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If you had asked survivors of domestic violence before the pandemic what their biggest stressor would be, many would have probably talked about the panic surrounding leaving. How to leave an abuser, when to leave and how to stay alive when doing so (it’s notoriously the most dangerous time).
And then, a pandemic hit. And the entire world was told to stay home. That included survivors... and the abusive partners they may have been considering leaving. Together. In one living space.
“We’re ... experiencing a lot of frantic, quick calls and abrupt hang-ups because, in many cases, the caller is contacting us while the abusive partner is in the other room.”
That’s Women Against Abuse Board Chair Leslie Miller Greenspan in a recent online video talking about what survivors are saying when they call the emergency hotline. Women Against Abuse is a 44-year-old nonprofit organization and Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence agency. They operate the only emergency shelters in the city for survivors fleeing abusive partners. They have 200 beds to serve the area’s 1.58 million people. They also operate the Philadelphia Domestic Abuse Hotline (866-723-3014) alongside Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Lutheran Settlement House and Women in Transition.
Greenspan says many survivors are looking to avoid shelter, and instead want help finding ways to stay safe at home with an abuser. Many say they’re reluctantly trading sex for safety.
“They’re being sexually abused ... in order to keep other forms of violence at bay,” Greenspan says.
And they’re asking about legal protections—how can they file an order of protection when courts are closed due to the quarantine?
“It is devastating to see the effects COVID-19 is having on clients,” Greenspan says.
Shelters Are Hurting, But Still Operating
Like shelters all across the country, Women Against Abuse says they’re doing the best they can to keep up with the unique needs during a pandemic. But it’s draining them.
“Costs have skyrocketed because essential staff is receiving hazard pay, plus there’s the protective equipment and additional supplies we need to buy,” says Katie Katie Young Wildes, senior communication specialist with the Philadelphia nonprofit, which is taking every precaution they can to keep their participants safe.
As a result, there’s not a lot left over for things the nonprofit wishes they had right now—like a texting or online chat option for survivors to reach out when calling is next-to-impossible.
“There hasn’t been funding for that yet [in Philadelphia]. We really wish we had that right now,” says Wildes.
Their marketing budget is also nearly nonexistent, preventing them from getting the word out to survivors that shelters’ doors are still open. They’re worried that survivors could feel abandoned during the pandemic, or that abusive partners will tell victims that no one is out there to assist them. In fact, the opposite is true.
“We have reached out to all the local stations in our area asking if they would run PSAs [public service announcements] for the hotline and haven’t gotten a lot of response,” Wildes says. Only the local NBC affiliate agreed to help, and a local consulting firm, Ethnologica, offered to create a video PSA for them pro bono.
“We’ve also been creating little promotional packets with social media graphics and fliers for city council, to get them to send to constituents. We’re trying to access all the free options.”
Ida Petkus is the executive director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center in Celebration, Fl. She echoes Wildes sentiment that she wishes there were more ways to get the word out to survivors that shelters are still in operation, even suggesting home delivery grocery services like Instacart could be running PSAs on their website.
“If they did this type of ... campaign, victims feel abusers are less likely to abuse to the extreme, as the abuser knows their victim can seek help if they need to.”
Emotional Support Needed
Even if survivors wanted to leave during the pandemic, it could be challenging. With many individuals out of work, this includes abusers. How can a survivor escape, especially with children, if an abuser is always there? If the survivor has lost their job, how can she or he save enough money to get anywhere. Not to mention the safe havens, as they refer to them at Women Against Abuse, are almost always at capacity.
“It’s a tough time to leave the house. More and more callers are asking for emotional support and safety planning—how can I mitigate the risk while I’m here?” says Wildes.
Petkus says a recent call to her shelter’s hotline came from a survivor in a parking lot, her children in asleep in their car seats.
“At home, the abuser stands over when she sleeps and has purchased handcuffs and has guns,” Petkus says, who advised the survivor how to get an order of protection and gave her an escape plan.
“I reminded her, no dramatic exit.”
Each survivor’s situation is unique, but safety planning may look like creating a go-bag with important paperwork and medication in case the individual, like the survivor above, needs to leave abruptly. It could be identifying the safest room where they know there’s no weapons (aka, avoid the kitchen), and going there during an argument. They advise survivors to keep their cell phones on them at all times. They talk about de-escalation or talking an abuser down when things start to get dangerous.
If these sound like less-than-ideal options for someone in grave danger, it’s because they are. But right now, it’s all some survivors have. And, as any advocate will tell you, a survivor alone knows best when it’s the right time to leave. So simply advising anyone with an abusive partner to walk out the door and never look back isn’t going to keep everyone safe.
On a potentially brighter note, Wildes says she’s also heard about an increase in callers asking how to tell others about the abuse as a potential avenue for escape.
“More people want to disclose this in hopes family and friends will offer them a safe place to stay. They’ve worked really hard to keep this secret [and ask], How can I tell them this?”
Protection Orders Over the Phone
Even though the safe havens at Women Against Abuse offer survivors private or semi-private rooms, and a subsequent lower chance of cross-contamination as compared with dormitory settings, there are still valid concerns from survivors about communal living.
“I think right now folks right now would like to avoid congregate living,” says Wildes. So, instead, they’re asking about orders of protection (OOP) to keep abusers away, which brings us back to that pesky issue of courts being closed.
In Philadelphia at least, Women Against Abuse has been instrumental in pushing for orders of protection to be granted over the phone in this unique time, as well as through the local Criminal Justice Center. Instructions can be found on their website.
In other cities, it’s best to call your local domestic violence shelter and inquire about options in your area. In New York, for example, a virtual Courtroom Advocates Project allows survivors to use apps like Zoom or Skype to file for an OOP. Tucson, Ariz. is also offering a similar online service.
Stand With Survivors
Wildes calls this time “a critical moment to stand with survivors,” and for good reason. More survivors than ever need help and shelters like Wildes’ are not sure how to cover that need.
“We’re a little worried about next fiscal year because we know the government at every level is going to be making cuts and be very concerned about funds. I know that’s not unique to us—every nonprofit is struggling,” she says. “COVID isn’t going to be solved by the end of May. If there’s another breakout in fall or winter, services are still available.”
There is a way to directly help your local shelter (or any shelter, really). Visit the DomesticShelters.org Wish List page and purchase items off a shelter’s Amazon Wish List. Your gift will be delivered in just a few days. To help the shelters in this story, visit the Women Against Abuse Wish List or the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center Wish List.
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