Advocates for survivors of domestic violence and the programs that assist survivors are worried about the unintended side effect stay-at-home orders could have on those living in dangerous situations.
With nearly everyone stuck at home in close quarters for most of the day thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and with the additional stress the situation causes, advocates are concerned that violent situations could escalate.
“The general mantra that’s being put out is that home is your safe place,” said Sarah Ellis, fundraising and development coordinator for Shelter For Help In Emergency, the local family and intimate partner violence shelter. “For victims of domestic violence that’s probably not true. In your home is probably where you’re least safe when you’re living with your abuser.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of Charlottesville-based The Women’s Initiative, said that one of the main components of domestic violence is an abuser isolating their victim and limiting their contact with others so they cannot seek help.
“Frankly people in domestic violence situations feel trapped anyway,” she said. “They don’t need a pandemic to feel trapped.”
Alesha Durfee, a domestic violence advocate and professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, said statistics aren’t available in the U.S., but in all countries reporting data, domestic violence has “dramatically increased” with stay-at-home orders.
“You are in a confined area with your abuser 24 hours a day. It’s very difficult in those situations,” she said. “If it’s getting heated at home you can’t take the kids down the street to the playground.”
Durfee said many of the coping mechanisms that victims have developed aren’t available because many were outside of the house. The pandemic has also added emotional and financial stress that can make the situation escalate.
“Some of the responses they have just aren’t available,” she said. “That means there isn’t some kind of break for the survivor. … If they no longer have those informal tools, that has to take a toll on how they’re able to deal with these situations.”
Ellis, Irvin and Durfee, who was once a volunteer with the Seattle Police Department’s Crisis Advocacy Team, offered several options for victims to escape their abuser.
First and foremost, one should develop and maintain a safety plan that focuses on what to do if violence occurs and where they can go.
“When you are in danger you walk out,” Durfee said. “You don’t pick up your keys. You don’t pick up your phone. You simply walk out the door and you don’t go back.”
For example, Durfee recommended staying in rooms with multiple exits and avoiding dangerous areas like kitchens and bathrooms as much as possible.
Durfee said victims should have a “go bag” with as many clothes, documents and other items needed to get out of the house. Normally, that bag might be stored at home. However, Durfee recommended leaving it at someone else’s house because the abuser will have more time to find it if they’re confined at home.
In situations that aren’t violent, but have the threat of violence, J. Nile Wagley, a local clinical psychologist, recommended creating physical space and boundaries in the house since options to leave home aren’t as available.
“It’s the same problems that existed before, just without the ability to get away from the person,” he said.
Ellis and Durfee said survivors are “resilient,” but emphasized that every situation is unique and what may help one person might not work for another. They recommended calling the local shelter to work through a specialized plan.
“It could be that the plan they had to get out isn’t mangeable now under the restrictions we are all under,” Ellis said. “Our message is: if you can reach out to us, do. And if you’re not able to, is there a friend or a neighbor you can get a message to call us?” Ellis said. “We’re there if you need us.”
Perhaps most importantly, those in violent or potentially situations should know that resources are still available and shelters remain open despite the pandemic. Courts are still providing emergency protective orders.
“You may feel trapped, but you’re not,” Irvin said. “There are still ways to reach out for long-term and short-term help. There are people out here and will believe them and they can get the help they need.”
If someone wants to save the numbers for resources without the abuser finding them, Durfee recommended saving them under a family member’s name and changing the 800 number to the local area code.
“I think COVID just adds that much more barriers to getting help, leaving a relationship, the ability to find help because they can monitor you all time,” she said. “Know that even though there’s a stay-at home order it doesn’t apply to domestic violence. It doesn’t apply to sexual assault. It’s still OK to leave and your safety is the most important thing.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, the Shelter For Help In Emergency operates a 24-hour hotline at (434) 293-8509.
The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance maintains a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-838-8238 or by text at (804) 793-9999.
Ellis said the shelter serves about 200 women and children a year in its emergency shelter, another 300 to 400 with general services and receives 1,200 to 1,500 calls a year on its emergency hotline. The shelter welcomes financial support or donations of cleaning items, gloves and paper goods.