Isolation carries health risks for all of us. But for people who live with their abusers, the dangers can be immediate.
“Fear and anxiety” have intensified among clients in the weeks since Colorado schools have shut down, businesses have closed, and people have been warned to stay at home and keep their distance from friends and neighbors to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus, said Abby Hansen, director of counseling and advocacy services at SafeHouse Denver, which runs an emergency shelter and provides other services to survivors of domestic violence and their families.
“When people are forced to stay at home—when home is already an unsafe situation—the abuser has access to the victim. That’s what we’re worried about,” said Hansen.
“Domestic violence is likely to escalate, and people who are abusive are likely to manipulate these recommendations for isolation and social distancing by further isolating their victims,” said Amy Miller, executive director of Violence Free Colorado, a statewide coalition of groups that advocate for and serve survivors of intimate partner violence. Child abuse, elder abuse and animal abuse are also likely to increase, she said.
As the local economy has all but shut down, the financial shock is only adding to the pressures at home.
“There are clients who work in the restaurant industry who have been let go,” said Hansen. “The need for child care has added extra stress to the household.”
Basic needs aren’t being met.
“We’re hearing [from] a lot of people that are struggling to find resources around food,” said Margaret Abrams, executive director of the Rose Andom Center, a domestic violence resource center in Denver, late last week. “Yesterday, we put two people in a Lyft from their house to get to a food bank. They had no food or any way to get to food.”
For people who are living in abusive relationships, the pandemic has also changed calculations around when to leave, and how to do it.
“We’re hearing from people who recently left an abusive relationship, who are now thinking, ‘How do I survive financially?’” said Abrams. “They’re suddenly having doubts about, ‘Am I going to be able to make this work going forward?’”
Nonprofits that provide services to victims of domestic violence are accustomed to dealing with crises and improvising solutions in difficult situations, said Miller. They’re tapping that resiliency now, as changing circumstances are forcing them to be nimble.
Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 mean that groups that provide shelters, counseling and other services have been forced to adjust or restrict some of their most vital services—talking to clients by phone instead of in person, cancelling group counseling sessions and making arrangements for protection orders by phone instead of in an office.
These solutions are imperfect, said Hansen: “For some people who used to come in while their partners are working, it’s not safe [to talk by phone] anymore.”
Abrams said some of their clients don’t have cell phones. The Rose Andom Center has some to give out, but they are in short supply.
The Gathering Place is a drop-in center in Denver for women, children and transgender people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness—many of whom have also experienced intimate partner violence. Heather Beck, vice president of programs and services, says the organization has suspended all but the most essential services, like food, diapers and showers. Their usual corps of volunteers, many of them older folks, are staying home.
Shelters, which are often community-living arrangements, have their own risks at a time when health officials are recommending social distancing. At SafeHouse’s emergency shelter, “we can talk to residents about the importance of social distancing,” but any mandates are tough to enforce, said Hansen.
“We’re not accepting any new residents,” said Hansen. “We’re focusing on the residents we have, to prevent any infection from entering our space.”
Shelters cannot require their clients to disclose medical information, said Miller, of Violence Free Colorado.
The statewide coalition has given guidance to their members to step up cleaning protocols, stop housing different families in a single room—a common practice in some shelters—and to find hotel or motel rooms to accommodate people who have symptoms consistent with coronavirus. Miller expects many service providers to seek out motel vouchers, as well as state emergency funds for victims of crime to cover additional expenses.
Denver Police Department records indicate that the volume of domestic violence calls has been roughly similar to a year ago. From March 12 to March 18, the department received an average of 34 domestic violence calls a day, compared with 41 calls a year ago at the same time.
The disruptions of coronavirus, including a stay-at-home order issued on Monday, March 23, by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, don’t interfere with the department’s ability to respond to calls for service for domestic violence, said Lt. Adam Hernandez, who oversees major crimes units including domestic violence. “We’re capable to work from home in a sense—doing our investigations, contacting our victims, doing interviews with them. It’s a little bit different but we’re still being effective.”
The department’s domestic violence unit, which is housed within the Rose Andom Center, is still open and operational, he said.
What worries Abrams is what’s yet to come.
“When these kinds of crises come up—not that we’ve had a crisis like this before—for many victims, they try and just hunker down and get through it,” said Abrams. “My fear is that in another week or two, we’re going to be hearing really bad cases that have escalated. The temptation for a lot of victims is to wait through this, and not take any steps until things are really at the point when they have no other choice but to leave.
“I do anticipate we’re going to be seeing and hearing worse situations.”
Violence Free Colorado provides a list of domestic violence programs by county in Colorado—useful for people who are seeking help and resources because they are in an abusive situation, or for those who would like to donate. The coalition has also compiled resources for nonprofits serving clients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People seeking help can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).