city of L.A.’s ‘Stay-at-Home’ order and had to hire a part-time person just to handle the additional calls — and we need updated office phones.
“We are working to make sure victims and survivors are receiving as many resources as possible during the crisis.”
Referring to the availability of accommodations for victims fleeing violence, Walker said, “There are some emergency shelter programs countywide that have been established for a number of years. They have a limited number of emergency beds, but we also can refer to Project Safe Haven, which houses about 900 people using donations from singer Rhianna and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
“But in the city of L.A. alone, there are … roughly 131 intimate partner violence calls every day to 911. Each call must be evaluated very strongly to see if the victim really needs to be in a shelter.
“We are getting more requests for restraining orders, and it is harder now to get them. We can get the application and a temporary court hearing … the situation is backed up because many courts are closed … and clients can’t take people except for their advocate in with them because of spatial distancing,”
Executive Director Gail Pincus described the situation at the Domestic Abuse Center in Van Nuys.
“Our … clients are ‘OK,’ unless they are living with the abuser; then it is really bad.
“We are in the police stations and doing tons of restraining orders. Emergency protective orders are temporarily extendable to 30 days, but judges don’t want to do it.”
‘Stay-at-home’ orders also place children at risk. Nine percent of the hotline’s contacts from March to May were under the age of 18 years.
“‘Stay-at-home’ orders [have] forced children into isolation with abusive partners,” according to the Battered Women’s Justice Project in Minneapolis, which assists domestic violence victims charged with crimes and their defense teams. “Not surprisingly, [abusers] have used threats of infection with COVID-19 to control their intimate partners and other family members.
“In a time of pandemic, survivors have far more limited access to shelter services, financial assistance, law enforcement responses, and court protections.”
“When there is more economic distress, the incidence of domestic violence is higher.”
— Oliver Williams
By Debra Varnado