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It seems most everything is closing down because of the Coronavirus, aka COVID-19, now considered a global pandemic. Schools, restaurants and other retail and service industries are temporarily suspending business to help curb the spread following the CDC’s recommendation of social distancing, advising any events with over 50 people be cancelled for the next eight weeks. Individuals are urged to stay at home as much as possible—work from home, order-in groceries, cancel nonessential doctor’s appointments and elective surgeries—basically, self-quarantine.
But for those trapped inside with an abusive partner, this strange new reality can bring with it the added horror of an uptick in abuse and a partner who may be purposefully misleading them to think help is no longer available. The reality is that the shelters we’ve heard from are all operating as normal, highly aware of the importance of keeping services accessible.
‘We Haven’t Gone Away ... We’re Still Here’
Lead domestic violence advocate Dominique Scott at the YWCA Seattle Emergency Shelter tells DomesticShelters.org, “As of today, nothing has changed for us. We’re still here. We’re still working. We’re still screening.” The 48-bed shelter is still open to survivors needing refuge, their helpline is still being answered (mostly by Scott, who comes in 50 to 60 hours a week).
“I’m not going to let this scare me away from coming,” she says. “We’re just being a little more aggressive with our bleaching and sanitization.”
Scott admits what she is scared about is how the stress of a pandemic could affect those still with an abuser. With businesses shutting down, the economic strain will undoubtedly mean tensions rise and, as a result, more violence at home and fewer options for survivors trying to escape. Survivors who may have had an emergency cash fund saved up to leave an abuser might have to use it to support their family if they can’t work.
“We have women [in shelter] that work for the school systems, and they’re not able to work. How are they even supposed to progress to get out of here? I feel really bad for the whole demographic,” says Scott.
Denise Akapo is the shelter director at Family Rescue’s Rosenthal Family Lodge, a 36-bed domestic violence shelter in Chicago. Like the YWCA, she says it’s business as usual there. Their emergency hotline is open 24 hours a day and women and children at high risk are still being admitted. The only change has been telling volunteers to stay home, though Akapo is concerned for the staff still working with compromised immune systems.
“It’s going to be difficult and challenging .... [but] we haven’t gone away; we’re still here.”
A Surge of Violence Could Be Coming
In China, where COVID-19 was first discovered last December and where at least 3,200 people have died from it so far, advocates report three times as many domestic violence calls as compared to last year. One could point to fear and anxiety, along with financial strain from lost wages, as perpetuating the violence (though it’s important to remember plenty of people are afraid and anxious and aren’t abusive).
“Families under mandated or self-imposed quarantine due to symptoms of the illness, a potential exposure, or the risk thereof may face economic and social stressors that are known to exacerbate the risk of abuse,” writes Lynn Fairweather, domestic violence threat assessment consultant.
She points to incidents like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when researchers found a 98 percent spike in physical abuse toward women.
Advocates like Akapo worry that uptick could be coming.
“I imagine that’s a realistic possibility at some point,” says Akapo.
How Abusers Will Use COVID-19 Against Survivors
Abusers will likely exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to their own advantage. “This is another opportunity for an abusive partner to control their partner,” says Akapo.
Survivors should be aware that abusers may....
- Manipulate survivors into believing there are no resources available for them or that police or paramedics won’t respond to their calls.
- Try to tell survivors that the abuser is infected, that they’ve infected the survivor, and if the survivor leaves them, they’ll put others at risk (a way to tray them at home).
- Forbid the survivor from seeing friends or family because of the risk.
- Downplay the risk and force the survivor to leave the house, or threaten to kick them out and expose them to the virus.
- Limit sharing critical information about the virus with survivors.
Make sure the information you’re receiving about COVID-19 and the response recommendations are correct by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. The CDC also lists the symptoms for COVID-19 and gives instructions for what to do if you suspect you are infected.
Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells USA Today that a woman called the hotline to say an abusive partner doesn't believe in medical treatment, so he's forcing her to wash her hands each day until they're raw. Another young girl called because she's afraid of being quarantined with her mother and her mother's abusive partner. She typically gets support from her school counselor, but now school is closed.
DomesticShelters.org posed the question on our Facebook support group: Are any survivors worried about a quarantine with an abusive partner in the home? The replies ranged from “Yes yes yes” to “That’s my biggest fear.” A survivor named “Abby” (name changed for protection) told DomesticShelters.org that she recently escaped a physically and verbally abusive partner of nine years. Even though she has her own home, the abuser has been trying to convince her and her children they should be staying with him right now.
“He’s ... not wanting me to leave his house. He’s telling me what I should do, and to stay at his house. I told him I want to stay the night at my house and he gets upset.”
Safety Planning for a Quarantine
Coming up with a plan of what you can do will take away some of the anxiety about the unknown. If you’re afraid of being trapped in a home with an abusive partner, walk through the possible scenarios and decide ahead of time what your response will be.
DomesticShelters.org offers a multitude of articles on creating safety plans here, but you may also start by asking yourself these questions:
- Do I feel like my health and my children’s health will be put at risk if I’m quarantined with my partner?
- Is there anywhere else I can go where I will be safe for an extended period of time?
- Have I contacted a domestic violence advocate near me for options in my community?
- Is there a friend or family member I can stay with if shelters are full?
- If I’m afraid of leaving without my pets, can I find a safe place for them to go? (See this article for resources.)
The National Domestic Violence Hotline warns that abusers may implement tactics such as withholding necessary supplies like medication, hand sanitizer, insurance cards or may prevent survivors from seeking medical care.
Also important to note: The shelters we spoke to said they do not discriminate against survivors who are sick, nor would they ask a survivor to leave if they became sick. Scott says the YWCA’s protocol would be to seek medical help while limiting the survivor’s contact with others, potentially housing them at a nearby hotel instead of in shelter. “We’d never kick them out,” she says.
At Family Rescue, Akapo says the shelter can hold a survivor’s bed for three days if they are hospitalized, and then work with the hospital to get the survivor situated somewhere once discharged.
Finally, even if survivors choose to stay with an abuser during a quarantine, self-care is vitally important. Stress can lower one’s immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses. Everyone should make sure they’re getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of water, eating healthy and finding a support system in some capacity. See our Taking Care of You section for more ideas on self-care strategies.
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